Sun, Dec 02, 2018 - Page 15 News List

Green investors look beyond profits

More people prefer environmentally conscious firms, but ‘greenwashing’ remains a problem

By Angelina Boulesteix  /  AFP, PARIS

Pearl Academy fashion school students take part in a demonstration to raise awareness about air pollution in New Delhi on Nov. 2.

Photo: EPA-EFE

Environmentally friendly finance is blooming thanks to investors willing to weigh profits against ecology, but decisions about meaningful investments can be complex.

At first sight the idea of “green finance” as a vehicle to protect the environment or help businesses in their transition toward a more sustainable future seems non-controversial.

However, green finance lumps together a dizzying array of options and a debate is raging over which ones are truly worthy of green investor money — and which are not.

What about, say, oil companies? No way, respond critics, pointing to the damage that the exploration and use of fossil fuel has done to the planet.

However, others say it would be ecologically responsible to help oil majors shift toward a greener future by developing alternative energy sources.

Nuclear energy is another hot potato. The industry was once unanimously reviled as the archenemy by the environmental movement, but some now admit that the absence of damaging greenhouse gases from nuclear power stations has given them pause.

A decade after the launch of the early green bonds — long-term borrowing for environmental projects — investors’ options have grown dramatically, but the share of green instruments in global finance is still small.

“Green bond issuance in 2018 so far have reached US$156.8 billion, which is around 2 percent of the global bond market,” said Frederic Gabizon, head of debt capital markets at HSBC France.

“This may seem marginal, but growth has been exponential since the start,” he said, adding that investors needed to take the long view given the slow pace of green infrastructure growth.

Pressure from civil society, governments and private citizens has prompted money professionals to look beyond purely financial motives as they respond to green investor interest, and to polish their image along the way.

It is true that green investments rarely outperform traditional placements in terms of short-term yields, but modern investors seem to be taking a broader view than just monetary returns.

“We’re seeing a new young generation of savers coming through now, who want slightly different things,” said Rob Hardy, head of EMEA corporate governance at JPMorgan Chase & Co.

“There is no point in earning a lot of money if you can’t breathe the air,” he said.

There is no binding global regulatory framework as yet for green finance, but most professionals apply the so-called “green bonds principles” issued by the International Capital Market Association to their own operations.

In a wind farm project, for example, the borrower must prove that the money really was used for the farm’s construction and be able to provide an exact measure of the project’s environmental impact.

External auditing has also become commonplace, said Rahul Ghosh, senior vice president for global environmental, social and governance questions at Moody’s.

“Today in Europe, I believe more than 95 percent of green bonds issued in the market will carry some sort of external review,” he said.

This trend, he said, was particularly important to combat “greenwashing,” the attempt to put an environmentally friendly spin on practices that are actually harmful.

“Even if the methodologies have not all been standardized, we are starting to have tools to tackle the complexity of this subject,” said Sandrine Enguehard, a green finance specialist at French bank Societe Generale SA.

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