Opportunities and risks for investors in the latest UN climate change report
Edwina Matthew, Pendal
11 August 2021
The latest UN climate change report offers important clues for investors seeking to understand portfolio risks and investment opportunities. Pendal's Edwina Matthew explains
THE UN's latest Climate Change report made headlines this week with predictions of irreversible global warming, rising sea levels and climate change affecting every corner of the planet.
But it also provides evidence-based information to help investors better understand portfolio risks and identify investment opportunities such as carbon capture and methane-reduction technologies.
The 3900-page report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) -- the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change -- is the gold standard for research on the science of climate change and options for adaption and mitigation.
Government and corporate decision-makers worldwide rely on the IPCC's findings to inform their climate risk assessments and emissions reduction strategies
The report -- which was unanimously endorsed by the governments of all 195 country members including Australia -- is based on a three-year analysis of 14,000 peer-reviewed scientific studies.
It will be the central terms of reference later this year at COP26 -- the upcoming United Nations climate conference in Glasgow.
The report shows unequivocally that human activities are responsible for the warming world. This warming is increasing the frequency and severity of extreme weather events such as heatwaves, droughts, cyclones and heavy rain.
Global temperature rises of between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius are expected unless deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions occur in the next few decades. Regardless of action, changes already occurring due to past emissions are now likely to be irreversible for thousands of years.
Low likelihood, high-impact events such as ice sheet collapses, ocean current changes or Amazon dieback cannot be ruled out.
"It's a sobering read," says Edwina Matthew, Head of Responsible Investments at Pendal.
"And remember that these are averages - different regions, different countries, even different states will be impacted to a greater or lesser degree than this average.
"For example, the report finds that average global warming is 1.09 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures. Australian land areas are already 1.4 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial averages.
"This is going to increase the probability of extreme weather events, heatwaves, sea surges and drought."
Risks and opportunities for investors
What should investors take out of the IPCC report? What does it mean for portfolio construction? And how can investors ensure they understand the risks and opportunities posed by global warming?
Matthew identifies three headline risks and opportunities for investors to consider:
The most high-profile litigation so far has been a Dutch court ruling that the multinational oil giant Royal Dutch Shell must reduce its emissions because its contribution to global warming violates human rights.
Previous IPCC reports were referenced in the court case and this latest one will likely be used in the appeal hearing.
A number of Australian cases have also referenced IPCC findings.
Sharma v Minister for the Environment  found the federal environment minister owed a duty of care to children who might suffer potential "catastrophic harm" from the climate change implications of approving a NSW coal mine extension.
Investors also need to watch for governments being the target of litigation which could affect regulatory approvals and business permissions in their investments.
2. The report's heightened focus on methane is of interest for investors
A "strong, rapid and sustained' reduction in methane emissions is required to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and hopefully avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change, the report finds.
Methane is not only a vastly more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but its concentration in the atmosphere has been increasing rapidly.
Importantly, it is short-lived in the atmosphere meaning controls on methane can rapidly reduce atmospheric concentrations.
Governments are already acting on methane. The EU is proposing curbs on methane emissions while the US is planning tighter emission rules.
But it's a tricky problem to solve. Some gas production emits methane. Raising livestock for meat and nitrogen-based fertilisers are major sources. Rotting waste in landfill also emits methane.
"All of these are important challenges that investors can play a part in," says Matthew.
"Investors can engage with companies to better understand how they're thinking about these issues, what they're doing to mitigate the risks and how they're transitioning to thrive in a low-carbon economy.
"Investors can also direct funds to solutions. For example, CSIRO is working with the private sector to commercialise a livestock feed additive made from seaweed, which has been shown to reduce methane emissions in cattle by up to 80 per cent."
3. Carbon removal solutions can also play a role in investor portfolios
"Carbon removal is a vital net zero tool which has a place alongside absolute emissions reductions," says Matthew. "It covers a range of investable methods, from afforestation to wetland restoration to carbon capture and storage (CCS) and ocean fertilisation."
However carbon removal technologies such as CCS need more development to work at the scale required. We need more co-ordinated efforts to advance these sorts of emissions reduction solutions in sectors with harder-to-abate industrial processes such as cement and steel production.
Future climate scenarios are becoming clearer
We now know more than ever how possible climate futures could play out.
The report is very clear that without "immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions" in emissions, curbing global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius -- the Paris Agreement goal -- will be "beyond reach".
These findings call on us all to accept and act on the reality of the situation, including policymakers, investors, businesses and consumers.
In the words of the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres the report is a "code red for humanity".
Funds operated by this manager:Pendal Total Return Fund
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