Research We Can Use As We Consider the Changes To Come in a Lower-Carbon Economy

By Hank Boerner – Chair & Chief Strategist – G&A Institute

There certainly is a large body of research findings and resulting projections of what to expect as society moves toward a lower-carbon global economy.  The research comes from the public sector, academia, NGOs, capital market organizations, and scientific bodies.  One of the most comprehensive of analysis and projections is the National Climate Assessment produced periodically by the U.S. federal government. 

One reliable source of research that we regularly have followed for many years is the The National Bureau of Research (NBER), a not-for-profit “quant” research organization founded 100 years ago in Boston, Massachusetts.  The organization boasts of a long roster of economic experts who issue many Working Papers during the year (1,000 or more) with permission granted to reproduce results.

Such is the stature of NBER over many years that this is the organization that issues the official “start and end” of recessionary periods in the U.S. (you probably have seen that mentioned in news stories).

Lately NBER researchers have been focused on ESG-related topics.  We are sharing just a few top line research results here for you.

Research Results: California’s Carbon Market Cuts Inequality in Air Pollution Exposure

In NBER Working Paper 27205, we learn that California’s GhG cap-and-trade program has narrowed the disparity in local air pollution exposure between the disadvantaged populations and others.  The state’s is second largest carbon market in the world after the European Union’s cap-and-trade (based on total value of permits).

Early on there were concerns that market forces could worsen existing patterns in which disadvantaged neighborhoods would be exposed to even more pollution that better-off counterparts.  Not so, say researchers Danae Hernandez-Cortes and Kyle C. Meng, who examined 300 facilities in the 2008-2017 period.

Findings:  The gap in pollution exposure between disadvantaged and other communities in California narrowed by 21% for nitrogen dioxide; 24% for sulfur dioxide; and 30% for particulates following the introduction of cap and trade. (This between 2012, the start of the state’s program, and 2017).  The researchers labeled this the “environmental justice gap”.

California’s law caps total annual emissions of GhGs, regulating major stationary GhG-emittting sources, such as utilities.  Putting a price on carbon encourages firms to buy emissions permits or carbon offsets.  The researchers say that shifting emission cuts from high-to-low abatement cost polluters, cap-and-trade can be more cost-effective than imposing uniform  regulations on diverse industries.  But – “where” pollution is generated could be altered by market forces and either exacerbate or lessen existing inequities in pollution exposure.

Research Findings:  Building in Wildland-Urban Interface Areas Boosts Wildlife Fire Costs

Speaking of California, over the past few years (and even today as we write this commentary) wildfires have affected large areas of the state.  Who pays the cost of firefighting as more people build homes in high fire-risk areas near federal and state-owned public land?

Researchers Patrick Baylis and Judson Boomhower in NBER Working Paper 26550 show that a large share of the cost of fire fighting is devoted to trying to prevent damage to private homes and borne by the public sector…where there is “interface” between wild areas and urban areas. The guarantee of federal protection generates moral hazard because homeowners do not internalize the expected costs of future protection when they decide where to live or how to design and maintain their homes.

The net present value of fire protection subsidies can exceed 20% of a home’s value.  For 11,000 homeowners in the highest risk areas of the American West, the researchers calculated a subsidy rate of 35% of a home’s value…compared to only 0.8% in the lowest risk area.  And, about 84,000 more homes have been built in high risk areas (than would have been the case) had federal wildlife protection not lowered the cost of homeownership in those areas.

Fire protection provided by the public sector effectively subsidizes large lot sizes and low-density development and may reduce the private incentive to choose fireproof building materials and clear brush around the home.  Fire protection costs level off about 6 acres per home (suggesting cluster development is more preferable).

As we consider the impacts of climate change (drought, high winds, other factors becoming more prevalent), the role of local and state governments in zoning, land use and building code decision-making is key to addressing fire prevention.  Nice to live near to preserved state and federal land…but not sometimes.

Research to Consider:  Environmental Preferences, Competition, and Firm’s R&D Choices

In NBER Working Paper 26921, we learn that consumers’ environmental preferences do affect companies’ decisions to invest in environmentally-friendly innovations.  Buyers care about the environmental footprint of the products they buy.  And so companies do consider these preferences when they make R&D decisions.  (That is, choosing “dirty” or “clean” innovations to invest in.)

Companies use data on patents, consumers’ environmental preferences, and product-competition levels in the automobile manufacturing  industry.  Researchers Philippe Aghion, Roland Benabou, Ralf Martin and Alexandra Roulet looked at 8,500 firms in 42 countries, studying the period 1998-2012 to try to determine how companies in the industry respond to detected changes in consumer preferences.

Findings include:  Firms in auto-related businesses whose customers are environmentally-focused are more inclined to develop sustainable technologies, particularly in markets defined by higher levels of competition.

One effect reported is that for firms with more sustainability-minded consumers, the growth rate of “clean” patents is 14% higher than for “dirty” patents…and is 17% higher in more competitive markets.

Individual consumer preference for “buying green” may not have a direct impact on pollution short-term — but over time such preferences can alters an auto company’s willingness to invest in R&D focused on environmentally-friendly products.

Research Investors Think About:  Could Undeveloped Oil Reserves Become “Stranded” Assets?

If the vehicle shopper wants to “buy green” and is seeking “environmentally-friendly” products, what is the long-term effect on vehicle manufacturing if that segment of the market grows — especially in highly-competitive markets?  Do these preferences mean buyers will move away from fossil fuel-powered vehicles…and over time the in-the-ground assets of energy companies will become “stranded”?

Researchers Christina Atanasova and Eduardo S. Schwartz examined the relationship between an oil firm’s growth in “proved” assets and its value.  The question they posed for their research NBER Working Paper 26497 was: “In an era of growing demands for action to curb climate change, do capital markets reflect the possibility that some reserves may become “stranded assets” in the transition to a low-carbon economy?”

They looked at 679 North American producers for the period 1999-2018; the firms operating (as they described) in an environment of very low political risk and foreign exchange exposure…and with markets that are liquid, with stringent regulation and monitoring (unlike companies in countries with markets that are more easily manipulated, among other factors).

Findings: Capital markets only valued those reserves that were already developed, while growth of undeveloped reserves had a negative effect on an oil firm’s value.  The negative effect was stronger for producers with higher extraction costs and those with undeveloped reserves in countries with strict climate policies.  This reflects, they said, consistency with markets penalizing future investment in undeveloped reserves growth due to climate policy risk.

These are a small sampling of NBER research result highlights.  The full reports can be purchased at NBER individually or by annual subscription.  Contact for information about Working Papers and other research by the organization is:  NBER, 1050 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138-5398.

 

 

University Endowments – Fidicuiary Duties – Whose Money is it — What Are “Societal” Responsibilities?

by Hank Boerner – Chairman, G&A Institute

Many of our nation’s colleges and universities — which are “Social Institutions” — have long had established endowments. Some are truly wealthy — these are pools of assets designed to serve future generations.  Other types of  various types of social institutions” are similarly wealthy. Endowment assets are managed in-house or by outside professional money managers.   Over the years, the college and university endowments have been in focus for sustainable & responsible investors (SRI advocates) — as they are right now.

For example, Harvard University has an endowment fund reported to have  US$36 billion in Assets Under Management (AUM) — the largest of these “funds-for-the-future” of the higher education community in the USA.

The students and other stakeholders would like to see “more responsible” investing by the Harvard endowment, such taking the decision to divestment shares of traditional fossil fuel companies in the portfolio. (think: “ExxonMobil“). Among the arguments, gaining ground. including beyond the university endowments discussion, is that these public companies have “reserves” (such as coal, oil, natural gas) that are important parts of their capital markets valuation, and with climate change and the development of renewable fuel sources and other factors, the reserves on the balance sheet will over time become “stranded assets” – thus, devaluating the business enterprise. That is, the coal or crude oil in the gorund will not be harvested and sold…they will be stranded and of little or no value.  And therefore, as fiduciaries, responsible for the fund in the future, a collision course is set up:  the fund needs in 2050 will be diminished as the value of the corporate holdings moves downward.

And so, students of the Harvard Law School have filed a lawsuit seeking to compel the endowment fiduciaries (the trustees) to divest holdings in fossil fuel enterprises.  Interesting:  their case is based on 17th Century transactions (back when whale oil and wood were the primary energy sources).  In 1640, Harvard College was established as a seminary and documents were filed with the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Under those documents, the 21st Century students argued that they had standing (to bring the action) under “special interest” provisions.

The endowment leadership responded:  “The endowment is a resource, not and instrument to compel social and political change…” (The New York Times). Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust has spoken on fossil fuel divestment.  In October 2013, a statement to the Harvard community said in part:  “[I] and members of the Corporate Committee on Shareholder Responsibility have benefitted from conversations [with students] who advocated divestment…while I share their belief in the importance of addressing climate change, I do not believe, nor do my colleagues on the Corporation, that university divestment from the fossil fuel industry is warranted or wise…”

The president also said that “…especially given our long-term investment horizon, we are naturally concerned about ESG factors that may affect the performance of our investments now and in the future…”  Harvard policy is engagement and collaboration, rather than “ostracizing” companies based on their product (such as fossil fuels). The Harvard Management Company brought on a VP for sustainable investing. (You should  read the full statement here: http://www.harvard.edu/president/fossil-fuels to understand the university’s official position on these issues).

Alice M. Chaney, who with six other Harvard students filed the lawsuit to compel Harvard Corporation (the governing body of the university) to divest fossil fuel companies, said the following: “We allege that Harvard’s investment in those companies violate its duties as a public charitable institution by harming students and future generations.” (Cheney is a law school student and member of the Harvard Climate Justice Coalition.)

The students — organized as “Divest Harvard” — have been campaigning on the issue.  The first step was a survey of students in 2012 — 72% at the college and 67% at the law school voted in favor of divestment.  Since then 200 faculty members, 1,000+ alumni, and 63,000 community members have signed divestment petitions, the group says.

The legal arguments:  the Harvard Corporation’s public charitable obligations include managing its endowment so as to protect the ability of Harvard students to learn and thrive. The Corporation also has a responsibility not to act in ways that threaten the health and welfare of future generations. (You can read her statement at: http://billmoyers.com/2014/11/22/suing-harvard/)

The pressure on universities to divest holdings in companies based on ESG issues is a long-time tradition.  American university interests were deciding factors, I believe, in the American and global campaigns to abolish Apartheid practices in South Africa in the 1980s and the aid to combatants in the civil war in Darfur more recently.  (The drive was to get investors out of the stock of US companies “supporting” the Sudan government which was making war on its own populations.)

Beth Dorsey, CEO of Wallace Global Fund and leader of the Divest-Invest Movement, commented on the Harvard University leadership’s opposition to divestment:  “In the last great divestment campaign, Harvard said ‘no’ before it said ‘yes’ and I think if just a matter of time.  Unlike the anti-apartheid movement, this is not just an ethical issue.  There is a powerful financial reason as well…”

As the lawsuit in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts / Suffolk County courts winds on, and the Divest Harvard protests continue, half a world away, the world’s largest Sovereign Wealth Fund – the US$800+ billion AUM Norway Government Pension Fund — just announced it will divest holdings in coal mining companies.  the list of companies will be made public on December 1.  The SWF will not divest oil and gas companies.  (Consider: the wealth of the wealth fund is primarily based on taxes on the country’s North Sea fossil fuels.)

While you think about that last tidbit, consider that the descendants of John D. Rockefeller — the 19th Century Titan of Industry who assembled the giant Standard Oil Company — have decided to divest their fossil fuel investments (in September 2013)! Great and great-great grandchildren Peter O’Neil, Neva Rockefeller Goodwin and Stephen B. Heintz are in the lead for the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which has $860 million AUM.

Said Stephen Heintz:  “John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil, moved American out of whale oil and into petroleum.  We are quite convinced that if he were alive today, as an astute business man looking out to the future, he would be moving out of fossil fuels and investing in clean, renewable energy…”   (More about this in The Guardian coverage of the announcement at: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/sep/22/rockefeller-heirs-divest-fossil-fuels-climate-change)

The Rockefeller family announcement was an important part of a “momentum moment” for fossil fuel divestment proponents.  The influential World Council of Churches joined the divestment movement. American cities are adopting similar policies (as many did in the anti-Apartheid movement).  Advocates are working under the umbrella of the Divest-Invest Movement.  To date some 800 institutional investors have pledged to withdraw more than $50 billion in fossil fuel investment over the coming 5 years.

ExxonMobil’s position?  In October The Wall Street Journal headline read:  “Exxon Blasts Movement to Divest From Fossil Fuels…the oil giant seeks to counter the campaign…”  The article by Ben Geman said that the company published a “lengthy attack about the divestment movement, positioning the argument that [the movement] is at odds with the need for poor nations to gain better access to energy, as well as the need for fossil fuels to meet global energy demand for decades to come…” The author is Ken Cohen, VP for Public and Government Affairs (writing in the company’s blog.)

“Almost every place on the planet where there is grinding poverty,” he wrote, “there is energy poverty.  Wherever there is subsistence living, it is usually because there is little or no access to modern, reliable forms of energy.”

And so, the battle lines are formed — advocates vs. university, asset owners (and managers) vs big fossil fuel companies, institutions and fiduciaries (in Exxon’s view) vs. the people of poor nations.

The positions (and actions) of two important institutional investors could create a tipping point:  Harvard University (with considerable wealth, influence, prestige, powerful alumni, world-class faculty, a powerful publishing arm and on and on) and the Norwegian Sovereign Fund, which invests in literally thousands of public companies…and soon will have $1 trillion in AUM to leverage in pursuit of its social / societal issues policies and investment actions.

Stay Tuned to the Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement…and the push back by giants of the fossil fuel industry and their allies in the US Congress and other power centers.

 

 

 

 

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