Investors should worry if climate goals are missed, Mercer warns

Investors be warned: If the planet heats up by more than two degrees, it’s going to get a lot harder to make money.

That’s the conclusion of investment advisory firm Mercer, which modelled the financial fallout from two, three and four degrees Celsius of global warming through 2100 in a report released Monday.

The report marks one of the first attempts to model sector-specific investment risks from climate change over decades. If warming is limited to no more than two degrees, coal and other fossil fuels lose the most in value, because countries have shifted toward cleaner energy. If temperatures rise further, sectors with the biggest losses will include industrials and agriculture.

“Asset owners should consider climate change at every stage of the investment process, from investment beliefs, policy and process to portfolio construction decisions,” said Deb Clarke, global head of investment research for Mercer, which is owned by Marsh & McLennan Cos.

The warning is the latest from the financial sector of the physical and financial risks posed by rising temperatures. While some investment strategists think climate change will offer opportunities, others warn of physical and social damage cascading across the economy.

Limiting global warming to two degrees would cause significant losses between now and 2030 in coal, oil and gas, and electric utilities, according the report. Those losses would be offset by higher returns on renewable energy investments.

“On the two-degree scenario, our broad view is that the impact overall on GDP is pretty negligible,” Steven Sowden, a principal at Mercer and one of the report’s authors, said in a phone interview.

If warming is allowed to exceed that level, however, investors would have few good options.

Three degrees of warming would spare most of the energy sector from significant losses, Mercer found, with the exception of coal. But the damage from extreme weather events would cause negative returns for almost every other sector between now and 2030, including financials, agriculture, industrials and consumer staples.

Those losses would accelerate by 2050. For most sectors, the effects of four degrees of warming would be even worse.

Mercer said its model suggests climate change would depress the economy and weigh on interest rates. While most first-world government bonds could benefit from investors seeking safe havens against climate risks, Australia and New Zealand government bonds could be sensitive to physical damage caused by extreme weather events and resource scarcity.

Worldwide real estate would also suffer a net loss, Sowden said. While rising seas and more intense hurricanes would likely push people inland, increasing the value of land that is now sparsely inhabited, those gains would be swamped by the loss in value — or simply the outright loss — of wide swaths of coastal property. The land that remains inhabitable would become increasingly expensive to insure.

“These scenarios are negative for global growth, and they’re not really great for anyone,” Sowden said. Among the few areas of the economy he said were likely to have positive returns in a beyond-two-degrees scenario: Disaster-mitigation infrastructure, such as flood-wall defences.

Mercer recommends governments take action to stick to their Paris 2015 climate goal commitments, and that investors increase their holdings of sustainable infrastructure and renewable energy assets to take advantage of the shift.

While scientists are cautious to link any single weather event to global warming, they’ve built consensus around the probability that more powerful floods, fires, droughts and storms will occur with greater frequency as the Earth gets hotter.

The United Nations wants to hold average temperature increases to well below 2 degrees Celsius, which would still represent the quickest shift in the climate since the last ice age ended some 10 000 years ago.

Extreme weather events are the most threatening global risks this year, the World Economic Forum said in a report published January. That same month, the US Defense Department warned climate change could compromise US security, with rising seas increasing flood risk to military bases and drought-fueled wildfires endangering those inland.

As those warnings multiply, some fund managers have been slow to incorporate the dangers of global warming into their investment decisions, Sowden said. But as climate change advances, asset prices could quickly shift to reflect the risk — something he said is likely to happen within the next five years.

“If the market starts to price in these impacts, it could start to have material impacts, especially at the sector level, in a relatively short period of time,” Sowden said.


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