This CIO's summer reading list on sustainability – and why you should read it too

This CIO's summer reading list on sustainability – and why you should read it too

09-09-2022 | Interview

Climate change is urgent, and a more comprehensive approach is needed to tackle it effectively. Biodiversity ought to be our starting point, and more equal distribution of wealth is also required, says Victor Verberk, Robeco’s CIO Fixed Income and Sustainability, as he reflects on the reading he did on sustainability over the holidays.

  • Victor  Verberk
    CIO Fixed Income and Sustainability

Speed read

  • Sustainability is becoming a recognized risk factor for investors
  • The wave of policy and regulation in this field will gain even more momentum
  • Developing IP on biodiversity alongside climate is key to Robeco’s strategy

This is the second year that you’ve shared your summer reading list on sustainable investing with Robeco employees. With so much happening geopolitically and in markets, where does sustainability fit into your thinking about the future of economies and investing?

“A secular change is taking place in sustainability. At the same time, we’re also experiencing what seems to be a secular change in the rates cycle. It is an exciting combination that’s resulting in new large-scale investment plans and policy changes. I expect there to be plenty of discussion about the business cycle and what the relevant sustainable investing (SI) premium needs to be, in addition to the more traditional factor premiums.”

“It is clear that society is driving the proliferation of sustainability as a risk factor. A wall of scientific evidence on sustainability challenges is being generated, which must be taken seriously by policymakers. As an example, the EU is taking the lead in bringing down spillover effects by designing new legislation. It means the EU will soon no longer accept the sale of ‘dirty’ products in the region. Companies unable to prove that child labor was not involved in the manufacturing process, among other criteria, can expect their revenues to drop.”

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Your reading list covers a lot of ground. What are your overall observations?

“I have three observations. One is that, while we have seen a fair amount of new policy and regulatory reaction in the field of sustainability, much more will follow. Second, I believe that the SDGs are proving to be the common global language around nature and sustainable economics. Thirdly, there is the realization that we need to look more broadly at climate, and that biodiversity ought to be our starting point.”

Starting with your remark on regulation, what can we expect?

“Over recent years, policymakers have made pledges on key topics such as the SDGs, sustainability reporting, climate and biodiversity. We are now entering the phase in which science will ensure accountability for these commitments.”

“Have a look, for example, at the ‘Sustainable Development Report 2022’, which assesses our progress on the SDGs at the halfway point. Reports such as these most likely will lead to more regulation. Other economic regions will have to follow the EU’s leading example on reducing externalities. This means that transition risk – think of carbon taxes, import tariffs and mandatory reporting – will increase. The train has left the station with respect to policy reactions: expect more regulation to follow.”

“The SDGs will play a key role in this, as a standard or a measurement framework. The One Earth paper, entitled ‘Defining a sustainable development target space for 2030 and 2050’, proposes a quantifiable framework with which to do this.”

You emphasize the role of nature. Why is this so important?

“The regenerating capacity of nature is the crux. Nature delivers vital assets and services – like pollination or providing clean drinking water – but needs time to regenerate after being depleted by our actions. We are far from being on the right track in this. The paper ‘The social shortfall and ecological overshoot of nations’ clarifies and confirms this. Humans are living beyond planetary limitations, and climate change is just one outcome of this. We need to look more broadly at the problem in order to craft the best solution. In particular, our focus has to be on the complex subject of biodiversity. It is crucial to understand the profound consequences for wealth and health of the loss of genetic pools, clean water or pollination.”

“As an example, the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures earlier this year published its proposed framework for nature-related risk management. This is an important read as it is likely to become the global standard for integrating nature risks in business planning.”

“As part of this, we have to be clear that, for a just transition, we need objectives for indigenous populations that are defined by local natural conditions. A much fairer distribution of wealth is a critical topic that forms part of the considerations around biodiversity.”

How does this shape the way that you approach Robeco’s longer-term strategy and investment processes?

“Our objective is to keep the balance between (shorter-term) performance and (longer-term) SI factors. In the long run, the members of our SI Center of Expertise such as the thought leaders, the SI analysts, active ownership specialists and the SI client portfolio managers will guide us on SI, while we keep deepening our skills on financial markets.”

“I refer to this as our ‘SI strategy 3.0’. Developing intellectual property on biodiversity alongside climate is key to this strategy. In short, climate, biodiversity and human rights are the three sustainability topics we should focus on. And as investment professionals we need to transform into so-called ‘Portfolio Managers 2.0’. SI has become a risk premium and we all need to be able to have a basic conversation on these three subjects. This is founded on our firm belief that sustainability is not only about exclusions and lost opportunities, but rather a risk factor that might pay off.”

“We also feel strongly about the importance of working collectively to find solutions. Related to this, we first mentioned open-source thinking in last year’s summer holiday reading. Since then, more open-source platforms have emerged, primarily in the academic world and at intergovernmental think tanks. We believe this is the right approach, and one that motivated our decision to open up Robeco’s SI intellectual property. As a first step in this open-access initiative, our clients and a group of academics will gain free access to the SDG scores that we generate using our proprietary SDG framework for companies.”

“Traditionally, asset managers have tended to protect their intellectual property and use it to add value to their proprietary investment processes. Yet the massive challenges our planet is facing require a different approach. We need to join forces to address these challenges appropriately. By opening up our SDG data to a broader audience, we aim to help improve quality and the setting of standards across the industry.”

What is your personal viewpoint on our future?

“For me, there is one overarching theme in all of this, which is the need to think about the global population. Earth can handle the consumption ambitions of a country such as Bangladesh, even if global population densities were to rise from current levels. However, if we all aspire to having living standards equivalent to those in Germany, the world would be too small.”

“Population growth combined with increasing consumption will lead to a breaching of planetary boundaries. We need to consider the regenerative power of nature and the extent to which it implies a limit to the global population. If not, we are doomed and will be unable to make serious progress. Nevertheless, as I am an optimist, I believe that innovation and the technological revolution will have an important role in generating solutions for a sustainable future.”

List of papers:

Fanning, A.L., O’Neill, D.W., Hickel, J. et al., 2022, “The social shortfall and ecological overshoot of nations”, Nature Sustainability, 5 (1), pp. 26-36.
IPCC, 2021, “Climate change 2021, The physical science basis: summary for policy makers”, August.
IPBES, 2019, “The global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services: Summary for policy makers.
Ridley, M., 2020, “How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom”, Harper Perennial.
Smil, V., 2022, “How the world really works: A Scientist's Guide to Our Past, Present and Future”, Penguin.
TNFD, 2022, “The TNFD Nature-related risk & opportunity management and disclosure framework”, beta v0.2 release, June.
United Nations, 2022, “Sustainable Development Report 2022: From crisis to Sustainable Development; the SDG as roadmap to 2030 and beyond”. Cambridge.
Van Vuuren, D.P., Zimm, C., Busch, S. et al., 2022, “Defining a sustainable development target space for 2030 and 2050”, One Earth, Elsevier Inc., February.

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