Erika van der Merwe: Growing awareness about climate change has moved governments, businesses, NGOs and individuals to act. Investors, too, are stepping up to the challenge, acknowledging their responsibility in tackling climate. As managers are bringing in climate-related investment products to the market, they're also making major internal adjustments to equip them to deliver on climate. But is the asset management industry ready for this change? And is it doing enough?
Male voice: Welcome to a new episode of the Robeco podcast.
Erika: My guests are Carola van Lamoen; she's Robeco’s Head of Sustainable Investing. And Lucian Peppelenbos, Robeco’s Climate Strategist. Welcome both. Carola, how do you, as an investment house, but also you personally as an individual, how do you view climate change?
Carola van Lamoen: I have to start at that climate change is one of the biggest challenges that we face as a world. And if you look at investors, there's a clear climate risk for us. So we should not underestimate that. So it is a systemic risk. We have to get in an action mode and not everyone is there yet. There is also the topic of timing: so we have to act quick because if we start now, it will be less costly than if we only start to act later, so that is more the company and the investment perspective. And if also if I look at my own individual perspective, I'm very worried that there will be a massive impact on countries, on livelihoods, on our ecosystem. And yeah, we will already in the very near future foresee a massive impact, so our kids will face the consequences of climate change. And the more you read about it, the more worried you will become. We can still do something about it, but we don't have to wait too long.
Erika: So, Lucian, Carola’s emphasized the urgency of it and also the need to come together to act together. I just can't help, just stopping at your job title, a ‘climate strategist’. So it's presumably a new role at Robeco. And presumably this is all entirely in your DNA, your training, your thinking. How do you view climate change?
Lucian Peppelenbos: Well, as a person, as a professional, it’s actually a privilege to be a climate strategist. I mean, indeed, the challenge is huge, is enormous, and the devastating effects are potentially huge. But as a professional, I'm driven by wanting to solve world problems through business models, through investment models. And this is what I can do here at Robeco, so that's a privilege. Now, also, as a person, I'm an individual. I'm particularly, I'm a father. I have kids of 10 and 11. And that really impacts me to see how they as a new generation are undergoing all of this, the climate change for them. It's a daily reality as a kid and the whole discussion on meat consumption, on travelling, I love it; how they bring that home and also changed my perspective. And it also really makes me think, wow, I should still take them to see the glaciers because they will disappear and also reef corals, they will disappear and well, the reef corals is a bit further away. So maybe by boat, but the glaciers, we can get there by train.
Erika: Lucian, quite a bittersweet comment there by you. But if you just stand still and just look at what the numbers are telling us, the metrics, so from a global perspective; where would you say we stand in terms of meeting the interim targets of the Paris Agreement?
Lucian: We're certainly not on track. And the world is moving way beyond 2°C, probably towards 3°C. Recently, there's reason to be optimistic. We've seen strong commitments coming through from the European Union, China, Korea, Japan; recently, the US. With all of that, we have about 60 percent of global emissions being committed to net zero, some of it actually already put into legislation. So all of that is positive. But yet the challenge is huge. We are already at 1.1°C of global warming, and we only have about seven years left of carbon budget to remain within 1.5°C. So that's huge. It's almost undoable. But I am very optimistic, in the sense – that’s my nature; I believe mankind can live up to this challenge. Mankind is hugely creative. We've seen it also with the Covid crisis. Governments are standing up to take their populations through lockdowns worldwide. We've seen science coming up with solutions in a time span of only a year. Now, taking that to the energy transition; we also– nobody had predicted the huge revolution in wind and solar energy that we've seen the last few years. So change is exponential. And I think mankind can do it, if we act on it.
Erika: Well, Carola, I think that's such a wonderful juxtaposition of concepts there from looking and saying it's almost undoable, but there’s this enormous creativity in mankind. So it really puts together the fact that it requires our ability as well as our willingness. Now, on this note: here's a comment by Professor Lord Nicholas Stern. He's author of The Economics of Climate Change. Here he's speaking on the podcast Planet A:
Recording of Nicholas Stern: I’m very optimistic about what we can do. Because we can now see a way of building back better, building a better world, with cities where we can move and breathe; ecosystems which are robust and fruitful, raising the living standards particularly of the poor people around the world, but of everyone, everybody, by doing things differently. So I'm very optimistic about what we can do. I worry deeply, deeply about whether we will do it. And that's the responsibility of politicians like you, and academics and communicators like me and many others. We have to try and make it happen.
Erika: So talking there about the responsibilities, Carola, in your mind, how do you see the various sectors of society taking up their responsibilities?
Carola: Yeah, well, I think firstly, I think it's good to stress that this is really a joint responsibility. So if you only look at your neighbor, then nothing will happen. So everyone should act – countries, investors, companies. Well, if you look then at countries first, so, what is important for them? Yeah, I think it's important that they set a clear policy framework. And we see that now also happening, so, for example, in the EU, there is very clear guidance on how to transition to a low carbon economy. And so that's one of the roles that countries can play. If you look then at investors, of course, they have to decarbonise their assets. But that alone is not enough. So if you decarbonise by divesting from the high carbon emitters, that will have a limited impact from a global perspective. If you look at real world impact because other individual investors will potentially buy it.
So there is more that needs to be done. And I think they're also about the strong power that we can create from engaging with companies, so to talking, really talking with the invested companies about the transition. Certainly companies that lag behind in the transition. And, yeah, it is encouraging that more and more investors are working together here to engage. I think the Climate Action 100+ initiative is a very powerful initiative for global investors, joint forces, to talk with the most carbon intensive companies in the world about transition, about their climate ambitions. And there have also been very clear successes. For example, Enel. We led that engagement and we were able to get a climate competent director on the board. But also, for example, with companies like Shell, we've had clear successes, also very recently where they announced their Say on Climate.
Erika: So on that point, which links in with that, it seems to be a new upcoming trend for companies to present their climate strategies for shareholder approval. First of all, would you see that as a result of your lobbying and your conversations with companies? And secondly, is this a move in the right direction? And how do you expect shareholders to respond to this?
Carola: Well, let me start first by saying that I am really enthusiastic about the introduction of Say on Climate. I really think it is very important that shareholders can go and have a say on the transition plans and on the climate strategy of companies; it put companies more to accountability. So that is very important. We've seen now the first companies having announced this. So in December it was Unilever and only very recently in February, it was Shell who announced that and then also Glencore. And for Shell, it was really very much aligned with an engagement dialogue that we and other investors had with them under the Climate Action 100+ initiative. So at least they lived up to our request.
Erika: Lucian, we've seen in the asset management industry, the industry really stepping up to the plate over the past year and providing sustainable investing solutions, including climate investing solutions. So some numbers on this: according to Morningstar, 505 new ESG funds were launched in Europe last year; 253 European funds changed their strategy or profile to incorporate ESG criteria. So clearly a very positive move. But Lucian, do you believe that the solutions and products being provided by the investment industry are effective and indeed making a contribution to our climate ambitions?
Lucian: I think they do. There's no ultimate solutions yet. When we talk about net zero, we're way off from net zero. And frankly speaking, I haven't met anybody yet who actually knows how to get there. But all these things are part of a toolbox to get us there: we need to make the road as we walk it. And we need all these tools, these ESG funds, climate science, we need carbon footprinting, we need engagement, exclusions, all of that together. Now, the important thing is that we see this commitment in the markets building up as we speak to clients. It is actually really topic number one. And we see this wave of net zero commitments from asset owners and asset managers. And this is signalling to the market, to the investment community itself, but also the broader markets and the policymakers, of where we want to go. And that in itself sets into motion other developments that we were talking about, like governments setting the right incentives in place, which then will also create investment opportunities for us, because better carbon pricing, new technologies, low carbon technologies become more investable. So that's how you get a systemic change into motion. And that's why all these solutions together add up to a big change.
Erika: Carola, earlier, Lucian referred to the creativity that we see in mankind. And related to this, we often talk about the innovation that's needed in the asset management industry to successfully make it through the climate transition. What innovation is taking place currently in the asset management industry and what is it that you currently are working on?
Carola: There is worked on a lot of topics. So we have recently launched Paris Alliance Climate Funds, have fully aligned with the Paris-aligned benchmarks. We have green bonds funds. But I'm also expecting a lot from carbon offsetting as a next tool for the asset management industry. And what that basically means, and we're working on that, is to really see if we can invest in projects that capture carbon, for example, planting trees is a very effective way to mitigate climate change. It’s what you call a natural carbon sink. So I also expect there again, in the run up to the Glasgow climate conference [COP26] later this year that said that we will see a lot of momentum, not only in the asset management industry, but also broader. So a lot is going on and that is needed because we need those innovations.
Erika: Lucian, perhaps you also want to give some examples. But I also know that around data, there's been a lot of innovation in terms of sourcing the data, in terms of how we use the data and analyze it, because it's clear that climate investing requires data and a lot of it. But before you respond to that, here’s Blackrock’s Larry Fink on the importance of data for climate investing and the fact that new corporate reporting requirements will increase access to this data. Here he's speaking on the podcast The Bid.
Recording of Larry Fink: I think through this data, we're going to show why climate risk is investment risk. We're going to have the data that show how one company is moving forward versus another company in the same industry. Having all this data at the corporate level, we're going to be able to now create portfolios of companies that have much greater performance related to how they're moving forward in terms of sustainability issues, and are they moving towards a net carbon platform as a company.
Erika: So Larry Fink sounds pretty upbeat about all the lovely new data we're going to have out of this, but I suspect there's still some way to go before we get there, Lucian. So do you believe we can solve this issue of the shortage of data and the lack of consistency across data and data providers?
Lucian: Well, I already told you I'm an optimistic person. So, yes, we can. But certainly the challenge is huge. And when we talk to clients, this is also always one of the topics that is raised early in the conversation. How about the data quality, data availability? Now, on carbon data, we’ve been working with carbon data for a long while already in the industry. It's challenging, but it is also doable. The way we go about it. We buy the data from multiple providers and we have our in-house capacity with our data scientist to put it together, manage quality, validate the quality and make it robust and reliable for investment purposes.
Now, what Larry also referred to are more the forward-looking data. And this is really a field of innovation where actually models are quite immature. I read an article last week in Nature from a climate scientist saying that the way these models, climate models, are being applied in the financial industry is a decade too early for the quality of the climate models itself. They also say it's certainly doable. But the trick is really to know what data to use for what questions. And so what they pointed out is that you really need your in-house capacity to acquire the data and make use of it for the right use case, and use this data also against a wider set of data. So rather than thinking of data, you need to think of scorecards. So when we look at, for example, at companies, what Larry referred to; understanding how companies align with Paris, it's not only about carbon performance, it's not only about the targets they set, but also how that fits in business strategy, how it aligns with their capex, with their R&D, and all of that you can put together. And this is actually what our fundamental analysts, our researchers have been doing for years. It’s just that they need to integrate additional data analytics in their work.
Erika: Carola, are you beefing up your in-house resources to make sure that you have the internal capability for this?
Carola: Well, we have over the last years clearly invested in our overall sustainability center with a very clear focus on climate change. So last year, we have a climate strategist on board, climate data scientist. We do very serious investments in climate data and there is also much more to come. So it is very clear that climate is taking center stage. And although the data is not perfect and not fantastic, we have to use it. So we cannot wait until we have perfect data because then we would be way too late. So it's also – yeah, making the best out of it.
Erika: Carola, now, what are clients saying about climate investing? So what are you hearing from them about how this theme and this urgent matter might be shaping their approach to investing? And is it changing the way they look at their investments?
Carola: Yeah, well, first of all, I see that clients are moving at different paces. So, some clients, they ask very in-depth questions. They are very knowledgeable. They are really challenging us. Are you doing enough? Why aren't you only at net zero, aiming to be that in 2050 and not already in 2040, for example? And others are really much more behind. So there is a very clear difference in how clients act. But in general, the direction is towards a significantly, quickly growing importance, so clients want us to something. We got a lot of positive comments once we announced our net zero ambition end of last year. And they also want to be educated because it's very technical. What is going on? What does it exactly mean? What kind of data should you use? We're talking here today about forward-looking measures, it's not the normal talk during a drink on a Friday afternoon. So it is technical. So you also see a need at clients that they want to understand what is going on.
Erika: Then, in terms of the solution you're giving them, are they satisfied with this? If you say, you know, they’re asking you, are you doing enough? So then let's look at what you have at the moment. You mentioned the climate funds. You also have ESG investing; ESG integration. So, Lucian, which of these do you feel is most impactful and which is the most urgent to roll out, to optimize, and to offer to clients?
Lucian: Well, so as I said earlier, I think all these solutions, they all play their part. They are part of –they’re a tool in the toolbox that we need for net zero. Some of these tools are more about solutions, like ESG funds, climate funds, green bonds. It's about investing in solutions, which is really important. Other solutions are more about decarbonization itself. And as Carola said earlier, we also need to invest and go along with high carbon companies, high carbon sectors, and enable them to make the transition. So we cannot only focus on the solutions only: we also need to decarbonize. And that means really taking additional data and analytics in our models, understanding how sectors should decarbonize and again, how companies are prepared for that. If they're if they're not moving fast enough, also escalate that into our engagement, in our voting. And all of that together will enable us to move forward to a net zero portfolio.
Carola: Maybe in addition, I think it is nice to mention that we have announced this year that we will start a Paris acceleration engagement team where we will really focus on those companies that are clearly behind in the transition. We will engage with them for more ambitious climate plans, very clear targets and also a clear execution. And if companies do not progress quickly enough, then we will take the steps to exclude those companies. And so that is a very significant extension of our earlier enhanced engagement program. That's how we call it: so, engagement, if it's not successful, that it really can have influences from an exclusion perspective.
Erika: Carola, what you just referred to, now kind of it leads to the point, some of the criticism in the industry, is that many of the investment solutions being offered relating to climate change, really a lot about screening and thematic investing, which just judging by what both of you have said would be too superficial, needs to be far more considered, right? And really pushing for solutions. Carola?
Carola: Well, yeah, I think we need screening. We need thematic solutions. But those two alone, that is absolutely not enough. So we need all the innovative power that we have in the industry, in our own organization to move ahead. So you're talking about climate funds, green bonds funds, also innovations from an engagement perspective, collaborating, carbon offsetting. So there are many different routes towards a low carbon world. And I already mentioned it earlier: only focusing on one thing is far from enough. So combining the different approaches is necessary. And I think we will also in the coming years, come even to more and other innovative solutions where we haven't even thought about today.
Lucian: And if I can add on that. So, as we were talking before, climate risk being a systemic risk impacting us, no matter what scenario unfolds, whether it's physical risks, whether it's transition risk or transition opportunity, it will in fact affect our investments. That we know for sure. What we don't know is how, when, which countries, which sectors, which companies, because – and that's where we need the data and analytics. That's where we need to gear up. And I think as an active manager, as a research-based manager, you're really in a good position to do that.
Erika: So for your final closing remarks, Lucian, looking at all of this, what would you say is the biggest risk?
Lucian: The biggest risk is that we let things go as they're going now, business as usual, and climate change will build up, as a systemic risk affecting the entire economy at global level and all of our assets. And so it is through investing in opportunities that we invest in renewables, that we invest in regenerative agriculture, that we reduce emissions from steel, from shipping, from transport. So the biggest risk is not taking the opportunities.
Erika: Carola, your final perspectives. Is the asset management industry up to the challenge? Can it play an effective role in tackling climate change?
Carola: Well, I think, first of all, investors really can play a decisive role in the energy transition. So that is my first point. There is a lot of knowledge. There is a lot of momentum. So I'm convinced it is possible. And if investors join forces, great things can happen.
Erika: Carola, Lucian, thank you so much for your insights. It's been great talking to you.