ESG-Disclosure Using The Economist as a Proxy (2)

The second installment in an effort to distill relevant ESG-topics from The Economist has notable differences from the first effort (see here). Digging through the second series of four months of articles (May to August), I found that:

  • climate change remains the number one topic;
  • green technology is in firm second place;
  • governance more or less keeps the same spot in the matrix;
  • pollution gets a lot less attention but remains important in terms of impact on a firm’s profitability;
  • environmental laws are a new category with potentially big impacts on business models (not including climate policies, which I include in the climate change category);
  • new these last months, is the coverage of ecology, conservation and environmentalism (which I grouped under ‘ecology’); although important from a stakeholder’s perspective, I opted to put ecology to the left of all other categories since the subjects at hand still need to find their way into the mainstream; on top of that, laws and regulations on these topics seem further away then the ones on, for example, climate change and governance.

The picture above follows, again, the format of a Materiality Matrix, with the number of articles per topic on the Y-axis and the – debatable – impact on a firm’s profitability if this topic is not tackled by its management, on the X-axis. If The Economist can be used as a guide, you should, in addition to the topics that were already present in last month’s Materiality Matrix (i.e. climate climate change, green technology, pollution and governance) consider disclosing information on your efforts towards a healthy ecology. As far as new environmental laws are concerned, these were of course already included in your risk management approach.

Below, some interesting snippets taken from the articles can be found, grouped per topic. (Most quotes are adopted directly from The Economist).

Climate Change

Interesting facts taken from all articles in the group ‘climate change’:

  • Businesses are overvalued because of a “carbon bubble” and could suffer if the climate threat is tackled resolutely. A study at Oxford University found that electricity producers would have to retire a fifth of capacity, and cancel all planned projects, if the Paris goals are to be met.
  • What is the single most effective way to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions? Go vegetarian? Replant the Amazon? Cycle to work? None of the above. The answer is: make air-conditioners radically better. On one calculation, replacing refrigerants that damage the atmosphere would reduce total greenhouse gases by the equivalent of 90bn tonnes of CO2 by 2050. Making the units more energy-efficient could double that. By contrast, if half the world’s population were to give up meat, it would save 66bn tonnes of CO2. Replanting two-thirds of degraded tropical forests would save 61bn tonnes. A one-third increase in global bicycle journeys would save just 2.3bn tonnes.
  • Scientists have laid out steps that Arab countries could take to adapt to climate change. Agricultural production could be shifted to heat-resilient crops. Israel uses drip irrigation, which saves water and could be copied. Cities would be modified to reduce the “urban heat-island effect”, by which heat from buildings and cars makes cities warmer than nearby rural areas. Few of these efforts have been tried by Arab governments, which are often preoccupied with other problems.
  • Virtually all simulations which chart paths toward meeting the Paris climate agreement – to keep temperature rise “well below” 2°C relative to pre-industrial levels – assume not just a sharp reduction in actual emissions but also the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere on a massive scale.
  • In Canada, provinces can control emissions in their own way. British Columbia has already introduced a carbon tax (now C$35 a tonne). Alberta charges C$30 a tonne. Ontario’s cap-and-trade scheme would have qualified. If a province fails to tax or cap emissions, the federal government will impose a tax.
  • Three years after countries vowed in Paris to keep warming “well below” 2°C relative to pre-industrial levels, greenhouse-gas emissions are up again. So are investments in oil and gas. In 2017, for the first time in four years, demand for coal rose. Subsidies for renewables, such as wind and solar power, are dwindling in many places and investment has stalled; climate-friendly nuclear power is expensive and unpopular. It is tempting to think these are temporary setbacks and that mankind, with its instinct for self-preservation, will muddle through to a victory over global warming. In fact, it is losing the war.
  • Two social psychologists have found that Republican voters will back carbon taxes if they are told Republicans favour such a policy.
  • The number of Europeans who can expect to witness a temperature above the current record, wherever they happen to live, would double from 45m today to 90m if the planet warmed by another 0.5°C or so on top of the 1°C since the 1880s. If, instead of 0.5°C, it warmed by 1°C, the figure would rise to 163m.This looks even more alarming if you factor in humidity. Human beings can tolerate heat with sweat, which evaporates and cools the skin. That is why a dry 50°C can feel less stifling than a muggy 30°C. If the wet-bulb temperature (equivalent to that recorded by a thermometer wrapped in a moist towel) exceeds 35°C, even a fit, healthy youngster lounging naked in the shade next to a fan could die in six hours.
  • A report published on August 6th by Sarasin & Partners, an asset manager in London, suggests that oil firms are assuming that decarbonisation will be limited and are thus overstating their assets. Sarasin notes that eight European oil giants all used long-term oil price assumptions of $70-80 a barrel, rising by 2% a year with inflation to $127-145 by 2050, to price their assets. But that does not appear to assume any drop in demand. The International Energy Agency predicts a price of just $60 by 2060; Oil Change International, an activist think-tank, estimates one as low as $35. Oil firms could face a sticky mess of forced writedowns.
  • A new IMF working paper finds that taxes raise around twice as much revenue as today’s cap-and-trade schemes, and are roughly 50% better at cutting emissions.

Green Tech

Interesting facts taken from all articles in the group ‘green tech’:

  • Plastic production has tripled over the past 25 years, and the mess it causes has risen commensurately. Recycling is an option. Another is biology. At Stanford University, they found that bacteria in the guts of mealworms can break down polymers faster than fungi and bacteria can.
  • Six of the top ten producers of solar-panels are Chinese.
  • Though solar was the world’s biggest source of new power-generating capacity last year, it still generates a paltry 2% of global electricity.
  • Materials-science researchers are finding that plant fibres can add durability and strength to substances already used in the construction of buildings and in goods that range from toys and furniture to cars and aircraft. A big bonus is, because plants lock up carbon in their structure, using their fibres to make things should mean less carbon dioxide emitted. The production of concrete alone represents some 5% of man-made global CO2 emissions, and making 1kg of plastic from oil produces 6kg of the greenhouse gas.
  • In the bike-mad Netherlands nearly one in three newly bought bikes last year was electric.
  • Acid rain damages crops. In particular, it damages rice. I can be cleaned with water but it is not always obvious when it needs to be cleaned. A cheap method now has been found: rice plants sprayed with artificial acid rain, cut the release into the soil of three relevant bacterial food stuffs. The electric current the bacteria in the ground generate consequently drops. This is easily measurable using cheap electrodes.
  • India has plans for alternative means of generating electricity. Even before the Paris summit, Narendra Modi, the prime minister, aimed to install 175 gigawatts (GW) of renewable-energy capacity by 2022, a vast increase from today. That has now risen to 227GW. In the meantime, prices of wind and solar power have tumbled. Recent auctions have led to a 50% drop in the cost of solar power in the past two years, to about three rupees ($0.05) per kilowatt hour, about the same as wind. This can make both sources cheaper than building new coal-fired capacity. An excise tax on production and imports makes coal ever less attractive. After a massive spree of building coal-fired power plants in recent years, investment slumped last year, while that in alternatives surged.
  • A view prevails that the blockchain will guzzle too much electricity for energy applications to make sense. But this assumes that projects will use a public blockchain such as bitcoin, which anyone can access with the right software, requiring lots of computing power and time to verify each transaction and protect the blockchain. Energy firms could in fact employ blockchains in which only trusted participants can join, making the process of maintaining the blockchain faster and less energy-hungry.
  • America’s Forest Service uses a model to assess fire risk. This model feeds on data on the distribution and types of trees, bushes and other vegetable ground cover, and on construction materials used in an area. Such intelligence will be needed increasingly in the future. Predictions based on the likely effects of climate change suggest that, by the middle of the century, fires will burn twice as much acreage as they do today.

Pollution

Interesting facts taken from all articles in the group ‘pollution’:

  • Two books have been reviewed that have the Flint water pollution disaster as a subject: Had the dirty river water been treated with the right chemicals, thousands of people would not have been poisoned by lead and bacteria, including one that causes Legionnaires’ disease. But to save more cash, the city declined to add anti-corrosion agents that would have stopped the water eating away at the lining of the pipes, thus preventing lead from leaching out. That might have cost around $100 a day—peanuts compared with the hundreds of millions that the state and federal governments are now forking out to repair some of the damage. These two books both show how an austerity drive with racial undertones led to the mass poisoning of mostly poor and black residents, and how officials tried to cover it up, attempting to discredit anyone who came up with proof that the water was tainted.
  • Also on Flint: to almost everyone’s surprise, the citizens of Flint prevailed in March 2017, when the government agreed to an expensive settlement in the first type of lawsuit. The state of Michigan agreed to spend at least $87m to replace lead-contaminated water pipes in Flint within three years. The settlement also required the city to run at least two centres where residents could pick up free bottled water and tap-water filters until September 2017, and beyond that if tests continued to show that Flint’s water was contaminated. The government stopped the giveaway in April this year, saying the city’s water passed the test; Karen Weaver, the mayor of Flint, retorts that many of her constituents still do not trust it.
  • Kapuas, Indonesia’s longest river, is murky because of deforestation. Since the 1970s, logging has enriched locals while stripping away the vegetation that held the soil in place. The Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) found that between 1973 and 2010 over 100,000 square kilometres of forest was lost on Kalimantan, or a third of the original coverage. A national moratorium that began in 2011 has done little to still the axes. As a result, torrential tropical rains wash lots of loose earth into the Kapuas.

Governance

Interesting facts taken from all articles in the group ‘governance’:

  • Plato argued that the richest members of society should earn no more than four times the pay of the poorest. John Pierpont Morgan, a banker, reckoned that bosses should earn at most 20 times the pay of their underlings. Investors today hold chief executives in vastly higher esteem: America’s largest publicly listed firms on average paid their CEO 130 times more than their typical workers in 2017.
  • “I fear that we may be at a peak of anti-bribery efforts”, says a spokesperson of Transparency International. Western firms in the mining and oil-and-gas industry grumble that rivals from China, Russia or elsewhere have “advantages” bidding for contracts in say, parts of Africa, as they face few limits on bribe-paying. If such complaints grow loud, pressure not just to stand still on anti-bribery standards but actually to lower them could return.
  • In India, women are less likely to work than they are in any country in the G20, except for Saudi Arabia. They contribute one-sixth of economic output, among the lowest share in the world and half the global average. The unrealized contribution of women is one reason India remains so poor.
  • On Danone: The latest effort is to win certification as a “B Corporation”, a label meant to reflect a firm’s ethical, social, environmental practices. Smaller outfits, such as Patagonia, a clothing firm, or Ben and Jerry’s ice-cream (now part of Unilever) were early B Corps. Some 2,500 have been certified in the past decade or so.

Ecology

Interesting facts taken from all articles in the group ‘ecology’:

  • Humans have had a profound impact on the prevalence of other species: the biomass of wild mammals has decreased to a sixth of its previous value. Meanwhile, the carbon count of domesticated poultry grew to three times higher than that of every species of wild bird combined.
  • Columbia BIO is a huge project to survey Columbia’s biological assets. The government’s aspiration is that biodiversity itself might be harnessed as an economic resource, and that this might contribute as much as 2.5% of Columbia’s GDP by 2030.
  • The Great Barrier Reef has died and then been reborn (with rising and falling sea levels) five times during the past 30,000 years. Bleaching is now threatening the reef for the sixth time. In the short term, global warming really does look like a serious threat.
  • Sudan, the last male northern white rhinoceros on Earth, died in March. He is survived by two females. IVF seems the last hope for the northern white rhino.
  • Around 40% of bee species globally are in decline or threatened with extinction. Beekeepers in North America and Europe are losing hives at an abnormally high rate. Why? Diana Cox-Foster, an entomologist, offers the theory of the four Ps: parasites, poor nutrition, pesticides and pathogens.

Environmental Laws

Interesting facts taken from all articles in the group ‘environmental laws’:

  • Since the 1970s enormous farms growing irrigated crops such as cotton and nuts spread across the Murray-Darling basin in Australia. Illegal extraction of water is a problem. Farmers are meant to use meters to monitor how much they pump. But last year, cotton irrigators were accused of tampering. Wide-scale abuse has been possible because states and local governments have failed to enforce the rules.
  • Shipping accounts for only around 2% of global carbon emissions, but is quite dirty. Burning heavy oil, the industry produces 13% of the world’s sulphur emissions and 15% of its nitrogen oxides. And by 2050 ships will be producing 17% of all carbon emissions if left unregulated.
  • The International Maritime Organisation agreed to halve the industry’s carbon emissions by 2050.
  • The Trump administration is committed to undoing the Clean Power Plan —which sought to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants by 32% from their levels in 2005 by 2030—before it comes into effect. Its new proposal, the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule, is much less ambitious because it would let states decide their emissions-reductions targets (including having none at all). Its name is Orwellian. The EPA’s own analysis shows that retail electricity prices would be reduced by a mere 0.1%-0.2% by 2035—but that use of coal, a pollution-belching fuel, would shoot up by as much as 9.5%.
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