Leaving fossil fuel reserves in the ground and not burning them is one way to avert the worst climate change scenarios — and there’s a growing movement trying to ensure that major energy companies do just that. Doing so has major implications for every business invested in, or reliant on, the continuing growth of fossil fuel use.
Is there a credible scenario in which most oil, coal, and gas reserves are left in the ground?
Well, yes — if investors and policy makers believe that burning them constitutes a greater risk then leaving them untapped.
Earlier this year, the London-based financial services company HSBC (the third largest publicly held bank in the world) came out with a report in which their analysts calculated that taking climate change seriously could cut share prices of major oil companies by up to 60%. That report, cheerily entitled Peak Planet: The next upswing for the climate agenda — held some sobering news for business. Now that it has been made freely available on the company’s website, executives concerned with managing risks may want to read it.
HSBC knows its audience, and uses the language of business to explain the current situation. The world’s “carbon budget” refers to the maximum amount of carbon that can be dumped into the atmosphere if we hope to limit the increase in average global temperature to 2°C above preindustrial levels.
That’s the level above which unpredictable feedback loops could produce catastrophic changes in the environment — disrupting business and societies. But at current burn rates, global carbon emissions will have to peak by 2020 and begin a hasty decline if we want to avoid the worst climate change scenarios that even a 2ºC temperature increase make likely.
One of the ways to achieve this goal is to leave somewhere between 60% to 80% of our currently known fossil fuel reserves in the ground — hence the potential loss in market value if the international community adheres to previously negotiated emission reduction targets. But will it? More people are beginning to give that possibility serious consideration.
Nick Robins, Head of HSBC’s Climate Change Centre of Excellence, says that a “number of factors will put climate change back on the political business and investment agenda. First is a growing recognition of the severity of the situation, that we haven’t got global emissions under control … Second, public opinion is changing especially in the U.S., especially after the droughts.”
He also notes that the economics of addressing climate change are becoming more favorable and technology is becoming cheaper. Robins believes that the recent stagnation in policy changes regarding climate change will start reversing soon, citing President Obama’s inaugural address as just one piece of evidence in favor this trend.
Former World Bank economist Lord Nicholas Stern, one of the lead authors of a new report by the U.K. think tank Carbon Tracker, says that “smart investors can see that investing in companies that rely solely or heavily on constantly replenishing reserves of fossil fuels is becoming a very risky decision.”
HSBC believes that the majority of these companies are in real danger of dealing with a “carbon bubble” — the result of an overvaluation of fuel reserves — in the not-too-distant future.
According to an article recently published in Rolling Stone (say what you will, it has a fearsome demographic), the rapidly spreading divestment movement is “no longer confined to campuses: city governments and religious denominations have begun to unload their stakes in oil companies, and the movement is even spreading to self-interested investors.”
And more and more of these investors are making their voices heard. A record number of 722 institutional investors worth $87 trillion are signed up this year for the Carbon Disclosure Project, a platform for companies to report their carbon emissions and the actions they’ll take to mitigate them.
So far, unsurprisingly, it looks like the stock market is betting on continued inaction on climate change. But as we’ve seen many times in the recent past, things often change suddenly in the economic world and these bets are becoming increasingly risky. And whether investors turn away from energy companies based on fear of climate change or fear of financial loss, it’s a trend to which thoughtful managers are paying attention.