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How Carbon Offsetting Works, and What Investors Should Know

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How Carbon Offsetting Works, and What Investors Should Know

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Carbon Offsetting: What Investors Should Know

In 2016, an international treaty known as the Paris Agreement was negotiated by member nations of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The long-term goal of this agreement is to limit the increase in global temperature to below 3.6°F (2°C) over the next century. Achieving this target will require the world to develop cleaner solutions across all areas of the economy, from energy to transportation.

In this infographic from New York Life Investments, we introduce carbon offsetting, an activity used by both businesses and investment funds that has the potential to accelerate the development of a more climate-friendly economy.

What are GHG Emissions, and Where do They Come From?

Greenhouse gases (GHGs) are a family of gases known to trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. The most prevalent among them is carbon dioxide (CO₂), which accounts for 80% of America’s GHG emissions. Common sources of CO₂ include fossil fuel consumption and deforestation.

Businesses are often significant emitters of CO₂, but due to the complexity of their production chains, emissions can be difficult to track. To combat this, a company’s carbon footprint is measured across three scopes:

  • Scope 1: These are direct emissions from a company’s operations. An example would be the CO₂ emitted by company-owned factories.
  • Scope 2: These are indirect emissions from a company’s operations, such as the pollution generated from purchased electricity.
  • Scope 3: These are indirect emissions from the company’s supply chains. Common sources include the extraction of raw materials and business travel.

Although we understand that GHGs are harmful to the planet, our ability to eliminate them is limited by technology and costs. Fortunately, this is where offsetting can help.

How Does Carbon Offsetting Work?

Carbon offsetting is a method of neutralizing one’s emissions by investing in GHG-reducing projects. The benefits of these projects are measured by the amount of CO₂ equivalent (CO₂e) that they avoid or absorb. Then, the company or fund that is engaging in the carbon offsetting project will then receive one carbon credit for every tonne of CO₂e negated.

Below are the three common types of GHG reduction programs.

1. Energy efficiency projects

These projects reduce energy consumption. One example is the distribution of energy-efficient cookstoves in Rwanda, a country where many people rely on firewood and charcoal. By distributing 10,800 cookstoves throughout the country, nearly 60,000 tonnes of CO₂e can be avoided each year.

2. Forestry projects

These projects nurture and protect our CO₂-absorbing forests. One notable example is the Garcia River forest protection program, which ensures the longevity of California’s redwood forests. The program oversees over 9,600 hectares which has been estimated to store almost 80,000 tonnes of CO₂e annually.

3. Renewable energy projects

These projects reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. They are especially effective in economies such as Taiwan, where 75% of electricity capacity relies on fossil fuels. Thanks to its strong coastal winds, Taiwan is able to remove 328,000 tonnes of CO₂e per year with just 62 wind turbines.

How is Offsetting Regulated?

Carbon offsetting in America is primarily a voluntary activity, but some state governments have made it mandatory for significant polluters. Here’s how both markets are regulated.

The Voluntary Market

The voluntary market is regulated by a variety of third-party organizations such as Verra, Gold Standard, and American Carbon.

They conduct audits on GHG reduction projects to ensure each one meets four broad criteria:

  • Measurability: The GHG savings of the project must be measurable
  • Verifiability: The results of the project must be verified on an annual basis
  • Sustainability: Each project should have a minimum lifespan of seven years
  • Additionality: GHG reductions of project must be considered in reference to a baseline scenario

Carbon credits are only issued after a project has passed this verification process.

The Mandatory Market

Some U.S. states have introduced carbon offsetting schemes to meet their climate goals. One of the largest is California’s Cap and Trade program which was introduced in 2013.

The program is targeted at businesses that emit over 25,000 tonnes of CO₂e annually, and works by setting a “cap” on total annual emissions. This cap is reduced each year, and overpolluting businesses must acquire carbon credits to offset their excess pollution. These can be purchased from state-administered auctions or from other firms.

Revenues generated from California’s carbon credit auctions are used to fund various GHG reduction projects, including:

  • 690,000 acres of land preserved or restored
  • 287,000 rebates issued for zero-emission and plug-in hybrid cars
  • 108,000 urban tree plantings
  • 150,000 energy efficiency projects installed in homes

By 2030, California’s emissions cap is intended to reach 200.5 million tonnes of CO₂e, marking a near 50% reduction from its 2015 level.

What Role can Investors Play?

A majority of U.S. investors consider themselves to be values-based, meaning they care about the societal and environmental impacts of their investments. This mentality is increasing the demand for ESG investing and placing pressure on corporations to become more sustainable.

For example, the percentage of S&P 500 firms that publish sustainability reports has risen from just 20% in 2011 to 90% in 2019. More importantly, a growing number of U.S. firms are cooperating with the CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project) to report their emissions and set formal reduction targets.

YearCompanies with active emissions reduction targetsAll other companies reporting to the CDPTotal
2013322166488
2014335164499
2015365143508
2016378124502
2017385123508
2018389117506
2019419138557

Source: CDP 2020

Some of the world’s largest oil producers are also taking action—a testament to the significance of these shareholder concerns. Royal Dutch Shell announced earlier in 2020 that it intends to fully offset its Scope 1 and 2 emissions.

Does Offsetting Really Help?

Carbon offsetting programs such as the one implemented by California have the potential to generate revenues and encourage innovation. Critics, however, have suggested it has a number of design issues.

One such issue is the fact that California’s carbon credits do not expire. This could allow companies to stockpile credits and ignore future cuts to the emissions cap. Another concern is that the companies covered by California’s cap and trade will simply pass their higher costs to the consumer, although this claim didn’t seem to hold up in a 2016 study conducted by UCLA.

Other inefficiencies within the program may exist, but its benefits are hard to ignore. By the end of 2019, the revenue generated from California’s carbon credit auctions totaled $12.5 billion. Of this amount, over $5 billion has been invested in GHG reduction projects to date.

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Europe’s Energy Crisis and the Global Economy

Europe’s energy crisis could last well into 2023. Here’s how the energy shock is causing ripple effects across the broader economy.

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Europe’s Energy Crisis and the Global Economy

Volatile energy prices are squeezing household costs and business productivity in Europe.

While energy prices have fallen in recent months, several factors could influence price volatility looking ahead:

  • Russia slashing energy supplies
  • Rising winter heating demand
  • Shrinking European storage facilities

In the above infographic from New York Life Investments, we show the potential impacts of Europe’s energy crisis on consumers, businesses, and the wider global economy.

1. Impact on Consumers

Energy plays a central role in overall inflation. Here’s how it factors into the consumption baskets of various countries:

CountryEnergy %
of Inflation
Total Inflation Rate
(Sep 2022)
EnergyFoodAll Items Less Food
and Energy
Germany46%9.9%4.5%1.8%3.6%
Italy42%8.7%3.7%2.2%2.8%
Japan42%3.0%1.3%1.0%0.8%
France29%5.6%1.6%1.6%2.4%
United Kingdom28%8.8%2.5%1.3%5.0%
U.S.17%8.2%1.4%1.0%5.8%
Canada15%6.8%1.0%1.3%4.5%

Source: OECD (Oct 2022). Annual inflation is measured by the Consumer Price Index.

As the above table shows, energy makes up nearly half of consumer price inflation in Germany. In the U.S., it contributes to about one-fifth of overall inflation.

Amid energy supply disruptions, U.S. winter heating costs are projected to rise to the highest level in a decade. As heating costs rise, it could impact consumer spending on discretionary items across the economy, along with other essential household bills.

2. Impact on Business

Natural gas and petroleum are key components in many industries’ energy consumption. As a result, the recent rise in energy prices is adding significant cost pressures to operations.

Below, we show how four primary sectors use energy, by source:

U.S. SectorPetroleumNatural GasRenewablesCoalElectricity
Transportation90%4%5%0%<1%
Industrial34%40%9%4%13%
Residential8%42%7%0%43%
Commerical10%37%3%<1%50%

Source: EIA (Apr 2022). Figures represent end-use sector energy consumption in 2021.

In Europe, soaring energy prices have led to production declines in energy-sensitive industries over recent months. As a ripple effect, European fertilizer production capacity has decreased as much as 70%, crude steel capacity has fallen 10%, and aluminum and zinc production capacity has sunk 50%.

In response, some companies may move production out of Europe to regions with lower energy prices. This occurred in 2010-2014 amid high European energy prices, where companies relocated to the U.S., the Middle East, and North Africa.

3. Impact on the Economy

While the energy crisis is having devastating effects on many countries, some markets like the U.S. are more sheltered from the impact. As seen in the table below, the U.S. produces virtually all of its natural gas. Figures are shown in trillion cubic feet.

YearU.S. Natural Gas
Production
U.S. Natural Gas
Consumption
Net Imports
20213531-4
20203331-3
20193431-2
20183130-1
201727270
201627271
201527271
201426271
201324261
201224262
201123242
201021243

Source: EIA (Sep 2022).

By contrast, Europe imports 80% of its natural gas, primarily from Russia, North Africa, and Norway. Not only that, natural gas imports have increased over the last decade, up from 65% of total supplies in 2010.

Meanwhile, the energy sector is seeing strong returns supported by higher oil and natural gas prices, along with key fuel shortages as Russia constricts supplies to Europe. In November the S&P 500 Energy Index was up 65% year-to-date compared to the broader index, with -17% returns.

Europe’s Energy Crisis: Looking Ahead

Given the complex geopolitical environment, Europe’s energy crisis could last well into 2023, driven by many factors:

  • Rising demand from China post-COVID-19 lockdowns
  • Lower European fuel reserves
  • Inadequate energy infrastructure in the medium-term

The good news is that European government relief has reached €674 billion ($690 billion) to cushion the effect on households and businesses.

However, this has additional challenges as increasing money supply may be an inflationary force.

Amid market volatility, investors can avoid getting caught up in short-term market movements and stay focused on their long-term strategic allocation.

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5 Key Questions Investors Have About Inflationary Environments

This infographic explores questions on today’s inflationary environment as the economy faces persistent price pressures.

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Inflationary Environment

This infographic is available as a poster.

5 Key Questions on Inflationary Environments

What does a changing inflationary environment mean for financial markets, and how could this impact investors?

While there are no clear answers, the above infographic from New York Life Investments looks at key questions on inflation and the potential implications looking ahead.

1. What Are the Main Factors Driving Inflation?

Often, investors closely watch core inflation since it doesn’t factor in volatile energy and food prices. In September, core inflation rose 0.6% from the previous month while headline inflation, as represented by the Consumer Price Index, increased 0.4%.

DateCore InflationHeadline Inflation
Sep 20220.6%0.4%
Aug 20220.6%0.1%
Jul 20220.3%0.0%
Jun 20220.7%1.3%
May 20220.6%1.0%
Apr 20220.6%0.3%
Mar 20220.3%1.2%

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 10/13/22.

Earlier in the pandemic, surging second-hand car prices and supply-chain distortions were factors driving up inflation. But as dynamics have shifted, rising services costs, including housing, have played a significant role.

Along with these factors, a strong labor market is adding to price pressures. Nominal wages increased 6.3% annually in September, after hitting almost 7% in August, the highest in 20 years.

For this trend to reverse, unemployment levels may need to rise and interest rates may need to increase to cool an overheating economy.

2. What is the Effect of Fiscal Stimulus on Inflation?

In response to a historic crisis, the U.S. government allocated over $5 trillion in fiscal stimulus. The Federal Reserve released research that suggests that the fiscal stimulus contributed to 2.5 percentage points in excess U.S. inflation.

Specifically, the fiscal stimulus affected supply and demand dynamics, stimulating the consumption of goods. At the same time, the production of goods didn’t increase, which elevated demand pressures and price tensions.

As the short-term implications begin to unfold, the longer-term structural effects of record stimulus remain far from clear.

3. How Do Interest Rates Impact Inflation?

When inflation is running high, the Fed often hikes interest rates to cool an overheating economy.

Consider how in February 1975 there was a 17% difference between core inflation and real interest rates, an instance when the Fed got “behind the curve”. This shows that the real rate is far below the core inflation rate.

Sometimes, this prompts the Fed to raise rates to combat inflation. After several rate hikes, inflation fell to 4% by 1983, bringing the real rate and core inflation closer together. The table below shows when this gap rose to the double-digits between 1974 and early 2022:

DateCore InflationReal RateDifference
Oct 197410.6%-0.5%11.1%
Nov 197411.0%-1.5%12.5%
Dec 197411.3%-2.8%14.1%
Jan 107511.5%-4.4%15.9%
Feb 197511.9%-5.6%17.5%
Mar 197511.3%-5.8%17.1%
Apr 197511.3%-5.8%17.1%
May 197510.3%-5.1%15.4%
Jun 19759.8%-4.3%14.1%
Jul 19759.1%-3.0%12.1%
Jan 198012.0%1.9%10.2%
May 198013.1%-2.2%15.3%
Jun 198013.6%-4.1%17.7%
Jul 198012.4%-3.4%15.8%
Aug 198011.8%-2.2%14.0%
Sep 198012.0%-1.1%13.1%
Oct 198012.2%0.7%11.6%
Dec 20215.5%-5.4%10.9%
Jan 20226.0%-6.0%12.0%

Source: Peterson Institute for International Economics, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, 03/14/22. The real policy interest rate is the Federal Funds Rate minus Core Inflation over 12 months.

In January 2022, this gap reached 12%, hinting towards further interest rate action from the Fed.

Over the last 11 tightening cycles since 1965, six resulted in soft landings and three resulted in hard landings. Whether or not the recent tightening cycle will result in a hard landing, also known as a significant decline in real GDP, remains an open question.

4. How Long Will Inflation Last?

From the vantage point of 2022, the direction of inflation is as complex as it is uncertain. Below, we show where inflation may be headed in the near future based on analysis from the Federal Reserve.

 2022P2023P2024P
PCE Inflation5.4%2.8%2.3%
Federal Funds Rate4.4%4.6%3.9%

Source: Federal Reserve Board, 09/21/22. Reflects median projections for PCE Inflation and the Federal Funds Rate.

By 2024, inflation is expected to fall closer to the 2.0% target amid higher interest rates. What other key factors could influence inflation going forward?

 2023 Projection
U.S. Real GDP Growth1.2%
Interest Rates4.6%
Housing Price Growth-10.0%
Unemployment Rate4.4%

Source: Federal Reserve Board 09/21/22, Morningstar, 08/07/22. Interest rates represented by the Federal Funds Rate. Housing Price Growth represented by median U.S. home prices.

A combination of slowing GDP growth, higher interest rates, decreasing housing prices, and higher unemployment could potentially dampen inflation leading into 2023.

5. What May Lessen the Impact of Inflation On My Portfolio?

During inflationary periods, value stocks have tended to perform well, based on data from Robert Shiller and Kenneth French. In fact, value stocks saw nearly 8% annualized outperformance over growth during the 1970s and over 5% outperformance during the 1980s.

Similarly, tangible assets like commodities and real estate have tended to weather these periods thanks to their ability to increase portfolio diversification and stability across economic cycles. For instance, between 1973 and 2021, commodities have averaged 19.1% during inflationary periods while real estate assets averaged 5.0%.

The Big Canvas

Generally speaking, periods of high inflation over history are quite rare. Since 1947, the average U.S. inflation rate has been 3.4%.

Inflation (1947-2021)Percentage of Time Spent
Below 0%16%
Between 0 and 5%57%
Between 5 and 10%20%
Above 10%7%

Source: CFA Institute, 07/19/21.

Against a changing environment, investors may consider balancing their portfolios with more defensive strategies that have been historically more resistant to inflation.

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