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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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Infographics

Visualized: The Economic Benefits of a Green Recovery

A green recovery is projected to boost global GDP by 1.1% annually, along with saving 9 million jobs. What opportunities does this present for investors?

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Visualized: The Economic Benefits of a Green Recovery

After years of technological advancement, many renewable energy sources are now more efficient than traditional sources of energy.

Thanks to their falling prices and scalability, a green recovery, which centers on worldwide funding and policy support for green energy alternatives, is gaining strong momentum.

This infographic from New York Life Investments unpacks how a green recovery will benefit both the economy and investor portfolios.

What is a Green Recovery?

A green recovery is the intention of allocating the unprecedented global wave of public spending, pent up over the course of the 2020 pandemic, exclusively towards investment in sustainable systems to support:

  • The creation of millions of jobs
  • Improved productivity
  • A structural decline in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG)

Green Recovery: The Economic Benefits

It is projected that nine million jobs per year will be created or saved over the next three years in a green recovery, along with 1.1% added in global economic growth annually.

Let’s look at two reasons why a sustainable recovery is gaining traction:

  1. Lower costs in energy spending
  2. More jobs created

To start, a sustainable recovery would involve 2% of U.S. GDP invested in low carbon energy. Compare this to current U.S. energy spending, which stands at roughly 6% of GDP—sitting at near lows. In fact, in the past, energy spending in the U.S. has reached as high as 13% of GDP.

Secondly, for every $1 million investment in renewable energy, more than twice as many jobs are created per category than in traditional energy. For instance, 7.5 jobs are created in the wind energy industry versus 2.2 in oil & gas.

Per $1 Million InvestmentTypeJobs Created
Renewable EnergyEnergy Efficiency7.7
Wind7.5
Solar7.2
Traditional EnergyCoal3.1
Oil & Gas2.2

Source: World Resources Institute, 07/28/20

With this in mind, let’s take a look at how investors can take advantage of a sustainable recovery across three industries.

1. Renewable Energy

Historically, energy demand has sharply rebounded after major economic shocks.

Following the Spanish Flu, energy demand plummeted over 15%—but rebounded by almost 25% the year after. Similarly, in the years that followed the Great Depression, World War II and the Global Financial Crisis, energy demand spiked.

In 2020, energy demand growth hit a 70-year low, created by the largest absolute decline ever. If history repeats itself, energy may be poised for a substantial demand increase.

On top of this, renewables have become significantly cheaper and scalable in recent years. Solar energy is a prime example. It is now one of the most affordable sources of electricity. In fact, the price of energy from new power plants—vital sources that generate energy for society—has changed significantly over the last decade.

Energy TypePrice per MWh (2009)Price per MWh (2019)Price % Change
Coal$111$109-2%
Solar Photovoltaic$359$40-89%
Onshore Wind$135$41-70%
Gas (combined cycle)$83$56-32%

Source: Lazard Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis via Our World in Data, 01/12/20

In 2019, over 50% of new global power capacity came from solar photovoltaic and wind power.

2. Transportation

Globally, as electric vehicle (EV) sales have accelerated, so have public chargers, illustrating a new infrastructure opportunity for investors. In 2019, there were 1 million public chargers built worldwide. Since 2014, public chargers in Europe specifically have more than doubled to over 200,000.

Year# of Global Electric Vehicles
2012110,000
2013220,000
2014400,000
2015720,000
20161.2M
20171.9M
20183.3M
20194.8M

At the same time, economies are planning for a wave of green transport investments.

Italy, for instance, plans to invest $33 billion in sustainable mobility as part of its $231 billion green recovery plan. Meanwhile, Germany is investing $6 billion in the electrification and modernization of its rail and bus system. Interestingly, high-speed rail uses 12 times less energy per passenger than airplanes or road transport trips under 500 miles.

Like renewable energy, electric vehicles, high-speed rail, and modern transport infrastructure are all central to the new chapter in sustainable investment.

3. Low-carbon Technology

Finally, you can’t talk about a sustainable recovery without net-zero emissions, where all emissions created are also removed from the atmosphere.

In recent months, net-zero targets have increased substantially. In January 2020, 34% of all global emissions were covered by net-zero targets. By March 2021, this reached 50%. Decarbonization will play a critical role in reaching net-zero targets.

Crucially, net-zero emissions can be achieved through the following decarbonization options:

  • Carbon capture: Chemical absorption and the injection of CO2 into depleted reserves
  • Nuclear energy: Produces energy through nuclear reactions
  • Storage & utilization: Improved electricity grid storage
  • Renewable innovation, and others: Includes hydrogen, batteries, and scaling renewables

Even in the wake of the pandemic, global investment in decarbonization topped half a trillion dollars in 2020, 9% higher than in 2019.

New Turning Point

COVID-19 is radically reshaping the sustainable investment landscape.

In 2020, nearly 25% of all U.S. stock and bond mutual fund net inflows went into sustainable funds. By 2025, as many as half of all investments are projected to be ESG-mandated in the United States. From modern infrastructure to low-carbon tech, sustainable investments present many opportunities for investors.

Supported by lower costs and government policies, sustainable investments show potential for promising growth.

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Beyond Bonds and Bridges: How to Approach Infrastructure Investments

Global infrastructure needs amount to $94 trillion by 2040. Here’s how to take advantage of infrastructure investments in your own portfolio.

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How to Approach Infrastructure Investments

Infrastructure is essential for our transportation, utilities, and communication needs. In fact, the U.S. government has recently emphasized its key role with supportive spending plans—and infrastructure is entering an investment supercycle.

In this graphic from New York Life Investments, we highlight the growing opportunity in infrastructure investments, and how investors can take advantage through both municipal bonds and publicly-traded infrastructure companies.

Investing in Infrastructure

As infrastructure continues to evolve, there are 3 main themes driving growth.

  • Data growth: Wide-scale tech adoption is increasing our need for digital infrastructure
  • Aging assets: Existing infrastructure is in need of upgrading or total replacement
  • Decarbonization: Climate change is driving demand for more sustainable energy

This presents a large opportunity for investors. Between 2016 and 2040, global infrastructure needs will amount to $94T, or about $3.7T per year.

Investors can access this market through municipal bonds, which are debt securities issued by state and local governments. They can also allocate funds to listed infrastructure companies, which are publicly-traded equities that own or operate infrastructure assets.

Here’s what investors need to know about both types of infrastructure investments.

Municipal Bonds

Traditionally, U.S. infrastructure is defined as big public work projects such as bridges, roads, and schools. About three-quarters of the costs are paid for by state and local governments, with a large portion coming from municipal bonds.

Both taxable and non-taxable bonds offer many benefits:

  • High Credit Quality: While corporate bonds are spread relatively evenly between investment grade and non-investment grade, the vast majority of municipal bonds are investment grade. These ratings have held up well, even during recessions.
  • Low Equity Correlation: Correlation measures how closely the price movements of two investments are related. While other bond categories have moved more in-line with the stock market, taxable municipals have had the lowest correlation. Investors who add taxable municipals to a portfolio may increase diversification.
  • Higher Relative Yields: Taxable municipal returns have been strong relative to other high quality sectors, and comparable to that of corporates.
    Bond categoryYield to worst
    Taxable Municipals2.10%
    Investment Grade Corporates1.70%
    U.S. Aggregate1.10%
    U.S. Treasuries0.60%

    Note: Data as of December 2020. Yield to worst is the lowest potential yield that can be received on a bond without the issuer actually defaulting.

    Amid low or even negative interest rates, this is especially important.

Infrastructure Companies

After municipal bonds are issued, governments use these funds to hire both public and private companies to build, maintain, and upgrade infrastructure. These companies have distinct advantages, such as high barriers to entry and consistent demand.

Of these companies, 360 are publicly-traded with a total value of $4.1 trillion. What benefits do public (listed) infrastructure companies offer?

  • Attractive historical returns: Listed infrastructure companies had higher returns than global equities over the 20-year period from 2000-2020.
  • Income potential: Over the last 20 years, income has accounted for about half of public infrastructure’s total return. This is partly due to stable and resilient cash flows.
  • Lower volatility and downside risk: Historically, listed infrastructure has had less risk than traditional equities and other real asset classes.
    Asset classStandard deviation Downside capture ratio vs global equities
    Listed Infrastructure12.9544.8%
    Global Equities15.14100.0%
    Global REITs17.3580.9%
    Energy Master Limited Partnerships38.25209.4%

    Note: Standard deviation and downside capture ratios are in USD over a 5 year period from Jan 2016-Dec 2020 using quarter-end data.

    For example, listed infrastructure only declined 45% as much as global equities during market downturns from 2016-2020.

An allocation to global, publicly-traded infrastructure companies may help reduce portfolio swings and manage risk.

Infrastructure Investments in a Portfolio

While municipal bonds play a key role in funding infrastructure, it’s companies that build our data centers and maintain our bridges.

Investors can benefit from allocating money to both infrastructure investments.

InvestmentWhere does it fit?Benefits
Municipal bondsCore fixed income allocation- High credit quality
- Low equity correlation
- Higher yields relative to other high quality sectors
Infrastructure companiesGlobal equity or real assets allocation- Income potential
- Attractive historical returns
- Lower volatility relative to equities & other real assets

Ultimately, municipal bonds and infrastructure companies can help investors build a stronger portfolio.

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