The convergence of key technologies, the existential global risks that climate change present as well as fast emerging government policies are creating a new climate economy. What does this mean? The climate economy means companies creating goods and services which drive decarbonatization. Climate will become the new lens through which all activities are viewed and sustainability will disrupt virtually every sector and industry from manufacturing to transport to energy.
The most obvious example of the climate economy are the wind turbines which increasingly dot the seas, oceans and hills across the globe. But the climate economy is far wider than just renewables, it means any goods and services that reduces greenhouse gas emissions or addresses the impact of climate change. This could mean companies that produce more efficient engines for trucks to firms focused on protecting global forests
The climate Economy is broadly connected to the rise of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) investing. The ESG movement attempts to tackle with the broader non-financial risks and opportunities of investing. Currently most economic activity in the modern world is entirely dependent on energy which is primarily supplied by carbon emitting fossil fuels. However, times have changed and now renewable energy can compete with fossil fuels on price, consumers increasingly favour climate friendly companies and government policies across increasingly seek to reduce emissions.
The New Drivers of the World Economy
The next few decades will see climate (decarbonisation) and more broadly sustainability (ESG) become the new driving force of the global economy. All business will eventually have to embrace decarbonisation and sustainability. Three main trends will drive this: technology, renewable energy is cheaper than ever and continues to become more efficient, but also other new technologies such as artificial intelligence (for more efficient decision making), growing meat in a lab and industrial batteries will all drive decarbonisation.
A wave of new legislation and regulation designed to encourage decarbonisation such as the Task Force for Climate Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), the EU Sustainability Taxonomy as well as national level legislation to fulfil climate targets will shift vast amounts of capital away from carbon intensive activities. Much of this capital will need a new home, which is where new wave of innovative companies in the climate and clean tech fields will emerge as well as existing firms with the ability to pivot to the new reality.
Perhaps above all the climate economy will be sparked by the unfolding reality of climate change, each unpredicted wildfire. Each temperature record broken, each mm of sea-level rise will force change onto society and inspire new companies in the Climatetech space and force governmental and geopolitical shifts.
A Grand Opportunity
As the global economy shifts toward decarbonisation the opportunities for Climatetech firms will emerge rapidly. Some parts of the world with more favourable regulatory regimes and a technological edge will become leaders in Climatech. China despite its record emissions is a leader in the Climatetech field. Many US firms so often leaders in innovation have taken up the challenge to decarbonise.
Perhaps the key firms in building the climate economy are those which are still emerging. Start-ups could in time become key drivers decarbonisation through innovation and imaginative use of technological solutions. The new wave of climate investment is looking beyond renewables to transform agriculture, food, mobility and much else beside. For example firms such as Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and New Wave Seafood are offering plant based meat and seafood substitutes which reduce demand for carbon emitting and deforestation causing meat ocean ravaging seafood.
Solar energy has dropped 89 percent in cost over the last decade and wind power has declined by 70 percent in the same period of time. This demonstrates the power of applied technology which is a key element to the success of many Climatetech firms. The climate economy is very much tied to the so called Fourth Industrial Revolution. Like previous revolutions before it promises major improvements in efficiency and huge upheavals in society.
The Fourth Industrial revolution promises a dramatic leap forward in the application of robotics, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and energy storage, as well as the mass connection of society and businesses through the internet of things and 5G.
These new developments bring huge global risks such as the increasing exposure of infrastructure to cyberattacks. But also major benefits, more efficient storage and distribution (through smart grids) of energy makes renewables more hugely more attractive, overcoming their traditional limitations such as windless days and night time. Artificial Intelligence advances can help humans monitor climate change risks such as deforestation as well as providing more detailed and accurate predictions and simulations of climate change.
Other new technologies will also prove vital in the decarbonisation process. These include industrial batteries for storing energy, energy efficiency measures (such as more efficient home appliances), cutting edge energy such as hydrogen as well as the electrification of cars, planes, trains, ships all of which will ease the move towards decarbonisation.
Services that employ technology such as those which measure climate risk, carbon trading platforms, measurement of ESG risks and measures will all have a part to play helping service the climate economy.
The New Regulatory Framework
The EU has led the way in providing a regulatory framework for decarbonisation, countries that follow can grow and nurture the climatetech firms of the future.
Nations like Russia are likely to favour a rearguard action and continue backing oil, gas and coal for as long as possible in the hopes that the shift to renewables will be slower than hoped. Others like Saudi Arabia can hedge their bets – able to host vast solar arrays in empty deserts and even become an innovative exporter of blue hydrogen while remaining a major oil producer.
The Task Force for Climate Related Financial Disclosures is designed to push Banks into diverting financial resources into climate safe investments. By identifying the assets at most risk from climate risks in terms of either physical or transition risks banks can avoid projects exposed to climate change. The G7 recently moved towards making TCFD reporting mandatory.
This mass movement of capital will impact over time oil and coal producers who will be unable to access capital as it becomes clear that investing in these industries is not only environmentally damaging but also financially unsustainable. The launch of the TCFD has given rise to a new similar piece of regulation which attempts to measure the financial impact of biodiversity loss.
The EU has recently published its long-awaited sustainability taxonomy which will clearly define which economic activities contribute to decarbonisation. This will make it clear to investors which companies are backing climate friendly projects and which favour carbon intensive activities.
Carbon pricing or emissions trading is another instrument of change. Putting a price on carbon encourages polluters to reduce emissions. The EU is planning to extend its scheme beyond large firms to buildings and transport. This does risk a backlash if users are landed with big bills to reflect the cost of change.
Geopolitical Winds of Change
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was built partly so China could secure oil, gas and raw materials such as iron ore. All key for feeding Chinese economic development. The rise of the climate economy could mean geopolitical battles for materials such as cobalt, copper and lithium all vital to develop electronics, batteries and cleantech (A wind turbine uses 4.7 tonnes of copper). This will be mirrored by the fall in use for fossil fuels and materials associated with that industry.
The Next Wave of Government Action
The United States has new impetus with a major decarbonisation plan for the US aiming at a 50 percent reduction on 2005 levels of carbon and international financing for decarbonisation of developing countries is underway. This legislation alone may spur other countries onto more ambitious plans. Perhaps the most critical achievement of the plan will be the demonstration effect.
The US and other climate action leaders need to show and prove that societies and economies can continue to thrive in spite and because of decarbonisation. The success of these plans will help dispel doubts and excuses for countries still planning a fossil fuel future who can take up new targets with confidence of a positive outcome.
China Laggard and Leader
China is home to 40 percent of solar capacity and roughly one third of global wind power. Its bus fleets are nearly all electric and it is a world leader in terms of electric vehicles being sold. Solar prices have dropped 80 percent wind turbines while lithium batteries have dropped one sevenths of the cost compared to a decade ago. On these terms China is global climate leader.
This claim comes with a major caveat: China is doing little in the short term to decarbonise. The country remains hopelessly hooked on coal and oil imports to power an economy rapidly rebounding from the shock of Covid. China has promised to cap carbon emissions by 2025 but for this to happen there needs to rapid uptake of renewables, energy efficiency measures and a major unprecedented scaling down of coal use.
Countries that fail to embrace the climate economy will face a number of risks: failing to keep up with international regulation like the TCFD and EU Taxonomy leaves them open to transition risks. Continued focus on fossil fuels for countries like Indonesia, Russia, China and Iran make the shift to renewables harder and more painful when it does inevitably happen.
The Shift has Started
There is a long road ahead before the climate economy is a reality. The companies and countries that forge ahead with change now are likely to be the winners. Companies that fail to embrace new green regulation, ignore public sentiment and growing climate risk and geopolitical change will see themselves fall behind and increasingly out of sync with fast changing times. For start-ups and new ventures focused on decarbonisation the next decade will be a golden era for growth as the climate economy picks up momentum.