Generation Investment Management’s 7th annual Sustainability Trends Report highlights the bold new policy commitments underpinning the critical period for action on the climate crisis.
London and San Francisco, 14 September 2023
Generation Investment Management, the sustainable investment manager, today published its seventh Sustainability Trends Report, which annually seeks to answer the question of where the world stands in the transition to a low-emissions economy. This year’s assessment analyses how climate change has moved to the centre of global politics and how rapid shifts in policy are transforming the outlook for the energy transition across the global economy – from the power sector and transportation to buildings, industrials, land use and climate finance.
Al Gore, Chairman of Generation Investment Management, said: “The last year proved that we have finally mustered political will to take significant steps forward in global efforts to solve the climate crisis. At long-last, we have arrived at a political tipping point, as new ambition from the United States, the European Union, Australia and Brazil, among many other nations has accelerated the implementation of climate solutions in key economies around the world. These are significant signs of progress, but despite reaching this tipping point, we have not yet crossed the threshold that puts us on a path to averting the worst impacts of this crisis.”
“Political progress in the past year has kicked off a global race to the top for climate policy, but we are still far from the finish line. Despite the very welcome progress, society has still not committed itself fully to writing laws, mobilising capital, revising longstanding practices and building clean machinery at the pace required. If we are to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, emissions need to fall sharply every year, and be cut in half by 2030. We have the solutions at hand but remain in a race against time – one that must be fuelled by both friendly competition and collaboration.”
Emissions reduction measures – a long time coming
For decades, public policy and private sector commitments have failed to achieve any meaningful reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, emissions are still rising today. But the world finally appears to be nearing the point where emissions will peak and begin to fall. That is likely because many of the clean-energy technologies needed now are growing at a rapid pace, which has accelerated sharply in the past year.
In most cases, it was not the climate crisis alone that prompted this rapid acceleration but rather the ramifications for global energy markets caused by Russia’s attack on Ukraine. The war precipitated the first truly global energy crisis, with soaring prices and fears of supply shortages. For many countries, escaping their addiction to Russian fossil fuels converged perfectly with their ambition to switch to clean energy. That intersection of priorities has led to rapid shifts in policy that are helping to change the pace and outlook of the energy transition.
A shift in policies – but with a paradox built in
The acceleration to decarbonise has a clear paradox built in – Western countries are trying to speed-up their transitions while simultaneously replicating the supply chains that exist already in China. As compared to China, no country is spending more on clean energy; no country is moving faster on nuclear power; and no other country can bring to bear the sheer industrial might of China to try to scale up solutions. Yet China is also building more coal-burning power plants than any country in the world, at a pace that has accelerated sharply in the past few years as China copes with power shortages. Global emissions will likely reach their peak and begin to fall only when China finally begins to reduce its use of coal.
How far Western countries will go in trying to decouple their economies from China, partly through the ‘reshoring’ of clean energy manufacturing, is unclear. Consequently, it is unclear to what extent reshoring will slow the energy transition, compared to its maximum achievable pace. While complete decoupling will almost certainly be impossible, policy responses to this challenge will play a critical role in the speed of the global energy transition.
Is the reshoring of clean energy a political necessity?
In the United States, the impact of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) has been unprecedented. Its policies have precipitated a wave of announcements of new electric vehicle manufacturing sites and clean energy developments. Critically, US states whose leaders have otherwise shunned policies aimed at accelerating the adoption of clean energy have seen much of the benefits of this law through new investment and job creation in the tens of thousands.
The IRA is building a new political constituency for the energy transition which over time could make opposition less tenable. Critically, it shows other countries one example of how broad coalitions can be built in support of the clean-energy economy. For the clean economy to win on a global scale, the political cost of trying to undermine it must become too high.
Other accelerating trends outlined in the report include:
Power: an emissions peak is near, but grid issues pose an increasing challenge
- Wind and solar power are now supplying 80 percent of new power demand worldwide. The report suggests that we are no more than a few years away from the point where wind and solar begin to supply more than 100 percent of new demand – meaning it will begin to claim market share from fossil fuels for the first time.
- However, countries need to focus intently on solving the increasingly significant challenge of interconnection queues to enable renewable power to connect to the grid at the speed it needs to. Waiting lists that used to stretch for 18 months are now running for five years, and the situation is getting worse.
Transportation: we have entered the steep part of the curve for the growth of electric cars
- Sales of electric cars jumped nearly 60 percent last year globally, and on that higher base, another jump of 30 to 35 percent is forecast for this year. Approximately half of all two- and three-wheelers sold worldwide are electric.
- Shortages and spiking prices for the critical minerals needed to build them, particularly lithium, provide a challenge to the rollout of electric vehicles. Avenues to secure new supply and to ensure respect for human rights and fair treatment of the countries and people that host those mines must be found.
Buildings: we still are not where we need to be, but there is some good news
- Heat pumps can help us decarbonise buildings – sales soared over 50 percent in Germany last year and they are rising at double digits worldwide. In the United States, sales of heat pumps have now surpassed those of gas furnaces for the first time.
- We are not making as much progress on fixing the shells of our buildings to improve energy efficiency, and that is critical, so it is clear that new public policy is going to be needed.
Industry: decarbonisation efforts are finally starting to move, though not fast enough
- We are finally seeing movements in the early stages of industrial decarbonisation, not least with the surge in the development of hydrogen projects worldwide.
- Clean hydrogen can play an important role in decarbonising the chemicals, steel, aviation and shipping industries. The challenge ahead for governments is to ensure production is scaled and costs fall – and in discerning the end uses where hydrogen does not make economic sense.
Land & Food: some big developments, both good and bad
- There are major new commitments to protecting forests and the ocean, including a global agreement on biodiversity in which the nations of the world agreed to put 30 percent of the world’s land and ocean resources under legal protection by 2030. The European Union has also adopted a new law that will ban the import of “products of deforestation.”
- New revelations have rightly heightened negative attention on carbon offsets used by corporations and individuals. Efforts are under way to clean up the carbon offsets market, but it could prove challenging.
Financing the Transition: some attempts to solve the biggest problem
- The International Energy Agency estimates the world will need to mobilise nearly $5 trillion per year by the 2030s to decarbonise the world economy. The magnitude of change presents an opportunity for investors unlike any other in the history of financial markets. Though capital flows have been scaling rapidly, they are still not large enough, and are not adequately targeting the hard to abate sectors and the Global South.
- Just Energy Transition Partnerships, involving the World Bank and big donor countries, are helping developing nations including India, Indonesia, Senegal, South Africa and Vietnam secure financing for new energy infrastructure. But these deals may be too slow and too piecemeal to achieve real change. We need an ambitious global plan to speed-up the transition in developing countries.
- Stewards of capital must play a leading role to achieve a low-emissions economy. The investment industry should adopt a new framework for capital allocation that expands what capital markets value.
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About Generation Investment Management
Generation Investment Management LLP is dedicated to long-term investing, integrated sustainability research and client alignment. It is an independent, private, owner-managed partnership established in 2004 and headquartered in London, with a US presence in San Francisco, with more than $44 billion of assets under management and supervision.1 For further information, please visit https://www.generationim.com/
- Assets under management as at 30 June 2023 are $34.0 billion and assets under supervision (AUS) as at 31 March 2023 are $10.9 billion.