Friday, January 24, 2020

Trump can’t see the big opportunity

David Frise, BESA Chief Executive

When the US President told this week’s economic forum at Davos that he would “defend the US economy” against the “prophets of doom” predicting climate change catastrophe, he demonstrated his failure to grasp the new financial reality.

Big business is waking up to the huge growth opportunities on offer from the so-called ‘green economy’ leaving Mr Trump, despite the pride he takes in his business credentials, a long way behind the curve.

If we need proof that the financial tectonic plates are shifting we need look no further than a major U turn by the world’s biggest financial asset management company. BlackRock has been under pressure for years because of its failure to adopt an ethical approach across its £5.3trn investment portfolio.

However, just ahead of the Davos meeting chief executive Larry Fink told clients we are now “on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance” with climate change as the long-term defining factor. In his annual letter to CEOs, he wrote that “every government, company, and shareholder must confront climate change” and “that sustainability should be our new standard for investing”.

BlackRock says it will now hold board members to account if it felt “companies and boards are not producing effective sustainability disclosures or implementing frameworks for managing these issues”. The group is already backing away from companies that derive more than 25% of their revenues from coal production and ramping up its green investment funds.


The banking sector is also responding with Lloyd's pledging to halve the carbon emissions generated by projects it finances by 2030. It is creating new ‘green finance products’ to help businesses improve building energy efficiency and increase their investment in low-carbon technologies. It has also concluded a partnership with the Woodland Trust to finance the planting of ten million trees over the next decade. 

The long-term investment picture is changing, but the business sector can also make immediate gains just by plucking the low hanging fruit of energy efficiency. A new report from the Green Alliance showed that businesses in five UK cities were costing themselves £60m a year because of energy wasted in their buildings. Offices in the City of London alone throw away £35m a year that could easily be saved by making relatively simple and inexpensive changes to their offices.

According to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the energy wasted by the commercial building sector is equivalent to that consumed by 100,000 homes. It adds that energy consumption per square metre has flatlined since 2002 when it should have been dropping rapidly because of advances in building services technologies and improvements to insulation and other energy efficiency measures.

The UK can look to Australia for inspiration because of the success of its National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS).

This has brought down energy use in office buildings by nearly 40% since it was introduced 13 years ago due to a legal requirement to publish annual energy performance reports and its encouragement for office managers to use digital technologies. If this level of progress was achieved in the City of London, its business energy bills would come down by a total of £367m over the next decade, according to the Green Alliance report.

All of this shows that, far from being a ‘tax on business’, investment in the technologies that can deliver the improvements needed to reduce carbon emissions are good for business growth, efficiency and the corporate bottom line.

There are major opportunities all over the business scene. For example, the Committee on Climate Change is urging a huge step change in use of “pivotal” heat pump technology with some experts estimating the potential market at one million units per annum.

We are miles away from that target due to lack of investment in the recruitment and training of a suitably skilled workforce large enough to make such a potential market possible, but we do have the technology. Just as we do have highly sophisticated digital control and artificial intelligence systems able to move buildings onto a whole new level of performance.

Tackling climate change is a huge business opportunity and more shareholders are voting with their money by moving into ethical funds that will create the investment impetus to achieve the low carbon growth we need. This precious penny has dropped with many of our corporate leaders, but clearly not with Mr Trump with the result that, far from defending the US economy, he is leaving it vulnerable to the seismic changes that the climate emergency is already creating in the financial markets.

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