OPINION| Researchers develop innovative finance approach to help banks fight global warming

Earlier in 2022, University College of London mathematician Dr Andrea Macrina was busy cooking a birthday dinner for his wife when the phone rang. It was one of his collaborators, asking if he had a few minutes for a quick conversation about their research. Two hours later, he was still on the phone and his wife had taken over the cooking of her own birthday dinner.   

“I was very apologetic,” recalls Macrina, who is also adjunct professor at the African Institute of Financial Markets and Risk Management (AIFMRM) at the University of Cape Town. “It didn’t feel right at all and my heart was very heavy. I had spoken to my wife about this research project, and she knew how excited we all were.” 

In fact, he and co-authors, Chris Kenyon and Mourad Berrahoui, worked through the Christmas and New Year period, taking very few breaks over the festive season, to complete their research so it could be put in the public domain in early 2022.    

Their paper, “The Transparency Principle for Carbon Emissions Drives Sustainable Finance”, has already drawn much interest from the financial services industry. It was presented publicly to academics, peers, and figures in the financial sector at the AIFMRM-QuantsSA Research Seminar in March.  

“This research is very exciting,” explains AIFMRM director Professor David Taylor. “The alignment of financial market incentives and carbon emissions disincentives is key to limiting global warming. This research provides a new way of designing financial instruments according to the enabled carbon flows and is compatible with existing bank systems. So, it does not call for new systems or software to be introduced.” 

Put in layman’s terms, the researchers developed a new way to structure financial products, like loans, to include information about the enabled carbon emissions. This means adding a number quantifying the enabled carbon impact that institutions can use to calculate financial risk associated with carbon flows. By asking for more carbon-related disclosures and entering it in the terms sheets, banks can use these to compare cash flows and carbon flows and apply them to evaluate financial loans provided to fund projects, for example. 

By accounting for the enabled carbon emissions of projects like new coal-fired power stations, disincentives could arise to build such power plants, encouraging more cost-effective and environmentally friendly alternatives or new designs that offset the carbon emissions. “Accounting for carbon emissions allows the banks to determine the financial requirements to balance costs arising from the enabled carbon flows which will radically change project costs, decreasing the risk that assets become stranded (unusable),” says Macrina. 

This will lead to projects being restructured to include negative emissions technologies and, in their paper, the researchers offer new suggestions for mixed financial-physical solutions to minimise costs. 

“Sustainability and the focus on climate change is a key issue for financial market participants,” says Taylor. “WWF International, among many other global organisations, has emphasised the crucial need for financial organisations and systems to play their part in reducing carbon emissions. Innovative research like this suggests actual and implementable ways in which financial institutions can play a bigger and more active role in reducing carbon emissions.”   

With energy and power generation crises hitting not only South Africa, but various countries around the world due to oil price uncertainty following Russia’s war in Ukraine, the approaches banks and financial institutions take towards financing future power plants, becomes even more relevant and pertinent than ever before.  

Macrina and his co-authors in the paper introduce a carbon equivalence principle, which can be used to quantify how green a project is. Macrina says they actually prefer not to use the term “green” as it is too narrow in terms of describing emission impact. 

“We find labelling something as ‘green’ can be very limiting and inadequate as ‘green’ projects can still have a big carbon impact that is not acknowledged.” He explains, “A building may qualify as being ‘green’ due to certain building practices and materials used, but once you take into account the power sources it uses, you see its carbon emissions actually may no longer make it ‘green’.” 

By considering instead enabled carbon emissions, a more accurate representation is gained. The researchers call this the Carbon Equivalence Principle (CEP) and they believe it enables greater incentive alignment between sustainability and normal financial management.  

Macrina says this also paves the way to cutting down on greenwashing, where organisations and activities claim to be environmentally friendly but do not accurately account for the carbon impact of their projects, products, or practices. 

Environmental organisation Greenpeace defines greenwashing as: “A PR tactic that’s used to make a company or product appear environmentally friendly without meaningfully reducing its environmental impact.”  

As pressures increase on organisations to be more ESG (environmentally, socially, and corporate governance) compliant, there have been calls on the financial services industry to adapt systems to reflect more accurately what the carbon footprint of a project, like a coal-fired power plant, will be. “Our paper talks about the transparency principle because it allows financial systems to truly reflect the environmental impact of a project,” says Macrina.  

“Finance is the means by which so much is enabled and achieved. From construction to manufacturing, production and even service delivery. These must be financed and if we can innovate financial systems and find new ways to structure financial instruments, we can make a more meaningful contribution to the role finance plays in incentivising environmentally friendly practices and projects, and to how physical and financial risk is managed.”  

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Andrea Botha
Andrea Botha is a freelance writer

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