The impact of climate change
on financial institutions
After the long-acknowledged fact that global warming has catastrophic consequences, it is also increasingly recognized that climate change will impact the financial industry. The Bank of England is even of the opinion that climate change represents the tragedy of the horizon: “by the time it is clear that climate change is creating risks that we want to reduce, it may already be too late to act”. This article provides a summary of the type of financial risks resulting from climate change, various initiatives within the financial industry relating to the shift towards a low-carbon economy, and an outlook for the assessment of climate change risks in the future.
At the December 2015 Paris Agreement conference, strict measures to limit the rise in global temperatures were agreed upon. By signing the Paris Agreement, governments from all over the world committed themselves to paving a more sustainable path for the planet and the economy. If no action is taken and the emission of greenhouse gasses is not reduced, research finds that per 2100, the temperature will have increased by 3°C to 5°C. Climate change affects the availability of resources, the supply and demand for products and services and the performance of physical assets. Worldwide economic costs from natural disasters already exceeded the 30-year average of USD 140 billion per annum in seven out of the last ten years. Extreme weather circumstances influence health and damage infrastructure and private properties, thereby reducing wealth and limiting productivity. According to Frank Elderson, Executive Director at the DNB, this can disrupt economic activity and trade, lead to resource shortages and shift capital from more productive uses to reconstruction and replacement.
Increasing concerns about climate change has led to a shift in the perception of climate risk among companies and investors. Where in the past analysis of climate-related issues was limited to sectors directly linked to fossil fuels and carbon emissions, it is currently being recognized that climate-related risk exposures concern all sectors, including financials. Banks are particularly vulnerable to climate-related risks as they are tied to every market sector through their lending practices.
According to the Bank of England, financial risks from climate change come down to two primary risk factors:
- Physical risks. The first risk factor concerns physical risks caused by climate and weather-related events such as droughts and a sea level rise. Potential consequences are large financial losses due to damage to property, land and infrastructure. This could lead to impairment of asset values and borrowers’ creditworthiness. For example, as of January 2019, Dutch financial institutions have EUR 97 billion invested in companies active in areas with water scarcity. These institutions can face distress if the water scarcity turns into water shortages. Another consequence of extreme climate and weather-related events is the increase in insurance claims: in the US alone, the insurance industry paid out USD 135 billion from natural catastrophes in 2017, almost three times higher than the annual average of USD 49 billion.
- Transition risks. The second risk factor comprises transition risks resulting from the process of moving towards a low-carbon economy. Revaluation of assets because of changes in policy, technology and sentiment could destabilize markets, tighten financial conditions and lead to procyclicality of losses. The impact of the transition is not limited to energy companies: transportation, agriculture, real estate and infrastructure companies are also affected. An example of transition risk is a decrease in financial return from stocks of energy companies if the energy transition undermines the value of oil stocks. Another example is a decrease in the value of real estate due to higher sustainability requirements.
These two climate-related risk factors increase credit risk, market risk and operational risk and have distinctive elements from other risk factors that lead to a number of unique challenges. Firstly, financial risks from physical and transition risk factors may be more far-reaching in breadth and magnitude than other types of risks as they are relevant to virtually all business lines, sectors and geographies, and little diversification is present. Secondly, there is uncertainty in timing of when financial risks may be realized. The possibility exists that the risk impact falls outside of current business planning horizons. Thirdly, despite the uncertainty surrounding the exact impact of climate change risks, combinations of physical and transition risk factors do lead to financial risk. Finally, the magnitude of the future impact is largely dependent on short-term actions.
Many parties in the financial sector acknowledge that although the main responsibility for ensuring the success of the Paris Agreement and limiting climate change lies with governments, central banks and supervisors also have responsibilities. Consequently, climate change and the inherent financial risks are increasingly receiving attention, which is evidenced by the various recent initiatives related to this topic.
Banks and regulators
The Network of Central Banks and Supervisors for Greening the Financial System (NGFS) is an international cooperation between central banks and regulators. NGFS aims to increase the financial sector’s efforts to achieve the Paris climate goals, for example by raising capital for green and low-carbon investments. NGFS additionally maps out what is needed for climate risk management. DNB and central banks and regulators of China, Germany, France, Mexico, Singapore, UK and Sweden were involved from the start of NGFS in 2017. The ECB, EBA, EIB and EIOPA are currently also part of the network. In the first progress report of October 2018, NGFS acknowledged that regulators and central banks increased their efforts to understand and estimate the extent of climate and environmental risks. They also noted, however, that there is still a long way to go.
In their first comprehensive report of April 2019, NGFS drafted six recommendations for central banks, supervisors, policymakers and financial institutions, which reflect best practices to support the Paris Agreement.