This gamble on carbon and the climate could trigger a new financial crisis
If you want to see market irrationality in action, look no further than current stock market valuations for the world's major oil, gas and coal companies.
Summer 2013: eastern Europe is facing one of the heaviest floodings in the last 50 years (Photograph: Ruben Neugebauer/Corbis
At a time when governments are supposedly preparing for a global climate change deal that will cut carbon emissions, energy multinationals are investing in carbon assets like there's no tomorrow.
Put bluntly, either we're heading for a climate catastrophe, or the carbon asset bubble will go the way of sub-prime mortgage stock.
Yesterday's disappointing second-quarter results for Royal Dutch Shell provided a useful guide to the future. Over the past couple of years the company has invested heavily in exploration. It has pumped billions of pounds into fracking for natural gas in Ukraine and Turkey; the development of tar sands in Canada, and drilling in the Arctic. The market verdict, prompted by a dip in prices, reduced profits, and concern over costs: a drop in share prices.
You can't help wondering what will happen when carbon prices are aligned with climate imperatives. We are now just two years away from the crucial 2015 UN climate negotiations. If successful, they will put a price on carbon, driving down returns on fossil-fuel investments by capping carbon emissions. Market reactions will make Shell's results look positively healthy. Yet there is little evidence that institutional investors have recognised that they are sitting on a carbon asset timebomb.
You don't have to dig too hard to find the gap between market valuation and real world ecology. Avoiding dangerous climate change, defined as a temperature rise of 2C, will require the global community to operate within a constrained carbon budget. That budget has a ceiling of 545 gigatons in carbon dioxide (GTCO2) emissions to 2050. Today, state energy firms and private companies are sitting on reserves amounting to three times that level.
Carbon arithmetic points in only one direction. If governments are serious about reaching a 2015 multilateral agreement that avoids dangerous climate change, fossil fuel reserves need to left where they are.
The Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at the London School of Economics estimates that only 20-40% of oil, gas and coal reserves held by the 200 largest energy companies can be exploited if we are to avoid dangerous climate change. Yet the market valuation of these "unburnable carbon" reserves is over $4tn, to which can be added $1.5tn in company debt.
The misalignment between our planet's ecological boundaries and energy markets is set to worsen. High energy prices and concerns over power shortages in emerging markets are fuelling a global scramble for carbon assets. Collectively, the 200 largest energy companies invested $674bn (£441.4m) on the development of new fossil fuel reserves in 2012. If financial markets are mispricing risk, governments around the world have yet to recognise some basic cost-benefits realities.
Companies investing in Arctic oil and gas exploration stand to gain revenue streams that will be counted in billions of dollars. But as highlighted in a recent Cambridge University study, the rapid melting of Arctic sea ice and permafrost threatens to unlock methane emissions that will generate costs of up to $60tn, much of it associated with the impact of floods, droughts and storms in developing countries.
In effect these companies are taking what they see as a one-way bet on governments failing to tackle climate change. It's a dangerous play. If governments fail to act on their climate change commitments, financial exposure to fossil fuel assets could become a systemically destabilising liability.
Five of the 10 top companies listed on London's FTSE 100, accounting for a quarter of the indexes' capitalisation, are almost exclusively high carbon. The Australian Securities Exchange has a recklessly high exposure to coal. The New York exchange is also sitting on a large carbon bubble. Energy companies are exposing institutional investors, mutual funds and banks to dangerously mispriced assets, yet current regulatory frameworks are failing to address the systemic threat.
Unfortunately, governments are actively encouraging energy companies to bet on dangerous climate change. The European Union has driven the world's largest carbon market into freefall by oversupplying permits, undercutting incentives for investment in renewable energy in the process.
As a group, rich countries spend over $800bn annually actively subsiding fossil fuels, creating markets for oil, gas and coal companies. Britain's recent decision to grant tax concessions to companies involved in fracking is a recent example of a wider failure to align fiscal policy with climate commitments. For every $1 invested in renewable energy support in the OECD another $7 is spent on carbon-intensive fuels.
From a climate change perspective, this is the policy equivalent of a government running an antismoking campaign while removing the tax on tobacco and subsidising cigarette consumption.
Developing countries are also trapped in a cycle of policy-induced carbon-intensive growth. Currently, they are spending over $1tn annually to subsidise fossil fuel use, according to the IMF. These transfers often dwarf budgets for health and education. As research at the Overseas Development Institute has highlighted, most of the benefits go to industry, large-scale agriculture and middle-class consumers.
Eliminating subsidies for fossil fuels could open the door to a win-win scenario. It would cut energy-related CO2 emissions by 13%, slowing the drift towards the dangerous climate-change cliff. Coupled with signals to indicate that carbon prices will rise and early investment in renewables, it would unlock the private investment and spur the technological breakthroughs needed to drive a low-carbon transition.
Diverting fossil fuel subsidies into low-carbon energy cooperation would also generate wider benefits. Developing countries such as India and China are already investing heavily in wind and solar power. But if emerging markets are to break their dangerous addiction to coal and other fossil fuels, they need financial support to phase out their carbon-intensive stock.
Providing that support through the reallocation of fossil fuel subsidies would help create markets for low-carbon investors – and it would go a long way towards building trust in international climate negotiations that are too important to fail.