How a smart investing strategy could avert climate change

Following up on my recent GreenBiz piece on the ‘Do The Math’ tour, I wanted to take a brief opportunity to advance my thinking one step further, with some end-of-year recommendations for real action that could result in some positive, much needed action.

Coming out of the failed COP negotiations at Doha, we remain fiercely on a business-as-usual track, heading straight for an environmental cliff. What can we do to avoid this?

The big question to me is whether investing can become a lever for the sort of positive change we seem to now require to avoid global catastrophe. Most socially responsible investing remains fixated on negative approaches, and that has not been working. Combine this with most mainstream investment not focusing on this long term big picture, and it results in what might be called the Carbon Tracker status quo. Let’s explore how investing could become part of the answer.

One clear thing we need to do is to ‘Do the Math.’ As Bill McKibben heroically pointed out in his Rolling Stone piece, and as many others from Jeremy Grantham to the International Energy Agency (IEA) have now referenced from Carbon Tracker, we can only burn another 565 Gigatons of CO2 or so over the next 50 years and have a reasonable chance of staying under a 2 degree Celsius temperature increase. So there is a clear imperative to move to a low carbon economy rapidly to even have a chance to achieve this important goal -- and the longer we wait, the harder it will get to stay within these global limits of well-being.

What will it take to slash greenhouse gases?

While some are already moving to an adaptation mentality, it is unclear that we can adapt at all. Studies in South Florida, for example, show adaptation for that region is not achievable from anticipated sea level rise. Sandy, devastating as it was, may have just been a preview of coming attractions. What would the economic effects be of lower Manhattan permanently being underwater?

We need to find rapid actions to reduce annual GHG emissions on a global basis -- for our health, both environmental and economic, and as the Department of Defense has noted, this is now an issue of National Security as well.

It is important to find ways away from use of coal and oil, which generate the vast majority of GHG emissions. While coal use in the U.S. is on the wane, the World Resources Institute estimates more than 1,000 new coal plants are in the works -- mostly in China and India -- so we need to find ways to keep those assets in the ground.

To achieve this, we need to find ways to scale low carbon energy access for economically rising regions. It isn’t realistic to ask countries, and more specifically middle class families, to not have the lifestyles that they see those of us in the West enjoy. We need to move to a sense of global fairness and realism on this subject. How do we scale the change we really require?

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