According to the UN the world population reached eight billion people on November 15th, 2022. The demand for food rises, deforestation gets worse, biodiversity decreases, terrains are drier and drier: all things that contribute to higher GHG emissions in the atmosphere. The UN estimate the whole food value chain represents 30% of global emissions, 40% of which come from agriculture and cattle breeding, fertilisers and pesticides; one third from changing use of soil; and the rest from the supply chain: cooking, refrigeration, packaging, transportation and waste, the latter amounting to one third of produced food. In addition, agriculture uses 70% of drink water and livestock farming 80% of farm terrains, contributing only for 20% of calories and 37% of proteins daily intake. And over 50% of antibiotics are used in agriculture and breeding, with an increased bacterial resistance as a result.
Without a change in our diet and our eating habits, where red meat outweighs fruits and vegetables, the Paris target is unattainable. And such changes would have a general health benefit considering the 2 billion people overweight or obese and another 2 billion suffering malnutrition.
Europe, with the program Farm to Fork, part of the Green Deal, was the first to start a re-thinking of the whole food value chain. Among the objectives by 2030: the reduction by 20% of fertilisers, 50% of pesticides and 50% of antibiotics; bring to 25% the farms dedicated to organic farming (it is now 7.5%); convert 10% of them where animals could prosper in the wild enhancing biodiversity; make 30% of lands and seas protected areas (only 26% of lands and 11% of seas are currently protected) and halve the food waste.
Member States don’t want to force people to eat as they think they should, but they can influence their decisions: mandatory labels about nutrition values and source of the food, avoid advertisements on low price meat that mask its quality, and use of a differential taxation depending on the product, such as the proposal of adding a 1€/kg tax on meat between 2023 and 2025, with a gradual increase. Moreover, Europe provides 30 billion euros of subsidies for livestock farming: if directed to cellular agriculture and production of vegetable-based food, that money could help with the desired transition. In fact, these two forms of alternative food production would reduce GHG emissions by 90% for a given meat production target, and ensure a limited use of water, pastures and other resources. On April 27th the EU Commission launched the initiative End the Slaughter Age, that demands to end the European subsidies for livestock farming and use the money for alternative ways of producing meat: the signatures collection started on June 5th. Perhaps the threshold of one million signatures won’t be reached within the first 12 months, but certainly it won’t remain an isolated attempt given Europe’s intention to spur sustainable foods.
Other types of incentives could be the carbon sequestration by farmers, include other sectors in the market for carbon certificates, use clean energy to produce food, anaerobic digestion for biogas produced by food waste.
Linked to this transformation are two important social aspects: a healthier treatment of animals and a lower use of child labor, as 75% of it globally happens precisely in the farming and breeding sectors.
The companies affected will be all those involved in the food chain: livestock farms, producers of fertilisers and enzymes, companies that produce and trade the products concerned, restaurants, start-ups of sustainable food, tech companies that produce tools for an agriculture more focused and sustainable, and pharma companies that make tests through the value chain.
Of all those, the transition will favour the companies producing enzymes and flavours and those that realize tests: the former will see their contribution to food production rise from the current 15% for traditional food to 85% for vegetable-based food; the latter will benefit from an increased control and a mandatory label for products sold in supermarkets.
Alternative foods are now more expensive than traditional foods, but we are comparing an industry in its infancy to one that benefits from large-scale production since decades, with optimized processes. It’s easy to see how the new industry will benefit from lower costs over time, as production increases, technologies improve, and for its ability to use 90% less resources.
Over the last few months there’s been much agitation on hydrogen, the cornerstone of the energy transformation: without this tiny molecule the net zero target may not be reached, and only with hydrogen we can de-carbonise the high emissions sectors such as heavy transportation, steel, cement, refineries, fertilisers etc.
Although hydrogen is the most common element on our planet, its molecule (H2) is usually derived by other compounds. Depending on how it is produced, we can distinguish three types of hydrogen. Typically hydrogen is produced by methane, causing CO2 emissions in the atmosphere: this is the grey hydrogen. If the CO2 is captured and put in depleted oil or gas storage, we have blue hydrogen. When it is produced via water electrolysis, using renewable energy such as solar or wind, we have then green hydrogen. Today 99% of produced hydrogen is grey, and the reason is the price: 1.5$/kg for the grey one, while the blue one includes the additional cost of capturing CO2 (estimated at 0.5$/kg) and the green one may cost more than 5$/kg.
With Biden’s IR Act and the 470 billion dollars coming to renewables via subsidies and loans, as much as 13 bn are earmarked for the production of green hydrogen, filling the 3.5$ cost gap versus the grey one and enabling the former’s development and usage.
On Sep 22nd the US Department of Energy also contributed to the push by making 7 bn available for an hydrogen hub through the United States.
China, very active on this theme, has contributed 20 bn dollars to reach an overall target of 150 bn by 2025.
Europe, on the other hand, keeps increasing the power targets for green electrolysers installed within 2025, from the 6 GW of the Green Deal to the 17.5 GW of RepowerEU. The available resources are now 5.2 bn dollars, and is trying to get 7 bn more by private investors via the new SFDR and Taxonomy regulations.
The main cost for hydrogen is the energy necessary to split the water molecule. About 50-60 kWh are needed to produce 1 kg of green H2 which makes the current technology inefficient given the price of 20€/MWh of electricity that would make the cost similar to grey hydrogen.
The development of renewable energies is therefore even more necessary, as their production costs have already substantially decreased over the last few years to the point that they are now cheaper than the energy produced by fossil fuels, and they are expected to continue to decrease in the future.
It is also essential to prepare hydrogen production sites near wind turbines or solar panels whose energy would be used to produce hydrogen, which would then be transferred where needed. In this way hydrogen could also serve as energy storage, and not only as fuel.
The governments’ acceleration towards decarbonization will increase the world demand of green hydrogen over the next few years. Estimates available on the web are wide ranging, but all in agreement on a growth rate of multiple times from now to 2050.
Such huge growth causes wild ups and downs of the share price of listed companies, that may gain 50% or more depending on the mood, as well as lose it in a matter of days. After all these are companies that have negative cashflows for the next two-three years exactly because of the massive investments planned. While they could suffer from increasing interest rates, all CEOs and CFOs of the companies active in this sector are excited by the opportunities foreseen in the near and far future.
Hydrogen is an explosive element, and should be handled with care: so should the investment in hydrogen companies.
It’s only two months ago that we were considering the Hesitations of ESG investors and how the Taxonomy legislation was viewed as an obstacle to profitable investments. Today the fortunes of ESG stocks look bright again thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act, the Biden plan to push decarbonization and green energy sources.
After 18 months of exhausting give and take, the package – that in January 2021 included a Climate Plan of USD 2 tn – has been approved a few weeks ago at the US Senate after 3 senators agreed to support it. Just about to pass the law (51 in favor vs 50 against) and with a substantial reduction to 740 bn, of which 370 for renewable energies to fight climate change. Even so, the IR Act provides a budget as much as four times higher than the previous climate plan of 2009. According to independent estimates, matching the Democrats’ data, the investments to fight climate change would cut carbon emissions by 40% by 2030 compared to 2005. It’s not quite the 50% initially announced by Biden, but the target may be increase in the next eight years if everything goes according to plan and the energy cost will decrease thanks to wind, solar and hydrogen.
The IR Act approval on July 27th spurred a rally on stocks linked to renewable energy, especially in the US. Solar and hydrogen companies have recorded average performances around 25% in the three following days, reaching peaks of 35% for the former and 60% for the latter on Aug 15th. Stocks like Array Technologies, that were hard hit over the past few months and that have reported better than expectations in the earnings season, have almost doubled in two weeks showing year-to-date performances ranging from -60% in May to +50% in mid-August. In Europe things have been somewhat quieter, with single-digit performances for solar and wind companies and +15% for hydrogen ones. Since the law approval, the S&P Global Clean Energy Index increased by almost 15% in three days reaching +21% on Aug 15th.
This happened in a year that renewable energy stocks exhibited extreme volatility following global geopolitical events: after the negative start, the S&P Global Clean Energy went back to positive territory due to the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, when the S&P 500 was still around -10% at the beginning of March. After the Q1 reporting season, the rates hikes, energy and labor cost increases and supply chain issues have pushed the index back in the red to -20% around mid-May, a loss greater than the general S&P 500. Now with the Biden plan the index is again positive, performing around +12% as of Aug 15th while the S&P 500 is almost at a double-digit loss.
The prices of these companies are evidently influenced more by expectations on a far future than to objective valuations. Depending on the investment case, analysts justify the prices assigning a greater or lower probability to revenues from future contracts. We are seeing again the same environment that led to the excesses of January 2021 (coinciding with the USD 2 tn infrastructure plan by Biden) and its following unravelling until May 2022.
It's not easy to navigate these wild fluctuations, but two considerations can be done: on one side, the IR Act shows once again the willingness by world governments to reduce the GHG emissions over the next three decades; on the other side, any company with excessive valuations has a high intrinsic risk even if it operates in a sector with strong growth. If we add that many of the companies in the decarbonization business are continuously expanding with negative cashflows and substantial investments, it’s easy to see that even a minor setback could derail the growth story and put the company in danger. So if investors cannot stay out of a secular growth trend, they still should avoid stocks with outlandish multiples and avoid specific themes that appear to be overheating.
Hesitations have begun to surface. After only four months from the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the roar for renewables’ revival appears to be fading, if not dead already. Articles suggesting that ESG investments are now out of fashion are starting to appear. Surveys report that investors consider the Taxonomy as an hindrance to finding investment opportunities. And redemptions from ESG funds seem a real risk in the second half of the year: the darker the green, the higher the potential redemptions. Investments such as hydrogen are seen as too long-term until they become profitable, given the high costs and the lack of earnings for the next two years or more. Rising rates all but strengthen this perception.
To support this thesis, we have as well news coming from Germany, Austria, Italy, Belgium and other European countries that, to face the energy emergency, not only postpone the closure of nuclear plants but re- open the infamous coal-powered power stations.
Is this the end, then? The oil companies generous dividends are enticing for many. With sky-high oil prices and record cashflows, who wouldn’t want to invest in oil companies? Even defence stocks, since the start of the war, have prompted ESG funds to tweak their screenings, separating manufactures of generic weapons from those of prohibited non-conventional weapons.
The world of finance seems to focus more on a short-term horizon than on long-term investment returns. Driven by the need for positive performances in three, six months or one year, funds look for loopholes not to miss opportunities that could make their clients happy.
The European energy transformation will last thirty years. Maybe more, but the direction hasn’t changed. On the contrary, the targets are revised up every time there’s an external shock: from the Green Deal to Next Generation EU when the Covid-19 pandemic started, to Fit for 55 and finally Repower EU after the invasion of Ukraine. Incidental circumstances are like market trends: a bear market can last one or two years, but if one were to bet systematically on a down trending market, in the long run they would probably only lose money. Europe is firmly convinced of this structural change: as Ursula von der Leyen underlined, Europe should take the current crisis as an opportunity to push ahead, rather than going back to the dirty fossil fuels. Oil companies know that, too, and will use the huge cashflows generated by the current oil price to accelerate on a transformation that is unavoidable.
The same holds for governments that now fall back to coal-powered stations: in Germany the announcement came from Habeck, the minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Action, a member of the Green Party. A supporter of clean energy forced to such a decision by the sudden 40% reduction in Russian gas supplies, that made untenable an already difficult situation. Untenable today, that is: but what will happen when the emergency will end?
The point is that if private investments don’t go along with public incentives, certainly the energy transformation will slow down. Finance must give its own contribution during this difficult period, and the returns will come, even for those energies that are now unprofitable.
Going back to the case of hydrogen, for example, we could say that ten years ago even residential solar panels was unprofitable. In Italy it would have costed 30 thousand Euros and the energy savings alone were not enough to offset it. With public incentives, however, one would have gained almost 90 thousand Euros in 20 years.
Green hydrogen is similarly unprofitable today, given its costs, but thanks to ever more ambitious targets set by EU in terms of green electrolytes (from less than 1GW today to 6GW in the Green Deal, to 17.5GW in the RepowerEU by 2025), one can hope in considerable public incentives.
Today, residential solar panels in Italy cost around 10 thousand Euros and with current electricity prices one could save up to 1500 Euros per year. Even without considering the incentives for building renovations, it’s an investment that returns 3x in 20 years: a respectable 7.2% per year. The same will happen with hydrogen, that EU will support until it will be strong enough to become profitable per se.
Those who invest in the energy transformation, announced as the biggest revolution after the industrial one two centuries ago, cannot simply look one or two years ahead but should have more foresight and conviction that a more sustainable future is possible. Otherwise, we know already how it will end.
Nowadays they speak of sustainable or ESG investments as if they were something very different than the market as a whole. In the ESG world there’s a range of instruments, some of which are so similar to the overall market that it’s difficult to understand the difference, if any.
Let’s have a look for example at Europe, where ESG and sustainability are much more advanced: by comparing the Stoxx 600 versus the Stoxx 600 ESG in the last two years we can see no performance difference. Only 15 out of the 600 stocks of the main index are excluded by the ESG index.
The flood of investments into ESG vehicles pushed all companies to pay more attention to environmental, social and governance factors to avoid being excluded by the investors’ portfolios. As a result, what a couple of years ago was an ESG European equity fund is slowly morphing into a common European equity fund, and this can be guessed also by the number of existing vehicles that ‘change’ to ESG: one may think that their investment strategy is not changing substantially after all.
Is this what an investor would expect when we talk of sustainability? Or would he expect something about solar, wind, hydrogen energy sources, electrification, batteries, waste recycling, digitalization, building renovation, gender and diversity parity, etc? Perhaps we should make an effort to differentiate more the generalist funds that include ESG principles (so-called art. 8) from the specialist funds that aim to make an impact (so-called art. 9) according to the SFDR.
After the Russian invasion of Ukraine one of the topics was the comeback of sustainable investments; however we have seen that the Stoxx 600 ESG followed closely the Stoxx 600. Even more selective benchmarks such as the MSCI Europe ESG Leaders have behaved similarly to the generic MSCI Europe, while some difference can be seen in one of the most selective indexes, the MSCI Europe SRI. Still, these are small differences compared to those themes that will help us attain the net zero objective by 2050, such as alternative energies, well represented by the S&P Clean Energy index.
|Performance 24 Feb - 9 Mar 2022|
|MSCI Europe Index||-4.12%|
|MSCI Europe ESG Leaders||-3.66%|
|MSCI Europe SRI||-1.84%|
|S&P Clean Energy||23.54%|
The alternative energies theme is the heart of the energy transformation chased by Europe, and that has become a priority with the invasion of Ukraine as it’s the only way for our continent to reach independence from the Russian oil and gas and, at the same time, reduce CO2 emissions. But it’s not the only theme. Other sectors, such as the building renovation, didn’t perform as well in the period shown in the table. On the contrary, one could say that while renewable energy has dropped on average by 50% from January 2021 to the invasion (as measured by the S&P Clean Energy), the building renovation companies has seen an extraordinary 2021 with average performances of +50% thanks to the incentives of the Next Generation EU program, which aims at trebling the renovations from 1% to 3% p.a.
Today the huge difference between MSCI Europe and S&P Clean Energy is almost halved, while building renovation dropped by 25% in 2022. The reasons are the same that are affecting all companies in these times of market turbulence: increase of commodities (energy in particular) prices, rising rates, supply chain issues and delayed projects delivery. And those multiples inflated in the wake of reform euphoria get deflated by the fear generated by all these issues.
As we highlighted more than once, art. 8 and art. 9 funds tackle the issue of energy transformation at different speed, but the former are slowing down versus a broad market more and more ESG-aware and compliant. The latter, on the other hand, continue on their path driven by specific themes, which however may rise and fall at different times.
With the new Repower EU program unveiled on May 18th, Europe keeps pushing on energy transformation: additional investments for 300 bn to step up the targets already upsized with the Fit for 55. The three main targets involve short term needs (diversification of gas sourcing), medium term goals (pushing on renewable energy) and one that will depend on the habits of European citizens and their ability to use energy more efficiently. Lacking this voluntary effort, the possibility of an energy rationing could prove a more powerful incentive.
While the short-term goal is to reduce Russian dependency by two thirds by the end of the year, the medium-term goal is to be completely independent by 2027. This will be achieved by increasing the target for renewable energy from 40% to 45%, that for green hydrogen electrolyzers to 17.5 GW by 2025 (the original Green Deal target of 6 GW looked already ambitious), and with a greater energy efficiency coming from building renovations and transports electrification (more details here).
For an art. 8 ETF that follows a generalist index is difficult to follow all these themes: hydrogen and solar pure players, for example, are small and medium sized companies not included in the Stoxx 600 ESG. There are of course ETFs that follow some of them, with the added issue of managing the volatility in the various market environments. The alternative is to invest in actively managed funds, that can be themselves art. 8 or art. 9 with different shades of green.
According to Morningstar, less than 5% of mutual funds were art. 9 at the end of 2021, while art. 8 funds represent almost 40% and some of them, as we discussed in the past, have simply “migrated” their prospectus from their pre-SFDR life.
It’s up to the investor to choose the theme(s), the vehicle(s) and the shade of green.
There are times when one has to get in the game to avoid vanishing into nothingness, come up with changes to get another chance. But the structures built over time are so deep-rooted that a remarkable thrust is needed to shake them up.
Europe has been in the shadow of US and China for some time now: growth is lacklustre, unemployment is higher than on the other side of the pond and, if we look at investments, no European company is among the world’s top ten. Why on earth a foreign investor should look at Europe? And within the continent, Italy is among the countries that have struggled in the last 20 years to keep pace even of a sluggish Europe.
With the Next Generation EU, Europe has come up with that diversion needed to increase growth, create new jobs and become again the main character among the world’s powers. It’s not a coincidence that Europe is leading the way in the green transformation, for example with the Taxonomy that Ursula von der Leyen announced as the world’s first handbook to distinguish what is green from what is not.
Italy will have a leading role in this revival, as it is the biggest beneficiary of the European Recovery and Resilience Facility with EUR 191 bn of financial support from now to 2026. Just a few days ago Ursula von der Leyen tweeted that the “first disbursement of #NextGenerationEU funds to Italy” had been made, with congratulations for the reforms implemented or approved so far. In fact this is the first payment subject to the assessment of the milestones and targets fulfilled for 2021, and it’s on top of the pre- financing of 25 bn of last August. It’s also one of the first assessment-linked disbursements at European level, after those granted to Spain (December), France (March) and Greece (April).
It's a substantial payment of 21 bn that brings the total so far to 46 bn destined to the six “missions” of the plan. If investments totalling 12 bn have been made in 2021, more than twice as much (27 bn) are targeted for 2022.
Almost a third of this, slightly less than 9 bn, are destined to the digitalisation of the public administration, national health service and companies, to the optic fibre network (the “Piano Italia 1Gbps”) and 5G infrastructure.
Almost 4 bn to improve the energy efficiency of towns and schools and to strengthen the 110% ecobonus for building renovation, while 1.5 bn will go to renewable energy, hydrogen and sustainable mobility. The investments for wind and photovoltaic projects are only 60 million euros, but those are technologies now self-sufficient and less in need of public investments. Agrivoltaic systems, more recent, will get 108 million euros. The high speed railway network will get 3 bn and research and education will get 6 bn (more details here, or in italian).
About two thirds of the total financing will be loans and one third grants. Italy is one of the few countries (along with Greece, Romania, Poland and Portugal) that have requested loans, given the economic incentive of paying less than on their own sovereign debt. The possibility of requesting loans up to 6.8% of the Gross National Income makes Italy, that used this possibility in full, the country with the most funds at its disposal: 191 bn euros, as mentioned above, which gives a clear idea of the gargantuan scale of the reforms and investments needed to modernize the country.
Should one wonder how much such reforms will contribute to the economic growth, EU studies indicate that, depending on the timing of the implementation and the productivity level, Italy’s GDP will grow by 1.5% to 2.5% by 2026 in real terms, creating about 240 thousand jobs in the process. Not a small increase for a country that had grown by 1% p.a. between 2015 and 2019.
It’s easy to imagine that companies linked to digitalisation and energy efficiency will get a lot of business in the near future, even with some caution due to bottlenecks caused by raw materials sourcing and costing, in particular for energy.
The long journey that will bring us to the final objective, being the first continent with net zero emissions by 2050, has begun. Perhaps it’s a real objective, perhaps it’s only a diversion created on purpose to boost the sluggish economic growth and reduce the unemployment too often close to double digits. Or perhaps it’s a bit of both, because both targets are commendable and they can coexist. Certainly this looks like the last chance for Europe, and for Italy, to win the trust of investors.
Man can assume different personalities, which we often simplify in two opposites: the Good and the Bad, like in the case of Dr Jekyll. When he’s inspired, Man can create timeless masterpieces such as the Gioconda, the Coliseum or the Divine Comedy; when he’s angry, he sows destruction, atrocities and terror.
As never before, these two extremes now emerge within Europe.
The war against Ukraine, while humanely terrible, has brought to the forefront in Europe two opposite needs: the Bad has called for an arms race, the Good for an alternative energies race. The latter seen as the only chance to get energy independence in the future.
In the last month we often heard talking of the NATO pact and, in particular, of the 2% of GDP guideline for defence spending by each NATO member. Today only few are at target, but after the start of the war against Ukraine many promised to reach or even exceed that threshold. Germany, among the first, three days since the start of war announced EUR 100 bn defence spending, almost twice as much as 2020. Italy approved an increase of the defence budget up to 2% of GDP and Macron included a similar increase among his re-election program: EUR 50 bn within 2025. If the single countries rush for a new arms race, EU itself approved the creation of a 5000 men army and a specific defence budget to be able to intervene in full autonomy if need be. Even before the war, on Feb 15th, EU has proposed a tax reduction on weapons produced on the continent.
One should wonder whether sustainable investments, that typically exclude arms- producing companies from their investable universe, are going in the right direction. It’s true that according to SFDR only exposure to controversial weapons is subject to disclosure, but the unripe world of ESG investments tends to neglect such subtle distinctions.
It’s the other arms race, the one of investments in renewable energies, that is going in the same direction of that ESG world and sustainability closer to the common feel.
The current war has highlighted once more Europe’s energy vulnerability due to its dependence from foreign countries, namely Russia. Additionally it showed the need to be fast and achieve energy independence as soon as possible, without further delays.
Once again, the first to move in the race was Germany, budgeting EUR 200 bn to accelerate the transition according to its Minister of Finance Christian Lindner. This, however, was after the coalition partner Greens staged protests fearing that the 100 bn defence spending would go to the detriment of the environmental budget. A thought that crossed the mind of a few investors, too.
The Bloomberg news about a second Eurobond to finance defence and energy, although later denied, prompted a rally for the companies of the two sectors. From Feb 23rd to the beginning of March renewable energy companies such as Orsted, Vestas or Nel bagged returns around 40-50% while the S&P Clean Energy index jumped by about 20%. After all, if the first Eurobond of March 2020 linked to the Next Generation EU program was followed by the best nine months for the renewable energy companies whose price grew by multiples, why there couldn’t be a second wave of repricing?
The strong rally of the first week of war, as opposed to the decline in the rest of the markets, suggest that investors wandered away from these investments despite no changes in the EU’s or world’s governments plans on the subject. Of course a few critical points emerged: the increase of commodity prices, the supply chain issues, the delay of projects and the interest rates rise that penalise growth and utility companies. However their prices may have discounted bad news too much, as if the expected growth were in jeopardy. Speaking of growth, one of the reasons why investors shied away from renewable investments last year is the increased competition in sectors such as wind and solar, but it’s easy to guess, given the need of energy from these sources, how much the demand would outstrip the supply.
If now investors don’t explicitly bet on alternative energies companies, at least they don’t ignore them anymore even though the critical points mentioned above have not disappeared. Actually the current war may only exacerbate them. The renewable investments may even overheat, and their volatility increase, if EU will actually go for a new Eurobond given the heightened sensibility of investors to this theme.
As we have always maintained, the energy transformation is often based on new technologies, sold by companies that will produce earnings only in a few years’ time because today is the moment for heavy investments. The journey will last 30 years and we’re only at the beginning: let’s keep calm and carry on.
Who hasn’t tried the paper drinking straws, with that dryness that changes the drink’s taste? You can find them at Mc Donald’s, or asking for an iced drink in a bar or even just at home, given that the old, coloured plastic straws are not anymore to be found on the supermarkets’ shelves. It’s a consequence of sustainability. Single-use plastics have been forbidden, and so we get paper plates, wooden cutleries and bamboo cotton swabs.
It's an inevitable step given that single-use plastics represent, with fishing tools, 70% of sea garbage, according to the Single-use plastics Directive that became effective the past July.
The main single-use plastics producers are once again the abused oil companies, together with chemical companies. The first twenty companies produce over half of the single-use plastics consumed in the world. The first one is Exxon Mobile, followed by the American chemical company Dow and the Chinese Sinopec. The first producing country is China, followed by the United States and India. There’s also a European company in the first twenty, and not by chance it’s the biggest European oil company: Total. That same Total that promises 7GW of solar energy per year.
Looking at the main shareholders of these companies, other than the governments owners such as China and Saudi Arabia, we find international ETF investors such as Vanguard, Blackrock and State Street. Companies push green investments but then they sell products such as ETFs which have to follow closely the world markets and perhaps they can’t invest as they wish. It’s business.
It’s not a matter of waging wars against plastic producers and those who invest in them: they have already a lot on their hands, between sale restrictions and taxes that are coming up all over Europe. We want instead to highlight those companies that have found a new impulse from this transformation.
With the digital era printed paper has declined more and more. Between 2016 and 2017 investors were wondering how the companies involved in this business would end up, as well as recycling companies, given that recycled paper was used less and less. Then the transition towards a more sustainable world – where the packaging business switches from plastic to paper, wood and other sustainable materials, and where the circular economy is a fundamental pillar – brought them back to life from a seeming extinction.
In addition to sustainability, we have seen the boom of Amazon and online commerce pushing the demand of paperboard for packaging, as well as new lifestyles from the Millennials such as takeaway food, where paper packaging is replacing more and more the plastic one.
As a result a business sector that for thirty years has grown around 3% per annum, in line with the world GDP, and that was seen on the verge of collapse, is growing today almost three times than in the past.
Along the production chain, however, there’s different businesses with very different margins.
Let’s start with the companies producing pulp, the primary raw material to make paper. In Europe it is produced mainly in the northern countries and in the past two years its price jumped by 60%. The reason is linked to the increased costs of energy and transportation and to the pandemic that in reducing the availability of workers has also reduced the production of pulp. The OCC (Old Corrugated Containers) which is used to recycle cardboards has also seen its price rise by 70%, again pushed by Covid that caused many shops to shut down thereby decreasing its supply. To keep margins at a decent level, these companies have increased the price of their products, impacting those at the end of the chain. Among the latter the producers of packages, plates, cutlery, straws etc. have seen the costs of raw materials increasing; at the same time their revenues fell because of the pandemic, as less people went to fast-food chains, made picnics or requested catering for events. As we go back to a normal situation, however, these businesses may profit from renewed demand with increased margins and profits.
There’s also shadows in this paper’s second life: publishing is one of the sectors most impacted by the increased costs of the last few years, with coated paper costing 20% more than in 2020 and even 50% more for higher quality paper and card stock, so that many small publishers had to cut production to avoid raising the price of books and reducing sales. On top of that, the increased paper consumption may lead to less trees available for its production: lacking responsible re-forestation policies such as those of northern Europe, the result would simply to move from plastic pollution to a reduced ecological sustainability.
In every change the most difficult thing is to keep the balance. Often, in trying to achieve an objective, the risk is to penalise other important resources. If we could find alternatives to plastic other than just paper, such as bioplastics that are expensive today but, like any new technology, have room to improve, we may have less distasteful straws and more choice on the bookshelves.
Consistency is a virtue of the few. For some it may be a silly thing or it could be defined as lack of imagination (O. Wilde) or mummification of thoughts, even though changing one’s vision should require much pondering over the reasons for the change. Often consistency gives way to more urgent needs, and perhaps we tell small lies, more or less plausible, to convince ourselves that we didn’t do an about-face.
Europe, too, has an urgent need: energy. And in view of a potential economic re-start, hopefully in the near future, such a need becomes ever more urgent.
As of today renewable energies are far from being able to face the gargantuan market demand. For some member states and European politicians solar panels, wind turbines and hydrogen alone won’t even be able to reach the intermediate 2030 objective set by the Fit for 55 (-55% net emissions vs 1990), let alone the final target of zero net emissions by 2050.
As a result, on the last day of 2021 the EU Commission started consultations to draft a Taxonomy Complementary Delegated Act to include gas and nuclear energy within the EU Taxonomy, effectively accepting these two energy sources. A possibility that already emerged in the COP26 as we pointed out in The long and winding road. Not a small change if we think that exactly two years ago, on Jan 15th, 2020, the European Parliament approved with a large majority the Green Deal where the two sources were considered as not sustainable. Have we discovered something new about gas and nuclear, perhaps? Macron, first to support the inclusion of nuclear in the Taxonomy, should build this year a new radioactive high-level waste (half-lives of tens or hundreds thousand years) storing facility in Bure. They say that the town welcome sign reads: “twinned with Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile Island”. It’s the same Macron that at the time of the French elections promised to close 14 of the 58 nuclear reactors by 2035 in the name of energy transition and that now, for the same reason, proposes to open new plants and storage facilities.
Gas and nuclear will be considered as sources compliant with the energy transition until renewables will be sufficient. But let’s try to run some numbers: seven years are needed to build a nuclear plant and the average life of a third-generation reactor is estimated in 60- 100 years. How could this be considered a transition project, when the net zero target is set by 2050? Moreover building costs are so exorbitant that nuclear energy costs as much as three times offshore wind and as much as six times solar. One could say that the long operational life of a nuclear plant gives the time to pay back the initial investment but this too is a weak argument considering the average of a wind or solar farm and the fact that their production cost per installed kwh falls year after year. The truth is that the investments in gas and nuclear are crowding out those in green sources.
The EU Commission’s proposal brought about a dispute among member states (and not only) that support it, like France, and those that are against it, like Germany. A final decision has not been reached yet, but it’s easy to see the efforts in minimizing potential objections if we consider that the consultations have been opened on the last available day, leaving only 12 days (extended to 21 at the deadline) to the expert panel to express an opinion, and that 72% of member states are thought to be against the inclusion of gas and nuclear in the Taxonomy.
If today solar, wind and hydrogen technologies could address our energy needs, would Ursula von der Leyen include gas and nuclear among the sustainable sources?
Perhaps the answer would help us understand if the decision has been taken out of conviction or simply to face an immediate need for energy.
By the end of May we should know the final decision. Regardless, however, private investors may split between those who’ll follow the Taxonomy and those who, in line with the german minister for economic affairs and climate action Robert Habeck, will think of the inclusion of gas and nuclear as mere greenwashing. Different shades of green even within the Art. 9 funds.
Ideas are often born out of specific needs and with the best intentions. Sometimes, however, they turn out having unforeseen side effects that could prove counterproductive. Let’s think for example to plastic, invented at the end of the 19th century to replace billiard balls (produced back then with the expensive and controversial ivory) and whose development and diffusion has produced the environmental effects that we all know today.
The ETS (Emissions Trading System) is the main mechanism used by the EU to reduce the continental CO2 emissions by 2050. It is also one of the new and most important financing sources to repay the portion of Eurobonds issued with the Next Generation EU program and used to subsidise member states.
The system is relatively simple (EU ETS for more details). The EU sets a cap for the annual CO2 emissions that companies may emit in Europe, and issues one certificate for each tonne. As a result, every year the number of issued certificates will equal the emissions tonnes that companies are allowed to produce in aggregate. As CO2 emissions cannot be avoided and the EU doesn’t want to strangle its own companies, some of those certificates are allocated for free, while the others are auctioned. It should be pointed out that not all sectors are treated equally, because an IT company will definitely pollute less than a power plant and not all companies can avail of technologies to reduce their own emissions in the short- term: it’s easier for a power plant to produce energy from solar and wind sources than for an airplane or a ship to travel with electricity. That’s why the EU decides which sectors should fall within the ETS scheme and which should get a waiver (in the form of free allocation) for the time being. Every Apr 30th all companies of the sectors covered by the ETS have to calculate how many CO2 tonnes they have emitted in the previous year and hold an equivalent number of certificates to return to the EU.
To reach the carbon neutrality target by 2050, the overall number of certificates is reduced every year and the free quota is reduced, too. The faster the EU wants to reach the target, the stronger will be the annual reduction. Indeed, to implement the Fit for 55 program’s decision to increase CO2 reduction from 40% to 55% within 2030, the EU will accelerate the annual certificates reduction from 1.74% to 2.2%.
This looks like a virtuous circle, whereby companies that have emitted less CO2 will have more certificates than needed while the “bad guys” that polluted more will have to buy the missing certificates from the “good guys” or at the auction. Thus companies operating in the hydroelectric business or that produce electric cars may profit also from selling the excess certificates to the detriment of those that produce energy from fossil fuels or petrol-fuelled cars.
But… those certificates are also freely traded on the market: there’s a future contract (MO1 Comdty is the Bloomberg ticker) that tracks its price, i.e. the price of one CO2 tonne. As the EU accelerates on the certificates issuance reduction, hedge funds and other investment funds have started to bet on it, inflating its price. And it’s not only funds, as there are financial instruments that allow also retail investors to attend the party. This is entirely admissible in a world where other commodities such as oil are affected by the same behaviour, but the side effects may be controversial. Today, 80% of the energy still comes from fossil fuels. If the price of CO2 keeps rising, the companies that can’t immediately become “virtuous” will have to spend more to buy the certificates they need and may pass the cost on to their customers. About 20% of the gas price increase seen in the last few months is estimated to derive from the increase in the CO2 price, which has trebled since the start of the year.
Poland has already lamented the presence of financial speculators in the CO2 market. In addition, high gas prices make it relatively cheaper to use carbon as energy source, which in turn requires the purchase of carbon certificates and contribute to its price rise. What started as a virtuous circle risks then becoming a vicious one.
In addition to the ETS there’s also the CBAM (Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism), a scheme by which the EU intends to “carbon tax” selected products imported from outside the Union. This is to fight the “carbon leakage”, i.e. the import of products linked to CO2 emissions from countries that have not imposed sufficient carbon restrictions. Steel, aluminium, cement, electricity imported cheaply from abroad will see an increase in prices to protect the competitiveness of companies that produce only within the EU or in countries that participate to the EU ETS, such as Norway and Switzerland.
As a result of all this, companies operating in the covered sectors will have to pass on costs to their customers or tolerate a reduction of their profit margins: eventually someone will have to pay the 9 billion EUR due for the CBAM and the 10 billion EUR for the ETS. Or more, if the CO2 price keeps rising.
Although at least a couple of years will be needed to have efficient CO2 mechanisms, its effects may be felt well before then and, in a context where many talk about temporary inflation, these could stretch even more the time needed for a return to normality.
It is plausible that an increase of CO2 prices were a conscious objective of the creators of these schemes to push ahead in the energy transformation that is so much hoped for. However such a fast rise could prove to be the unintended consequence of a double-edged sword.
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