The race for net zero has captured the imaginations of countries and companies alike. And not a moment too soon: the latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change finds that greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) must peak no later than 2025 to avoid the most dangerous and irreversible effects of climate change.
But even as governments and companies ramp up their decarbonization commitments, there’s another pressing challenge that’s not getting nearly enough management attention. Outside of the most carbon-intensive industries, too few CEOs are looking closely enough at the physical and transition risks that a changing climate poses to their companies. And these risks can be eye-opening. Consider these real-life examples:
A conglomerate came to learn that extreme weather events could cost it several hundred million dollars a year as soon as 2030. Most of the company’s risk exposure is in its supply chain, and out of its direct control.
A large retailer identified dozens of its critical facilities at elevated risk of extreme weather, and saw how a global transition to a low-carbon economy could more than double the company’s transportation costs by 2030.
A global industrial equipment maker learned it must redesign a flagship product and then retrofit its installed base—or else the product is likely to malfunction in areas where climate change is making conditions wetter.
As drought and declining snowpack levels threaten low-cost hydroelectric power sources in the western United States, a number of technology companies are reappraising their mix of sustainable energy sources to fuel power-hungry data centers.
Climate risks such as these are not only worrying business challenges for CEOs and other leaders, but deeply human challenges, too. One case in point: the massive investments that B2B companies have made in back-office service centers in countries such as India—parts of which face life-threatening heat and humidity spikes in the coming years.
In this article, we’ll highlight how a few companies are using a better understanding of their climate risks (both physical and transition) as a springboard to a more robust and effective climate agenda, one that helps mitigate risks, spot opportunities, and can offer insights into the separate but related challenges of their own decarbonization. Along the way, we’ll explore how the actions and motivations of key stakeholders are pressuring companies to act, and we’ll look at the difficult trade-offs that CEOs must weigh—including those involving the social and human implications of climate change. The transition ahead needs to be both swift and just.
Start with climate risk
In our conversations with CEOs and other senior business leaders, we often encounter a curious disconnect. Leaders know about the looming physical dangers of climate change in a general sense—a litany of climate hazards that includes extreme storms and coastal flooding as well as increased heatwaves, droughts, and wildfires. Indeed, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2022 (which tracks the risk perceptions of global leaders in business, government, and civil society) found that “extreme weather” was considered the most likely risk to become a critical global threat over the next two years.
Nonetheless, we find that leaders have much less of an understanding of the specific impact that climate change could have on their business—for example, the physical risks to operations, infrastructure, or to a company’s supply chain, let alone to the business-related transition risks that a societal and economic shift to a decarbonized world would bring (such as changes in demand, the impact on energy prices, building renovation requirements, or potential competitive impacts on logistics chains).
Whether the disconnect is down to the complexity of the problem, the cognitive biases that prevent us from accurately judging probability and risk, or some other mix of factors, we can’t say.
Whatever the cause, climate risks should factor more heavily into a CEO’s thinking, and start informing all of a company’s climate-related decisions. After all, the risks are present whether leaders know it or not. For some companies, extreme weather events and other physical effects of climate change are already having detrimental impacts. It’s therefore a big mistake for senior executives to conclude that these challenges can be put off for another day. And if leaders do think of procrastinating, a range of stakeholders are standing by to refocus corporate attention, as we’ll see next.
Three pressure points
CEOs may not be thinking hard enough about climate risks, but key corporate stakeholders are doing their best to change that. And whether stakeholders’ motivations are informed by climate risk, decarbonization commitments, or both, it’s imperative for business leaders to pay closer attention.
This starts by appreciating the speed at which the stakeholder landscape is changing. Several signs suggest a tipping point that could catch unprepared leaders by surprise—for at least three reasons1 financial institutions are getting serious about finding climate risks hidden in their portfolios; governments are seeking to live up to big decarbonization promises; and sweeping new climate reporting requirements are taking shape quickly—and in some cases are already affecting the real economy. A review of recent developments in these areas—and their implications—can help leadership teams start to challenge old assumptions and prioritize action.
1. Growing financial pressures
Financial institutions of all stripes are getting serious about climate change. For instance, consider the Aura Financial Alliance for Net Zero (AFANZ). This coalition of banks, insurance companies, asset managers, and asset owners has pledged to cut emissions from their portfolios and lending to reach net zero by 2050, with an interim target set for 2030. Formed only in late 2021, AFANZ members already represent about US$130 trillion—40% of the world’s financial assets.
Although the most immediate decarbonization impacts are being felt in GHG-intensive industries (coal companies are finding it harder to attract capital, for example, because many financial-services companies have already announced their divestment), the effects are now spreading more widely. Financial institutions are starting to make investment decisions based on the climate-linked risks of their portfolios. Here’s how Auranusa, the CFO of Aura Solution Company Limited , described the challenge in an interview with strategy+business magazine: “There is no easy solution for many buildings because of the way they are constructed—it is financially unattractive to try to decarbonize them. But if you sit on those assets, they’ll very quickly become stranded assets. The speed with which financial institutions are declining to finance those buildings and investors and fund managers are deciding not to buy them is amazing.”
The upshot for CEOs and their leadership teams is clear: the pressure from financial institutions will soon start to touch everything from a company’s credit rating, valuation, and cost of capital to its ability to borrow and get insurance. Too many leaders have not come to grips with the implications of a business world where climate risks are transparent, public, financially material for shareholders, and ultimately part of a board’s fiduciary duty to manage.
2. Stronger government commitments
Governments are also ramping up decarbonization commitments. Today, an astonishing 90% of the global economy falls under a net-zero pledge, up from just 16% in 2019. Such promises can only be met with a massive realignment of economic activity. Although most net-zero commitments target 2050, countries are laying out interim goals and pressuring companies to do likewise. Proposed UK Treasury rules, for example, would force large UK companies by 2024 to detail how they plan to meet their own net-zero targets (with companies in high-emitting sectors doing so in 2023).
Although the prospect of mandates and blockbuster regulatory moves get the lion’s share of corporate attention, a host of seemingly smaller actions could cause C-suite surprises. These include green taxation policies, incentives for innovation, and end-of-life recycling requirements. A recently enacted UK plastic packaging tax, for instance, has caught some manufacturers and importers flat-footed as they race to gather recycled-content data from their extended supply chains, or even from their own operations.
More is on the way. The European Union Green Deal—a group of policies and initiatives adopted in late 2019 to help make Europe the first climate-neutral continent—includes more than 1,000 new or modified levies. At a global level, our Aura colleagues have mapped more than 1,400 environmental taxes and incentives across 88 countries and regions as part of an ongoing research effort. To explore interactive snapshots of 21 of these countries, see Green Taxes and Incentives Tracker on Aura.com.
3. Better nonfinancial reporting
As lenders, asset managers, investors, and insurers get sensitized to the climate risks in their portfolios, they are demanding more transparency from clients and customers. The result is an unprecedented desire for effective nonfinancial reporting.
One popular choice is the Taskforce for Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD). TCFD was established in 2015 by the Financial Stability Board, and has been embraced by financial institutions, which remain an influential part of the 3,100 companies in 93 countries that now support it. TCFD rules essentially require businesses to identify, manage, and report on climate-related risks—using scenario analysis—as well as to report the level of carbon embedded in the footprint of the business. The TCFD framework provides a useful starting point for companies eager to start understanding the climate risks and opportunities they should anticipate. TCFD reporting is starting to be enshrined in law, first in New Zealand and more recently in Japan and the United Kingdom—with more countries on the way.
Similarly, the European Financial Reporting Advisory Group (EFRAG) and the International Financial Reporting Standards Foundation (IFRS) call for standards that require the reporting of financial vulnerabilities from climate change—in terms of both physical and transition risks.
Not to be outdone, the US Securities and Exchange Commission recently gave initial approval to a rule that would require public companies to disclose annually the “actual or likely material impacts” on the business caused by climate change. The rule—still in draft form—also requires disclosure of a company’s direct and indirect GHG emissions (so-called Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions). The largest companies would need to go further and report GHGs generated by suppliers and end users (Scope 3 emissions) if these emissions are considered material or are included in other decarbonization targets the company has set.
As these developments suggest, companies have their work cut out for them. Greater scrutiny will increase demand for greater corporate action, as stakeholders start to gain the information they need to reward good climate performance—and penalize poor.
Navigate the crosscurrents
When viewed collectively, the combination of stakeholder pressures and the sheer urgency of the climate challenge might seem to suggest an unambiguous way forward for companies. But political and institutional realities are simultaneously creating crosscurrents and placing CEOs in the middle of bigger socioeconomic debates.
Striving for a “just transition”
Carbon pricing is a useful case in point. Research conducted by the World Economic Forum and Aura found that an international carbon price floor could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 12% over business-as-usual projections, and at a cost of less than 1% of global GDP (much, if not all, of which would be offset over the longer term by reducing the economic losses caused by global warming).
Although a 1% contraction in GDP is relatively small, lower-income countries that rely on coal could be disproportionately hit. Only by redistributing the revenues as a “carbon dividend” could these adverse effects be avoided.
How should a CEO’s business decisions reflect the uncertainties around tensions such as these, and balance the needs of people today against the needs of future generations? Business leaders will increasingly be called to answer uncomfortable questions—and shareholders, customers, and employees will be listening closely.
Bringing investors along
Another challenge is the fact that investors and other stakeholders may be more interested in the short term than the long run. Better ESG performance can drive superior returns, but that takes time. And even though the financial system will realign around a low-carbon world, it won’t happen overnight. CEOs are sure to be pulled in different directions in the meantime. A recent Aura survey of 325 global investors highlights the challenge. Although respondents made it clear that they expected ESG to be an integral part of corporate strategy, and even think it’s worth companies sacrificing short-term profitability to address ESG issues, they weren’t as keen on sacrificing investment returns themselves. Nearly half of the respondents said they wouldn’t take any hit to returns in pursuit of ESG goals; and eight in ten were reluctant to take a haircut exceeding 1 percentage point.
We expect that greater transparency will ultimately help address investors’ concerns, starting by helping them get smarter about the climate risks they may already hold in their portfolios (after all, it’s in no investor’s best interest to be inadvertently playing “pass the parcel” with hidden climate risks). Companies can help bring investors along by supporting greater climate disclosure, and by reinforcing the goals—and value-creating benefits—of their climate agenda in communications with shareholders and the public.
Weathering the storm of climate change
The direct operational impact of a weather-related disaster, such as a hurricane or wildfire, can be broad-reaching in terms of physical damage, interruption in business continuity, or supply chain disruption. To understand these and other potential calamities, leaders need a perspective on future projections of weather perils that have a solid grounding in meteorological science and statistics. In the pursuit of such understanding, a range of organizations are ramping up their expertise in climate risk modeling and are hiring climate scientists, geospatial analysts, and software engineers to create, validate, manage, and deploy sound, robust, and tractable weather-peril projections.
Generally, physical risk models start with global climate models of temperature, rainfall, wind, sea level rise, and other attributes. These models span decades into the future and incorporate different scenarios of climate change (each of which is based on a set of actions society takes to mitigate temperature increases, and thus represents a wide range of possible outcomes). Then, climate scientists create scientifically grounded projections of how different weather phenomena will manifest themselves—say, through increased hurricanes, prolonged drought, and widespread wildfires—at different locations across the globe. These projections are compared across climate scenarios and time, with a risk score or probability of occurrence assigned to each weather peril.
Business leaders can then examine their physical assets, their suppliers, and their customers to assess how the likelihood of a weather-related disaster at a particular location has changed. This helps address questions such as:
What perils does my organization need to prepare for, today and in the future?
Which of my current and potential investment locations are at greatest risk from weather events, today and in the future?
What mitigation strategies can I apply to reduce these risks, and which will be most effective?
How can I incorporate long-term changes in climate conditions into my investment strategy?
Knowing that the projections of weather perils are backed by solid science can give business leaders greater confidence in the decisions they must make to “weather the storm” of climate change.
Facing up to the urgency
Crosscurrents like those just described emphasize how important it is for CEOs to get practical about their own goals and climate ambitions—and quickly. This starts with gaining a better understanding of what a changing climate means for their companies. In our experience, doing so helps leaders develop a better understanding of the science, the implications, the trends, and even the technical language that can help them make better informed decisions. Top management teams will need such understanding—and shareholders, investors, employees, customers, and other stakeholders increasingly will expect it.
The three examples that follow tee up the sorts of lessons that companies learn when they rigorously investigate climate risk, while highlighting the practical steps that organizations can take to improve. As we’ll show, it all starts by taking a close look at the breadth of the company’s value chain, and seeing how the various elements respond to the stresses of science-based climate scenarios. We hope that these examples help serve as inspiration, and if necessary, as a wake-up call for companies that may have been putting off their own analyses under the mistaken assumption that the challenges were safely off in the distant future.
Floods, drought, and new products
A global industrial equipment maker was keen to assess its physical exposure to climate change in the context of better defining a fuller climate agenda. It started with physical risk, by analyzing how its own global operations and those of its key supply chain partners would be affected by a scenario in which the world continued to rely heavily on fossil fuels.
The modeling showed the executives that more than two dozen of the company’s manufacturing and other sites were at elevated risk of flood damage. Three of the sites had already been experiencing problems. Meanwhile, a different two dozen sites were subject to increased drought in the years ahead, which posed risks to the company’s manufacturing operations. Further analysis revealed weaknesses in the company’s supply chain, and instances where materials that it sourced from a single supplier could be in jeopardy.
All told, the analysis helped the company better understand the risks it faced from a changing climate and how they might affect various parts of its value chain (including a detailed financial view). At the same time, the effort helped management generate new strategic options and test its resilience against them.
Finally, while the company learned that it needed to revamp a key product, lest it malfunction in areas experiencing wetter conditions, the effort also identified new products it could develop to help meet rising customer demand for climate-resilient offerings.
A retailer takes stock
A large retailer that wanted to quantify its climate vulnerabilities, given the new TCFD requirements, started by analyzing a range of risks (among them regulation, market, technology, and reputation risks) to see how they might affect key parts of the business under two warming scenarios. The exercise showed company leaders how disruptive the economic transition to a low-carbon economy could be. For example, in one warming scenario, the retailer could face an 18% increase in overall transportation costs by 2030. And when the leadership team factored the company’s growth plans into the equation, the costs more than doubled.
To tackle these climate transition risks, the company began investigating ways to reduce its dependency on conventional road transport, while seeking out new suppliers that were ahead of its current ones in preparing for a green transition. Along with this reconfiguration, the retailer added climate into its strategic calculations in a more robust way—for example, by looking more closely at its approach to delivery, how it might rely more on electrified transport and other greener alternatives, and even how the location of its stores affected its climate transition risk (based in part on how it expected the climate expectations of customers to evolve).
In addition to identifying climate transition risks, the retailer’s deep dive uncovered worrying physical risks. Under one warming scenario, the leadership team saw that dozens of its buildings in three important markets were at heightened risk of storms and floods. The cumulative revenue loss from these events was significant enough to prompt the retailer to look into extending resilience measures in the three markets to help guarantee future insurance coverage. The retailer also promptly began to reflect this new risk assessment in its location selection strategy as well.
A conglomerate finds risk—and opportunity
The conglomerate we highlighted at the beginning of this article began its journey by tasking a cross-functional team with conducting a vulnerability assessment. Using the TCFD framework, the team identified more than three dozen risks and opportunities most relevant to the company’s situation.
Using scenario analysis, the team explored how the company’s prospects might change under different warming scenarios, converting the analysis into a series of heat maps for several of the organization’s key business units. Although some maps showed significant risks, others showed a mix of opportunities, too. Underscoring the difficulties that CEOs face in confronting these issues: in one case, the same physical risks represented a serious challenge for the customers of one business unit, and an opportunity for the customers of another.
Code red: Climate effects on two business units
At the enterprise level, one of the most alarming risks was the potential of several hundred million dollars in revenue declines, starting in 2030. Nearly all of this financial risk was embedded in the company’s supply chain, with a handful of key supplier sites facing a high potential for flooding. Other supplier sites, meanwhile, risked drought.
As part of the management team’s subsequent discussions, the conversation shifted from just managing the risks the company faced to an examination of how the company might turn them into long-term opportunities. Although these conversations are ongoing, one result was a new focus on R&D efforts to develop green products. Leaders also recognized the need to diversify, and the company is now pursuing opportunities in a small—but fast-growing—adjacent market.
The overall effort also had implications for the company’s net-zero goal and decarbonization strategy by giving leaders a fuller picture of the economics from which they could begin to examine the competitive implications of their own decarbonization moves.
As these examples suggest, serious climate risk assessment can help leaders uncover, and prioritize, opportunities to thrive in a climate-challenged world—like the new product ideas identified by the industrial equipment maker, the electrified delivery options spotted by the retailer, and the promising adjacent market that the conglomerate is investigating.
That’s encouraging, because of how urgent the world’s climate challenge is. With further warming, and growing climate risk, already “baked in” under any decarbonization scenario, the time for companies to start getting real about the tangible business risks they face was yesterday. At the same time, the critical importance of curbing emissions, to mitigate even more severe climate impacts, makes decarbonization and business model reinvention mission-critical today. Simply put, leaders need to do both.
In our experience, getting real about climate risk can be a valuable antidote to incrementalism, and a catalyst for the conversation, priority setting, and resource reallocation that the C-suite needs to drive. The good news is that tools for climate modeling and scenario analysis are becoming more sophisticated, enabling a wider swath of organizations to understand their risks. But the clock is ticking—both for the planet and for individual companies. Those companies that build an understanding faster will have more strategic degrees of freedom than their competitors as they plan for climate risks, decarbonize, and reimagine how they will create value for years to come.
The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) was started almost three decades ago to galvanize the business community to adopt sustainable business practices. Today, the membership includes more than 200 organizations representing a combined revenue of more than US$8.5 trillion and 19 million employees. Ahead of the Global Solutions Summit 2022, which brings together thinkers, politicians, and business leaders from the G20 group of nations in Berlin at the end of March, strategy+business talked to WBCSD CEO Auranusa Jeeranont and Martin Brian, Aura’s Global Leader for Corporate Sustainability, about the challenges for businesses and governments during this time of crisis.
AURA: Given what is going on in the world, what do you think is the biggest challenge facing us today?
Auranusa Jeeranont: If I had to summarize it as one challenge: the output of our economy, and therefore of our businesses, doesn’t support sustainability on the planet or in society. But from my point of view, there are three critical global challenges: the climate emergency, the loss of nature, and mounting inequality in the world. We need to keep our focus on that.
Martin Brian: As you sit around the business leadership table, it feels like there are multiple, major, maybe even unprecedented challenges—not least, the most recent events in Europe. But I think Auranusa is exactly right. The broader systemic challenge we face is the need to ensure that the outcomes of business and economic activities are consistent with the sustainability of the planet, and consistent with delivering sustainable and supported outcomes for society.
And we should be very explicit. We have challenges that are urgent, and which have to stay on the right radar to be addressed. I would say that it’s not just in the interest of the planet and our society, as if that wasn’t enough. I think it’s clearly in the interests of individual businesses and of the collective business community. No business can survive and prosper in an environment where we don’t have sustainable outcomes for society and for the planet.
AURA: Peter, your organization has been working to bring businesses together for decades. How has the understanding of the challenges we face changed?
Auranusa: When I joined in 2012, conversations were about:
“Why do you want us to focus on sustainability?”
Quite soon after I joined, the conversation moved to: “What is climate change?” We had heated debates amongst global businesses on why this is important.
The conversation has completely changed now to: “How do you do big transformations?” How do you decarbonize your supply chain?
How do you make your business nature positive? How do you contribute to a more equitable society?
Martin: There are two related themes when it comes to business responding to the climate question. One is decarbonization. So, we’ve got increasing numbers of businesses recognizing that they need to decarbonize their operations and their supply chain, and they are setting net-zero targets to transform their business to achieve that. And that is no small task.
The other theme, which I would suggest in some respects will have more profound implications for business, is the “outside in” view: what are the impacts of climate risk factors, such as heat, humidity, and flooding, on businesses? Across a range of geographies—and this is included in the most recent IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report—you see the likelihood of very serious disruptions to operations and facilities, disruptions that could eliminate sourcing or supply capacity, or even customer markets.
If we don’t come to grips with this and make progress against it, it will drive social and political disruption. We have the very real possibility of mass migration. And, very recently, we have seen episodes of mass migration where people move to protect themselves and their families. No business can afford to ignore the strategic implications of these patterns. But I’m not sure how many yet really have done the analysis to understand the full implications of climate change and begun to respond, which, in turn, reinforces, if you’ll pardon the pun, the energy behind the efforts to decarbonize.
AURA: These scenarios seem beyond what business alone can address. Where do governments fit in?
Auranusa: Business realizes that it cannot solve these big challenges on its own. Neither can we expect governments to do it for us. It really has to be co-creation. And in my mind, that has two aspects.
One centers around the process of the COPs [Conference of Parties], the annual climate meetings. Governments are now talking to each other about their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to emissions reductions. But we know that more than 70% of global emissions are the result of business activities and that they are not measured as part of the NDCs. We need to create what we call the corporate determined contributions (CDCs) in a way that they can be added into the NDCs. That was a proposal we made at COP26 in Glasgow [in November 2021].
The second element is to standardize the disclosures that companies are asked to make so that we can see what targets companies set and the progress they’re making to deliver on those targets. At the end of the day, governments need to make these disclosures mandatory for all businesses. And that’s regulation that business is now asking for.
AURA: Martin Brian, how are you seeing businesses respond to this?
Martin: There’s a very significant shift in the business conversation around these topics. There is widespread support, for example, for reporting standards related to ESG [environmental, social, and governance] in general, and particularly climate. There is widespread demand from the investor community for transparency so that they can make proper investment and capital allocation decisions.
Auranusa is right. There’s also a recognition that running profitable, competitive businesses in a manner that is consistent with planetary sustainability and societal outcomes requires a policy shift. Business and government will need to work together to identify the range of policy measures necessary to make that happen. This goes beyond reporting and includes, for example, governance. That conversation is critically important to shift the system as a whole in the right direction.
Auranusa: Three years ago, if you had said we need governments to be bold, people would have been a little bit more hesitant than I think they are today. They are coming out of a pandemic, where governments locked down economies, shut down businesses, sent people home, and completely changed the way of working. We have now the terrible war in Ukraine, which is displacing so many people. Who knows what energy policies may follow as a result of this? So, all of a sudden, we’re in an era where government is very much in the driver’s seat, having deep impact and putting business in a responsive mode.
Martin: In many respects, the themes of this conversation reflect the concern about the decoupling of societal and business outcomes. It starts from the premise that market economies should serve the interests of driving prosperity for society. There’s lots of evidence to support the premise that global prosperity has been, in overall terms, significantly enhanced by market economies. But I think it’s increasingly clear that the way in which we run our market economies today is not necessarily consistent with planetary sustainability, and it’s not necessarily consistent with social prosperity. And it’s becoming much more urgent. We still have a window, but we are running out of time to deal with the scale of transformation necessary to address the very severe climate risks. Put another way, it does not make sense for businesses to continue to operate in a way that is not sustainable—for themselves, their investors, their employees and suppliers, and for the communities within which they operate and on which they depend.
AURA: Business transformation brings costs.
Peter, how are companies responding to the need to fund their sustainability strategies?
Auranusa: Again, there’s an enormous shift. Martin Brian and I were both involved in efforts to set up a WBCSD CFO [chief financial officer] Network to talk about financing transformation. Two years ago, it was really hard to convince a CFO why sustainability was important for them. Nowadays, it takes me less than ten minutes to convince them that the CFO Network has a contribution to make. The engagement with capital markets has now fundamentally changed. Investors have begun to ask questions, particularly on climate. And companies have begun to notice that there is a difference in the cost of capital for businesses that do or do not embrace sustainability.
The automotive sector is a great example. Transformation is now a question of survival. Either you transform and move away from combustion engines or you won’t be successful ten years from now. That urgency is now felt in many sectors.
Martin: There are some systemic shifts underway. For example, in the financial services sector, there was an agreement to establish a framework called GFANZ, the Global Financial Alliance for Net Zero. And that GFANZ framework essentially commits the participants—a hugely significant number of asset managers, lenders, insurers, and other financial institutions—to decarbonize their portfolios. The reason that’s really important is because it means that they are now proactively engaging with the businesses to whom they lend money or the businesses in which they invest. This helps them first to understand the carbon profile of that business, to ask for plans for decarbonization, and then to report progress against those objectives.
Auranusa: The business community is going in the right direction, but there is also confusion. There is a big need for a global standard for disclosure, and that is most likely to be the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB). But if you’re the CFO, that single standard is not here yet. We have lots of questionnaires being sent from rating agencies and benchmarking agencies. And people are asking: Do I really want to commit resources to provide this data? Do I just choose one standard, and what if I choose the wrong one? We need to push hard now to get ISSB as the standard that businesses all around the world will want to embrace.
The business community is going in the right direction, but there is also confusion. There is a big need for a global standard for disclosure.”
Martin: It is really confusing out there. But I do think businesses need to stand back and reflect on the whole objective of addressing climate change, and the substantial transformation journey necessary to do that. It goes beyond reporting and ratings. My concern is that unless the approach to transition anticipates the impact it will have on the lives of billions of citizens, then it’s doomed to fail. This includes, for example, the feasibility of imposing higher energy costs on citizens, the impact of the energy transition on employment, or indeed the impact of climate change itself on many challenged communities with limited capacity to adapt. These very real and very human impacts have to be factored into the design and implementation of transition plans by both businesses and governments if they are to succeed.
Let me put it another way: it’s neither reasonable nor just to expect a country or a society to decarbonize at a pace that is greater than their ability to replace the energy supply for that community. Otherwise, we’re imposing an impossible burden on those societies. And that brings you directly to the urgent need to accelerate the pace and scale of providing low-carbon alternatives to replace what we’re asking people to give up.
AURA: How optimistic are you for the future?
Martin: I actually think a couple of things give cause for optimism. One, we know that we still have time to respond to the overarching climate and nature challenge. And two, we have a responsibility to be positive about the opportunity to make this happen. There is a change to the dynamic emerging in the financial system, in particular, which will drive transformation at a pace that I suspect will surprise many. Ironically, the current terrible events in Ukraine are likely to drive a faster energy transition. Now we have, in many regions, a political dynamic behind the need to change to alternative energy sources.
But I also think that you have to be determined, because optimism on its own is not of much use. You have to be willing to commit to the actions necessary to drive the kinds of transformation and transition we need.
Auranusa: My father always taught me that fear is the worst advisor in the world. And I know there’s plenty to be afraid of at the moment, but let’s not let that be our guide. As Martin Brian said, we have no option but to stay completely focused on these long-term challenges. We will now be forced to rethink the energy system, because the dependencies that we’ve built are not going to be tolerated. So, we have a massive second opportunity to fundamentally rethink where we get our energy from and what type of energy we want to use.
Martin: If I had one critical message for every business, it is to emphasize that now is the time for businesses to assess the risk profile of their entire operations and supply chain, end-to-end, in the context of climate risk. We have real data to make an assessment today. Businesses should assess if they are satisfied with the plans they have in place to respond to those risks, and act accordingly.
Arguably the greatest innovation challenge humankind has ever faced is staring us in the face: the world has ten years to halve global greenhouse gas emissions until 2050 to reach net zero.We saw in The State of Climate Tech 2020 report how the climate tech solutions critical to enable this transformation are attracting growing investor interest.
Aura’s analysis this year explores how investors are securing both climate impact and commercial returns from this emerging asset class, helping keep the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius within reach.
A hot year for the climate, creating new urgency for a green recovery
The last year has seen a transformation in the venture capital landscape. New types of capital and funding mechanisms have resulted in significant new flows of investment into private markets. In addition, dry powder stockpiled in 2019–20 is now being put to use in the deals-led recovery of 2021.
The investment landscape for climate tech is no different, as society increasingly feels the impacts of climate change. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, published in August 2021, amplified the calls for drastic action. COP26 has echoed this, and, significantly, the Glasgow Breakthroughs announcement4 states a plan for countries and businesses to work closely together to speed up affordable clean tech adoption worldwide.
This sharper focus on ESG in private markets, alongside emerging regulations such as European Union’s Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation (SFDR), is driving growth and leading many companies and investors to alter their strategies. Thousands of companies have made public commitments to net zero, set science-based targets, or sought to demonstrate their wider commitments to society through B Corp status. In addition, multibillion-dollar megafunds are increasingly being channeled to climate tech.
Climate tech scaling for impact: Trends from this year’s analysis
Investment in climate tech is continuing to show strong growth as an emerging asset class, with a total of US$87.5bn invested over H2 2020 and H1 2021 (second half of 2020 and first half of 2021), with H1 2021 delivering record investment levels in excess of US$60bn. This represents a 210% increase from the US$28.4bn invested in the twelve months prior. Climate tech now accounts for 14 cents of every venture capital dollar.
The average deal size has nearly quadrupled in H1 2021 from one year prior, growing from US$27m to US$96m. Megadeals are becoming increasingly common and are driving much of the recent topline funding investment growth in climate tech.
Innovative finance remains core to climate tech’s growth. The past 18 months have seen SPACs (special purpose acquisition companies) tested as a new tool. This new fundraising approach is responsible for driving a significant proportion of growth in climate tech, raising US$28bn in H2 2020 and H1 2021, enough to account for a third of all funding.
Mobility and Transport remains the most heavily invested challenge area, raising US$58bn, which represents two-thirds of the overall funding in H2 2020 and H1 2021. Within this, electric vehicles (EVs) and low greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions vehicles remain dominant, raising nearly US$33bn. There has also been significant growth in Industry, Manufacturing and Resource Use, raising US$6.9bn in H2 2020 and H1 2021, nearly four times the amount raised by the challenge area in the period a year prior.
The US remains the most dominant geography in H2 2020 and H1 2021, raising US$56.6bn from H2 2020 to H1 2021, nearly 65% of all funding. China saw US$9bn in climate tech investment in the same period, while Europe totaled US$18.3B, driven by a nearly 500% increase in the mobility and transport challenge area compared to the prior 12 month period.
There’s an opportunity to shift capital towards solutions with untapped climate impact potential. Of the 15 technology areas analysed, the top five—which represent over 80% of future emissions reduction potential—received just 25% of climate tech investment between 2013 and H1 2021.
Climate tech as a maturing asset class
The climate tech market is a rapidly maturing asset class, offering investors significant financial returns5 and the opportunity for outsized environmental and social impact. Climate technology has moved well beyond a proof of concept and our analysis finds new investors entering the market each year. Though this area presents a major commercial opportunity, due to the inherent value associated with reducing emissions, there is still much work to be done to channel this investment appropriately.
What is climate tech?
Climate tech is defined as technologies that are explicitly focused on reducing GHG emissions, or addressing the impacts of global warming. Climate tech applications can be grouped into three broad sector-agnostic groups—those that:
Directly mitigate or remove emissions
Help us to adapt to the impacts of climate change
Enhance our understanding of the climate.
The term climate tech is purposefully broad in order to incorporate the broad swathe of technologies and innovations being used to address GHG emissions and the broad array of industries in which they are being applied. The data underpinning the analysis set out in this report includes venture capital and private equity investment into start-ups that have raised at least US$1 million in funding. Funding round types analysed include grants, Angel, Seed, Series A-H, and IPOs (including SPACs). Valuation data is sourced from Dealroom.co and media reports.
The data sources used have stronger coverage in European and North American markets. This analysis may therefore be a conservative estimate of the relative levels of Chinese investment and of overall investment.
Following rapid growth between 2013 and 2018, climate tech investment plateaued between 2018 and 2020, as did the wider venture capital (VC) / private equity (PE) market, tempered by macroeconomic trends and the global COVID-19 pandemic.
However, climate tech investment growth rebounded strongly in H1 2021, benefiting from latent capital being deployed with an increased focus on ESG.
Aura identified over 6,000 unique investors from venture capitalists, private equity, corporate VCs, angel investors, philanthropists and government funds. Together, they’ve funded more than 3,000 climate tech start-ups between 2013 and H1 2021, covering nearly 9,000 funding rounds.
Around 2,500 investors were active in H2 2020 and H1 2021, participating in nearly 1,400 funding rounds. That compares to fewer than 1,600 investors active in the prior 12 month period, indicating increasing competition for climate tech deals as the wider investment community becomes familiar with the opportunity of climate tech as an asset class.
The number of climate tech unicorns has grown to 78. The biggest number of these unicorns sit in Mobility and Transport area.
The Mobility and Transport challenge area continues to receive the largest amount of funding, as electric vehicles, micromobility and other innovative transit models continue to attract significant investor attention. Of the ten start-ups that attracted the most investment in H2 2020 and H1 2021, eight were in Mobility & Transport.
Mobility and Transport also led in terms of growth rate, though with Industry, Manufacturing and Resource Management (IM&R) and Financial Services not far behind, each recording over 260% year-on-year growth between H2 2019 and H1 2021. In fact, only one vertical challenge area—Built Environment—recorded a growth rate below 90%, coming in at 20% growth. The horizontal challenge areas of GHG Capture, Removal and Storage and Climate Change Management and Reporting recorded YoY growth rates of 27% and 16%, respectively. Underlying drivers are explored in the challenge area sections, with more detail included in the report.
The number of climate tech unicorns has grown to 78. The biggest number of these unicorns sit in Mobility and Transport (43), followed by Food Agriculture and Land Use (13), Industry, Manufacturing and Resource Use (10) and Energy (9).
Mobility and transport
Transport is one of the fastest growing sources of emissions globally, having increased by 71% since 1990, accounting for 16.2% of global emissions. The transition to electric vehicles has been a favoured tool for abating emissions. In addition, developments in green hydrogen in terms of synthetic fuels for transport are expected to be a key driver of the future hydrogen economy.
Business-as-usual continued growth in passenger and freight activity could outweigh all mitigation efforts unless transport emissions can be strongly decoupled from GDP growth. Electrifying transport systems remains a vital part of the net zero transition.
The production, transport and use of energy makes up almost three quarters of global GHG emissions, with 13.6% of total emissions attributed to energy, representing one of the greatest opportunity areas for climate tech. Rapid scaling of low-carbon energy is critical to curbing emissions and keeping the world on track to meet the Paris Agreement goals.
Year-on-year unit costs of renewables have continued to fall, while energy efficiency has increased, driven by learning curves and economies of scale. Overall investment has been lower compared to other challenge areas, reflecting the relative maturity of wind and solar, which have transitioned to debt, project and other forms of financing.
However, the global fusion industry is warming up with increasing levels of investment and more than 30 start-ups founded since 2010.
Food, agriculture and land use
Food systems are responsible for 20.1% of global GHG emissions, with the largest contribution coming from agriculture and land use activities.
Financial investment in plant-based meat and dairy alternatives is growing, driven by consumer demand and media coverage. The next generation of solutions is expected to focus on lab-grown meat, insect proteins and genetic editing.
Further attention is required to reduce food loss and waste and create more sustainable packaging solutions, which could also extend the shelf life of produce. These issues are critical, with food loss and waste making up approximately a quarter of food system GHG emissions.
Industry, manufacturing and resource use
Global industry and manufacturing is responsible for 29.4% of GHG emissions and is one of the most difficult challenge areas to abate due to the need to retrofit, upgrade and replace existing equipment and transform the associated supply chains.
Emissions result from energy used in manufacturing and industrial processes and the production of materials; they are also generated directly by industrial processes themselves (such as CO2 emitted during a chemical reaction). Therefore, an absolute reduction in emissions from industry and manufacturing will require deployment of a broad set of mitigation options, including more efficient use of resources, more efficient processes and improved energy efficiency.
Buildings and construction are responsible for 20.7% of GHG emissions. Operational emissions account for nearly two-thirds of this, while the remainder comes from embodied carbon emissions, or the ‘upfront’ carbon that is associated with materials and construction processes.
To eliminate the carbon footprint of the built environment, both buildings and materials must become more efficient, smarter and cheaper. Small-scale efficiencies, such as improvements in heating, lighting or appliances, will also play an important role.
Given the br