Cockatoo Chronicles

China confronts the limits to growth

Economic growth is slowly but surely coming to an end, not for a few quarters or years, but to an end. It will still take some time given the mighty momentum behind it, as well as the power of our denial, but the signs are clear that both processes have begun.

Let me be clear that I’m not talking here about the long philosophical debate on the relative merits of growth – that rich countries getting richer does not improve their quality of life. What we face now is not a political choice – it’s too late for that. We have put in place the processes that will force the end of growth and nothing can now be done to change course.

China is perhaps the best example, exaggerating all that is good and bad about the growth model. We have seen spectacular rates of growth in recent decades and with it, many hundreds of millions of people being brought out of poverty. These people are now enjoying the fruits that global growth has delivered to many of us over the last century in technology, health and easy access to food. On the other hand China has paid an enormous price for this growth, in air pollution, degraded soil quality, spoiled waterways and longer term risks to food supply. It is now even taking from the USA the ignominious title of being the world’s largest current contributor to climate change (though we mustn’t forget China’s per capita emissions are still dwarfed by the pollution rate in the OECD countries).

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The Great Disruption has arrived

Why didn’t more of us see it coming? After all, the signals have been clear enough – signals that the ecological system that supports human society is hitting its limits, groaning under the strain of an economy simply too big for the planet. But we didn’t and, as a result, the time to act preventatively has passed.

Now we must brace for impact. Now comes The Great Disruption.

It is true that the coming years won’t be pleasant, as our society and economy hits the wall and then realigns around what was always an obvious reality: You cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet. Not ‘should not’, or ‘better not’, but cannot.

We can, however, get through what’s ahead – if we prepare. I wrote my forthcoming book, The Great Disruption, to help us do that. My conclusion in writing it was this:  not only can we make it through, we can come out the other side in better shape.

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How free market advocates have delivered us big government

We all know the argument; Governments are inherently ineffective at guiding markets and will always screw it up when they try to. Markets, the argument goes, are inherently more efficient at picking technologies and responding to constraints, so should be left to do their thing.

People who want to resist change, for any number of reasons, latch on to this argument as another excuse to avoid action on climate. After all, even if climate is a problem, government will surely get it wrong if they try to fix it. It is this argument, along with climate scepticism and the over-riding priority given to economic growth, which has, in various combinations, been used against climate action since the threat became clear in the late 1980’s.

Yes, we forget how long this problem has been in the mainstream debate. It was back then that the pro-market, conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher argued: “The danger of global warming is as yet unseen but real enough for us to make changes and sacrifices, so that we do not live at the expense of future generations.”

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Coal crash coming?

The very conservative International Energy Agency has just released its closely watched annual World Energy Outlook (WEO), with forecasts for the structure of the energy market through to 2035. This year’s WEO was much anticipated, given the pace of developments in renewables and climate policy, and it didn’t disappoint. The report included the IEA’s interpretation of what major governments’ commitment to a 2°C temperature target would mean for the energy market. The contrast with what most market players assume, particularly coal companies, could hardly be more dramatic.

One global coal player, Peabody, recently told the World Coal Conference that it assumes demand for coal will increase by over 50 per cent by 2030. The IEA on the other hand tells us that if we are to have a reasonable chance of limiting warming to 2°C degrees, coal demand will have to peak by 2020, and by 2035 will have dropped to levels last seen in 2003. These are dramatically different views of the market and the implications for company valuations, and therefore for investors and corporate strategy, are considerable.

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Are the Financial Markets Turning on Climate?

The future is now closing in on us rapidly and the resulting shifts in investment markets are gathering pace. When Phil Preston and I started working on the paper we released here last week, Carbon Induced Financial Disruption, the idea we were advocating – of disruptive change in financial markets driven by market’s pricing in carbon risk – seemed like a radical one. That was just March this year, yet six months later similar ideas are taking hold across the mainstream market and in the business press.

In June this year, Deutsche Bank said they thought that, in Europe, “coal is basically out of the game as a new build choice with carbon prices above €30/tonne”. This level now seems inevitable if we’re to come anywhere close to agreed policy targets for emissions. As reported in Climate Spectator last week, analysts from Citigroup have started looking at how individual company share prices might perform if governments take strong action on carbon emissions. I think such action is inevitable if we pursue the 2 degree temperature target governments have already adopted. We are even seeing major global coal miners like BHP Billiton acknowledging the inevitability of a carbon price and encouraging it to be brought in sooner rather than later to ensure countries like Australia can maintain competitiveness in a low-carbon economy.

The mainstream business press is also starting to raise the future of climate policy as a consideration in investment decisions. In Australia, the offer documents in the planned privatisation of Queensland Rail through a public float features the coal they carry as the key selling point. They proudly point to the enormous volumes of coal that underpin the business – around 200 million tonnes in 2010. The business press meanwhile is raising the risks such a focus on coal poses to investors if strong carbon pricing is put in place, quoting analysts views on the subject. While it is true that most analysts still believe coal has a rosy future, the fact that it is being incorporated into their thinking at all is a major shift compared to just a year ago.

Of course if governments can off load carbon-exposed assets to investors that’s good news for taxpayers, but it’s bad news for investors who don’t take account of carbon risk.

Another interesting development is that some of the luminaries and elder statesmen of the investment world are stating to pay attention to these issues. In July this year legendary contrarian investor, Jeremy Grantham published his views on climate change. With his company GMO managing around US$100 billion in funds, other investors take his views very seriously. While Grantham acknowledged it was still tough to know how to make money out of climate change, he made the case that investors need to rapidly answer that question because “global warming will be the most important investment issue for the foreseeable future.”

Then, last week, Bob Litterman, the former head of Goldman Sachs’ quant group and an MIT economics professor, suggested in a speech to sovereign wealth fund managers that unpriced carbon risk could be the next financial crisis to grip global markets. The speech makes fascinating reading for those who want a financial analysis of carbon risks in the global market and why, when change happens, it is likely to be sudden and dramatic, as Phil and I argued in our paper, not slow and steady as most investors assume. If you want to see Litterman’s full analysis you can read it here.

The implications of all this however are not just the risks for fossil fuel investments but the enormous upside inherent in the transition to the new energy economy. The smart money senses the time has come and billions are now flowing into renewables, getting ready for the inevitable boom that will be driven by the transition. With over $100 billion invested per year in both 2008 and 2009, we are now talking serious money. Of perhaps even more significance was that in both years more money was invested in new renewable power capacity than in new fossil fuel capacity, indicating a tipping point has been reached.

The context here is key to understanding what’s to come. We haven’t actually decided to fix climate change yet, with much policy action stalled both globally and in key markets like the United States. This means what we are seeing now is just a small taste of what’s to come when we really get moving. As Jeremy Grantham argued, this is the most important investment issue around and as Bob Litterman points out, the process of change will not be slow and smooth but late and sudden. Given it is already “late”, it’s now time to hold on for the ride. But you might want to make sure your investment portfolio is ready.

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