One time only investment advice: go green

My blog is not especially meant for investors, there are masses of places where investors get advised on and off the internet, I don’t know anything about investment anyway and have never invested in anything in my life. So I thought it was time to offer some advice to investors. It is simple – the low carbon economy is where the future lies so turn to carbon-zero technologies for profits and a good, clean feeling.

This conclusion is based on research that essentially consists of what I heard and overhead at the Davos gathering of big business, politicians and others in the last few days. I have come away with one big abiding impression; I checked it with a few others who were observing from the sidelines like I was, and not all of them disagreed with me. It is as follows:

  1. Broadly speaking, nobody knows quite where the economy is and there are contending opinions about what the best policies are.
  2. Equally broadly speaking, there is widespread agreement about climate change and there is an emerging consensus about what needs to be done. There are many details to sort, and many devils among those details but the broad lines are clear and the rest will become clearer relatively quickly (it had better, or we shall all lose).
  3. Seen from a campaigning or a policy perspective, there are things that need to be done. From an investor’s perspective, these needs are opportunities.
  4. Most policy communities know – and the campaigners had better wise up to this pretty quickly or they will start getting in the way of things – that to meet green needs, business investment is essential.

I don’t want to get bogged down in arguing the case on points 1 and 2.  At one of the panels in Davos, the speakers agreed that, on the world economy, the big step forward since Davos 2008 was that “we now know that we don’t know what is happening.” These were IMF officials, finance ministers, senior bankers and financial journalists. So there’s agreement about lack of knowledge (remember that and compare it to the bold, confident statements that are demanded of anybody who takes part in political debate on the economic crunch).

As to climate change, yes, there are still huge uncertainties in the hard science and the models used to project the effects of global warming still leave some country-sized gaps in knowledge. Yes, there are people who still bang on about sunspots and so on. But with the Bush administration gone, it is perhaps easier to see what an enormous step forward in consciousness and consensus was made in 2007 when the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) came out with its Fourth Assessment.

  • First, it registered a much broader and deeper scientific consensus than ever before (note: the IPCC does not do scientific research on climate change; its Assessment Reports every few years assemble and summarise the findings of research in terms that are politically approved even by sceptical governments – so it represents a cautious, homogenised view, and one that is not able to take into account the last two years or so of basic research).
  • Second, it reflected consensus that climate change is already happening.
  • Third, with the main direction of climate models confirmed (and, by the way, no other theory explains what is happening with world climates as well as an explanation based on global warming does), there was consensus that the consequences will be more serious than previously estimated.

In response to what is happening with the global climate, we know that carbon emissions must be reduced by at least 50 per cent by 2050, including an at least 80 per cent cut by rich countries. And we know those targets may have to be made even more demanding as further data are entered into increasingly capable climate models.

So it is no stretch at all to conclude that there is going to be enormous demand for carbon-zero and carbon-near-zero technologies in the next 1-5 years, which is the period in which, unevenly between different countries, economic recovery will unfold.

And what that means, dear investors, is that it is good not to be distracted by remaining disputes and uncertainties about the science of climate change. And equally good not to be distracted by doubts about whether some of the major fast developing countries will go along with getting a new climate treaty agreed at the summit at Copenhagen starting on 7 December this year. Instead, focus on the prize and start to invest in companies – maybe even start-ups – that are developing the technology of carbon-zero energy production and carbon-zero transport, especially ground transport. Regardless of progress on the treaty, a good number of governments are going to give incentives for green energy and transport and regardless of any international deal, in many countries there is going to be large-scale public demand for these technologies. The market is going to be very, very big.

A few hints of what to look for:

  • In biofuels, beware crops need high quality farmland. Such biofuels have displaced food production and have also displaced poor people from use of common land. This double displacement led to significant problems in 2008 – rising food prices, people in fear of not being able to meet their basic needs, and consequently severe social unrest in many countries.
  • By the same token, look for biofuel production that uses marginal land, such as the jatropha bean, which grows in very poor soil, and which can run cars and was used by Air New Zealand in December to part-power an experimental flight by a Boeing 747.
  • At the same, go for carbon-zero electricity generation – wind, solar and wave especially, because both tidal and nuclear are going to be more subject to political hold-ups.
  • And go for electric cars and especially for companies looking to develop technologies that would support country-scale grids (or state-scale in the US) for recharging electric cars and other ground vehicles; that may be a more likely energy source for ground transport than biofuels and, if it picks up, will be massive.

There are plenty of technical details that need sorting out, but if you were to look for comparison at the history of railway development, we are now somewhere in the 1820s, but with a much more developed infrastructure that can cut three decades of building up to major railway investment down to less than one in rich countries where the big carbon reductions have to be implemented.

OK – probably my only ever post on how to make some money.

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