COP26, Regulatory Arbitrage and Greenwashing

COP26 finished last week and many readers may have lost interest in the issues it discussed long before it closed. There is just so much one can take from the scaremongers of global warming when most of us have more immediate concerns about health and wealth. But there was one announcement by Chancellor Rishi Sunak that could be seriously damaging to your wealth in the next few years.

This was his announcement that the UK will be the world’s first net zero financial centre. This will not just be political gestures but he is proposing the following to quote from his Treasury statement: “Under the proposals, there will be new requirements for UK financial institutions and listed companies to publish net zero transition plans that detail how they will adapt and decarbonise as the UK moves towards to a net zero economy by 2050”.

“To guard against greenwashing, a science-based ‘gold standard’ for transition plans will be drawn up by a new Transition Plan Taskforce, composed of industry and academic leaders, regulators, and civil society groups”.

In other words, this will not be another “greenwashing” exercise but impose specific obligations on companies. The fact that meeting net zero carbon is an impossible task for many companies in any realistic timescale it seems is likely to be ignored. Even attempting to meet that target will impose enormous costs on companies even those who are not big generators of carbon emissions. If you extend it to Scope 3 emissions (those include all indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain) then the reach will affect all sectors of the economy.

This will certainly put the UK in the lead in the attempt to restrict global warming whether you believe it is practical or not. But if such regulations are introduced in the UK one can imagine exactly what will happen as it seems unlikely that other major economies will follow that lead. China, the USA, Russia and India are very unlikely to impose such draconian measures. As many UK listed companies have an international focus they have no great need to be listed in the UK. They could just as easily be listed in the USA or other countries with more friendly or easy-going regulatory frameworks.

You might think this is just an attack on oil/gas and mining companies but it will have a much wider impact in reality. For example, one of the big consumers of oil are ships transporting goods around the world so anyone importing products for sale, such as retailers, would need to persuade the shipping companies to avoid using oil.

One thing is certain. Companies such as BP and Shell may simply consider that it is easier to move their listing to another jurisdiction or accept a bid from a private equity player who does not have concerns about their environmental credentials.

This is what Jeremy Warner had to say in the Daily Telegraph: “However much we might wish it otherwise, oil and gas will long remain our primary source of life enhancing energy. And yet the industry is being driven underground by politicians and regulators too cowed to stand up to the hysteria of the climate change activists. The enemy within is almost as bad as the holier than thou pressures from without; oil company boards, together with those of their bankers, are these days stacked with well meaning do-gooders more focused on bowing to the campaigners than the demands of shareholder value”. If you are a shareholder in BP or Shell (I am not) you may sympathise with such comments.

Such moves of listing may already be evident from the decision of BHP to move to a single listing in Australia rather than the dual listing at present.

Unfortunately with such companies being the bedrock of the dividend paying FTSE-100 companies there are few alternatives for some investors such as big pension funds to choose.

Personally I have been investing in alternative energy generating companies and battery companies because the latest announcements from the Government tell me that the hysteria over achieving net zero is now so widespread that it will have a big impact on the financial world. In addition the Government plans to spend many billions of pounds in financing green initiatives and not just in the UK. We have already contributed £2.5 billion as the biggest donor to Climate Investment Funds. Such funding imposes a heavy burden of taxation which will add to the above woes of companies domiciled in the UK.

The irrationality of the general public over climate change in the UK has no bounds. For the last 30 years the young have been taught in schools an extreme agenda which has also been promoted by the national media, particularly the BBC, and politicians are now pandering to the mood of the public. This scenario is going to make the UK a poor location for investment funds in comparison with other countries. Private investors should surely rebalance their portfolios to have less emphasis on the UK. At least that is the case while the mania continues.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson  )

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The Importance of Back-Up Power Supplies and the Net Zero Promise

The importance of having an alternative power supply came home to us last week when contractors laying a new electricity supply down our street cut through our gas supply pipe. But we were prepared for that kind of event as gas boilers frequently go wrong so we have a couple of electric fan heaters.

If they had cut through our electric supply or our internet/telephone connection we were prepared for that also. But this does demonstrate the folly of the Government wanting us to install electric heat pumps to replace gas boilers. With no electricity there would be no light nor heating. I would advise anyone who installs an electric heat pump boiler to ensure they have a traditional fireplace on which they can throw some logs in an emergency.

One of the big problems at present is that the Government has not taken reasonable steps to ensure that the country has alternative power supply sources whether it be coal, gas, nuclear, wind power, hydroelectric or from other sources. Clearly we have become over-reliant on natural gas from sources that have recently become very expensive. The potential for producing our own natural gas from fracking has also been missed due to political unwillingness to face up to the objectors.

The Government now seems committed to pushing ahead with a big new nuclear power station at Sizewell C and possibly other smaller nuclear reactors at other sites. See the recently published Government paper on its Net Zero Strategy (see reference 1 below).

That document is full of fine words but is the objective to totally decarbonise our economy really practical? Building nuclear power stations to generate electricity might enable the replacement of natural gas for heating and for the replacement of internal combustion engines in cars and vans, but will it actually be carbon free? It occurred to me that building a nuclear power station takes enormous amounts of concrete and steel, both of which currently require carbon-based energy sources to produce them.

A quick search of the internet produced a very good paper on this subject by the Ecologist (see reference 2 below). The author’s conclusion was that nuclear power is not low carbon if you take into account the “whole of life” emissions including those in the mining of uranium fuel and end of life remediation and storage.

In fact no alternative power sources are carbon free. Hydropower is one of the best but still generates 10 gCO2/kWh while solar PV and wind power might be considerably higher. There is no major power source that is carbon free so any objective to be “net zero” by 2050 is nonsense.

The projections also assume that future technology yet to be proven or even developed can produce steel and concrete with zero emissions and planes and HGVs can be powered by alternative sources.

Carbon emissions can be reduced to some extent no doubt by the use of selected generation systems with a focus on electrification and the planting of a lot more trees but nobody should be fooled that net zero is achievable by 2050. There is little discussion of the cost of rebuilding the economy in the way suggested and a lot of it will fall on the general public.

They have only just come to realise that the Government’s plans to stop the sale of gas boilers in new homes by 2025 and altogether by 2035 will mean massive costs to install electric pump boilers.

Of course 2050, or even 2035, are long in the future so promises and commitments can be made that are truly castles in the sky. But reality will sink in sooner or later.

As I have said before, the best and only truly effective way to cut carbon emissions is to reduce the number of people on this planet. At present the growth in world population and the industrialisation of lesser developed countries easily offsets the savings that might be made in carbon emissions by the UK or other western economies.

Reference 1: Government’s Net Zero Paper: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/net-zero-strategy

Reference 2: Ecologist paper on Nuclear Power: https://theecologist.org/2015/feb/05/false-solution-nuclear-power-not-low-carbon

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson  )

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Market Musings

The stock market seems to be positively benign at present, if not almost somnambulant. While certain sections of the economy have gone to hell in a handcart, the enthusiasm for technology stocks has not abated. My very diversified portfolio is up today at the time of writing by 0.4% helped by good news from Dotdigital (DOTD) today and a sudden enthusiasm for GB Group (GBG). Optimism about a more general recovery in the economy seems to be still prevalent.

It’s probably a good time to consider overall market trends with a view to adjusting portfolios for the future. It is very clear for example that the UK at least, if not the world, is heading for a “net zero” world, i.e. a world where we are not emitting any carbon which implies a very high reliance on electricity generated from wind, solar and hydroelectric sources.

Whether that can be achieved in reality, and in my lifetime, remains to be seen. Whether it is even rational, or economically justified, is also questionable. But now that the religion of zero carbon has caught on, I do not think it is wise for any individual investor to buck the trend. As with any investment fashion it’s best to jump on the bandwagon and as early as possible. So I hold no oil companies and few interests in coal miners, except where they are part of diversified mining companies who are also mining copper (essential for the new electrification) and steel (not easily replaced). But I have recently invested in “renewable infrastructure” investment companies of which there are several, and in funds that provide battery support and load smoothing systems. Wind farms and solar panels tend to generate intermittent electricity so there is a big demand for emergency sources of power.

There was a very good article by Bearbull in last weeks Investors Chronicle headlined “The Net Zero Perversion” on this subject. He commences by saying “It is surely the new paradigm – that economic recovery from the damage caused by the response to Covid-19 can only be achieved by a fundamental shift towards a zero-emissions future. This is stated as fact – that reducing greenhouse gas emissions to ‘net zero’ by 2035 will be the powerhouse of economic growth – when, of course, it’s just a contention; much like the complementary one that investing in companies that are wonderfully compliant in meeting their economic, social and governance (ESG) commitments will bring excess investment returns”.

He goes on to say, after some other comments that must have enraged the uneducated environmental enthusiasts: “Yet there is plenty of evidence that the pursuit of net zero is brimming with unintended consequences, which is what you might expect from a movement driven by a weird mixture of idealism and greed”. He points out that rewiring our homes and expanding the grid to cope with the new electricity demand might cost £450 billion, i.e. £17,000 per household. Similarly the banning of the sale of new internal combustion powered vehicles from 2035 just causes the pollution generated from the manufacture of electric vehicle power systems and associated mining activities to happen elsewhere in the world. But overall emissions might not fall.

This fog of irrationality and attacks on personal mobility via vehicles using the Covid-19 epidemic as an excuse is now happening in several London boroughs, encouraged by central Government “guidance” and funding. Roads are being closed. In the Borough of Lewisham, adjacent to where I live, road closures have caused increased traffic congestion, more air pollution and gridlock on a regular basis. There is enormous opposition as the elderly and disabled rely on vehicles to a great degree while in the last 75 years we have become totally dependent on vehicles for the provision of services (latterly for our internet deliveries). Councillors in Lewisham think they are saving the world from global warming and air pollution that is dangerous to health when they won’t have any impact on overall CO2 emissions and there is scant evidence of any danger to health – people are living longer and there is no correlation between local borough air pollution and longevity in London. Air pollution from transport has been rapidly falling while other sources (many natural ones) are ignored. Lewisham and other boroughs have partially backed down after a popular revolt but local councillors still believe in their dogma. There is a Parliamentary E-Petition on this subject which is worth signing for those who think that the policy is misguided: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/552306

The Bearbull article concludes with this comment which matches my opinion: “All of which means investors should preserve their scepticism. But they should also recall their purpose in investing – to make money, not to go to war with the climate change movement, however ridiculous they may see some of its follies. Sure, as consumers they should see much of the pursuit of net zero for what it is – another charge on their net income. But as investors they should see it as an opportunity to join the momentum and, at the very least, to park some of their capital in a fashionable part of the market”.

When it comes to investment, markets can be irrational for a very long time. That is surely the situation we are currently seeing with stock markets kept buoyant by a flood of cheap money and there being nowhere else to stash it. With traditional industries and businesses in decline, most of the money is going into technology growth stocks or internet shopping driven businesses such as warehousing. That trend surely cannot continue forever. But in the meantime, following market trends is my approach as ever.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson  )

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