A six-foot rise in sea levels by 2100, oppressive summer temperatures, widespread drought, increasingly severe storms and disastrous floods are all predicted in a grim, comprehensive National Climate Assessment recently released by the White House. The implications to the environment, how you live your life and your finances are expected to be severe and manifold.
Sooner and Worse Than Expected
We've already seen significant impacts in far reaches of the globe. And in the U.S., some regions already have seen average temperatures rise by as much as three degrees. East Coast residents are seeing increased flooding and lost beachfront. Texans endure summers with dried-up lakes and watering bans. Drought are more drastic and longer-lasting. The effects are almost too numerous to comprehend.
For example, research conducted after the 2001 Pacific Northwest drought brought to light how hard climate change can hit certain industries. The World Resources Institute found that brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev (NYSE:BUD) was hit especially hard. It's product is 90% water, barley became scarce and pricey due to curtailed irrigation, and even aluminum cans became more expensive, as hydroelectric power needed to make the metal increased in price.
Add to that how climate change could hit insurers and you'll see the full extent of the knock-on effect.
Best Bets for Cleaner Energy
While responses to the landmark climate change report may not make immediate ripples in the stock market, there is a growing movement toward divesting from fossil fuel production in favor of alternative energy generation. The latest to do so is Stanford University, which will sell off the coal-related holdings in its $18.7 billion endowment and not make future direct investments in companies that engage in coal extraction as a primary activity.
But where to go from there? Investing in renewable energy projects has long been seen as a risky proposition: the high capital investment in complex infrastructure for wind, solar and biomass technology has meant that for green companies, expenditures have often outweighed profits.
Renewable energies, from an investment perspective, have always been measured by a tough yardstick: returns on investments were held against comparable expenditures generated by traditional energy sources like coal or oil, which remains highly profitable.
Growth in Renewables Abroad
Investors in renewables should take a long view and cast a wide net. The global alternative energy market is poised to take off in a few places and in others it’s already booming. Ren 21’s Renewables 2013 Global Status Report sees significant growth opportunities in renewable technologies in Brazil, Canada, Germany, Spain, Italy and India.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme’s 2014 Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment Report, worldwide investments in the renewables sector rose steadily from $40 billion in 2004 to $279 billion in 2011. In 2012 and 2013, however, total investments decreased by 11% and 13%, respectively. Those drops could have more to do with the increased cost-effectiveness of photovoltaic systems rather than lack of interest, however. The renewable energy market demands a more nuanced appraisal, the report contends.
Amid longstanding concerns that renewables rarely return high ROIs, recent statistics by the Environmental Leader suggest that few companies that have embraced renewable energy have actually seen their investments crash. Even with gains leveling out, the alternative energy sector still performs. Green ETFs have seen promising gains over the past year at a healthy average of just over 50%. Leading examples include the Wheaton, Ill.-based First Trust ISE-Revere Natural Gas Index Fund (NYSE Arca:FCG) and the iPath Global Carbon ETN (NYSE Arca:GRN).
China’s Green Revolution
Those interested in exploring the renewables sector farther afield would do well to look to China, which in 2013 surpassed Europe in overall renewable energy investments ($56 billion) and now leads the world in the development of renewable resources. Yet as the country’s carbon emissions continue to surge, environmental leaders question whether even aggressive efforts in green technology will make a dent in China’s historically dependent relationship on coal. Even now, China relies on coal for about 65% of its energy needs.
Solar Still Hot
If you’re willing to jump in the market, solar technology remains an up-and-coming area in the alternative energy sector. Rival Chinese manufacturers Yingli Green Energy Holding Co. (NYSE:YGE) and Trina Solar Ltd. (NYSE:TSL) are leaders in the global solar segment.
Among solar-oriented funds heavily weighted towards China, several have shown recent encouraging returns. Market Vectors Solar Energy ETF (NYSE:KWT) with a 19.5% allocation towards Chinese companies, and Guggenheim Solar (NYSE:TAN) with 36.9% Chinese holdings and just over 10% in Hong Kong, have both more than doubled in value over the past 12 months.
Staying Close To Home
If you want to go solar but can’t stomach the recent volatility in the Chinese renewables market, it wouldn’t hurt to look closer to home. Among North American solar outfits, Tempe, Ariz.-based First Solar, Inc. (Nasdaq:FSLR), which provides photovoltaic solar systems to the international market, has so far had a banner year. The company's net income of $112 million in the first quarter represents a 66% increase. In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, First Solar cooperated with Japanese technology companies to build solar power plants as the country began decommissioning its nuclear power plants. Japan's renewable energy market grew by 80% last year.
Things are also looking up for Guelph, Ontario-based Canadian Solar Inc. (Nasdaq:CSIQ), which this week set revenue projections at between $415 and $430 million, exceeding previous estimates.
The Bottom Line
Preparing your portfolio from climate change will take some patience and a nuanced approach. The economies of the world can't simply go cold turkey on hydrocarbons overnight. But committing to replacing some traditional energy investments with renewables can be a good first step. A good second step is considering who stands to lose big from climate change and who stands to benefit, such as the infrastructure sector, and adjusting your portfolio accordingly.