Here’s why investors need to pay attention to the environment

As emerging countries get richer, they are increasingly demanding a cleaner world. That, as John Stepek explains, is creating opportunities for investors.


Smog is serious business in China

Norway has a massive sovereign wealth fund built on the back of oil wealth. It's the world's largest. In total, it owns 1.3% of all global listed companies.

Now, reports the FT, it's planning to pull investment out of companies "whose business relies more than 30% on coal, measured either by revenue from fossil fuel or the percentage of power they generate from it".

The government will be voting on the move next week, but it's apparently likely to pass.

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So is this just gesture politics? Or is it more significant than that?

The divestment campaign

Now, it's easy to be cynical about all this stuff. Green' politics is often associated with radical and impractical ideas, advocated by people who believe that shouting loudly and self-righteously enough is all it will take to prove the self-evident correctness of their views.

And to be honest, selling coal investments at the moment would be pretty much in keeping with typical fund manager behaviour. They've fallen a lot it's a wonder there's still anyone left hanging on to them.

But it's equally pig-headed as an investor to take an ostrich-eye view, and pretend that environmental questions don't matter. They do, and if you ignore them, it'll impact on your portfolio.

The rise of the global middle class

Defining middle class is a bit tricky, particularly in Britain, where it's mostly used as an insult.

But for our purposes, I think we can define the global middle class as being that group of people who can more than meet their basic needs of shelter, sustenance and security, and still have enough left over to give a damn about quality of life. (They're climbing up Maslow's pyramid, if you like.)

The nice thing is that as emerging countries get wealthier, there are more and more of these people. That's a good thing. That's the whole point of economic progress and development. And as an investor, you can and have been able to make good money by investing in companies catering to the needs of this ever-growing group.

Of course, as most of us will recognise, as you get better off, your priorities change. And as more and more people start to care about quality of life rather than securing the basics, they're a lot less willing to put up with the sort of stuff that they or their parents once did.

You don't really care about choking in the odd bout of toxic smog if you're just grateful to have a job and to know where your next meal is coming from. But once you advance to a standard of living where you're worrying about things like your children's education, the provenance of your food, and whether you should be going to the gym more well, toxic smog is a serious business. And you're going to expect your government to do something about it.

That's exactly what's happening in China right now, and has been for some time. It's a messy process (as the wild fluctuations in alternative energy stocks demonstrates) and it won't be smooth. But tackling overt pollution is vital to keeping the people happy. And that means the government will take it seriously.

In short, if you're a believer in the general themes associated with a wealthier global population rising demand for food, expanding mass tourism, a growing market for mid-range luxury' goods then it's only logical to incorporate demand for a healthier, more pleasant environment into that.

I'm not saying for a moment that we're all going to be heating our homes with solar panels and driving battery-operated cars by the end of next year, or that China's water system won't still be near-lethal in many areas for decades to come. And I'm sure there'll still be a market for coal for quite some time, given the poor forward planning endemic in most government energy policies.

But things will change. And it's worth making sure that your portfolio is prepared for that. Our regular contributor Jonathan Compton has a lot more on how to profit from the fight against pollution in the current issue of MoneyWeek magazine, out today. If you're not already a subscriber, get your first four issues free here now.

John Stepek

John is the executive editor of MoneyWeek and writes our daily investment email, Money Morning. John graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news. John joined MoneyWeek in 2005.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.