Impact investing can mean many different things to different asset owners, depending on their investment priorities. For the nearly 4,000 global signatories to the Principles for Responsible Investment, the United Nations-supported organization representing more than half of the world's institutionally managed assets, the No. 1 issue is climate change, said PRI CEO Fiona Reynolds.
"They see both risk and opportunity," said Ms. Reynolds, who is based in London.
It is a common refrain from asset owners, managers and consultants.
"For those pension clients seeking thematic investing, their focus has tended to be around climate solutions like renewables, water access or sustainable agriculture,'' said KC Connors, partner and philanthropic practice director at NEPC LLC, St. Paul, Minn. "Public pension plans are exploring climate engagement as a theme and working to understand changing risk factors like weather and food supply chains and the related possible opportunities. If pension behavior mirrors what we have seen in the philanthropic sectors, we anticipate an increase in investments over the next few years."
A dramatic example of investor engagement on climate came in late May, when Exxon Mobil Corp. shareholders, backed by the three largest U.S. pension funds — the $463.9 billion California Public Employees' Retirement System, Sacramento, the $299.8 billion California State Teachers' Retirement System, West Sacramento, and the $254.8 billion New York State Common Retirement Fund, Albany — voted in three board candidates with experience in energy transition.
Investments in energy transition investments range from renewable energy sources like solar and wind to battery storage, hydrogen-powered electric vehicles and charging stations, and show up in various asset classes, including venture capital, growth equity and infrastructure. A recent Preqin report predicted that unlisted natural resources assets under management including investments related to energy transition could see double-digit growth by 2025.
"What resonates the most with us (is) investing in assets or business that facilitate the transition to a net-zero economy," said Connor Teskey, Toronto-based managing partner at Brookfield Asset Management who heads the firm's renewable power group and is CEO of Brookfield Renewable Partners. "Due to investor demand around the world, we think there is massive investment opportunity for returns."
He also sees a new asset class: transition investing. "What is become increasingly accepted is that simply investing in what is already clean and green is not going to solve the crisis," said Mr. Teskey. "We are entering early innings of what is going to be a multidecade growth in the market. We're quite excited."
While low-carbon investment is a timely opportunity, "we also recognize that you can't just tackle climate in a vacuum," said Nicholas Abel, investment officer at CalSTRS who co-manages the pension fund's sustainable investment and stewardship strategy.
With a goal of putting nearly $2 billion to work over the next few years, CalSTRS is looking to place $200 million to $500 million in affordable housing this year, $150 million in low-carbon private equity co-investments per year and up to $500 million in new low-carbon opportunities like reforestation, he said.