Many UK coal mines closed in the 1970s and 80s. Coal extraction was too expensive in the UK to compete with cheap imported coal and many consumers were switching away from coal to cleaner fuels. Today many shale oil producers in the USA are finding that extraction has become unprofitable with oil prices having fallen by some 50% since mid-2014 (see A crude indicator of the economy (Part 2) and The price of oil in 2015 and beyond). So is it a bad idea to invest in fossil fuel production? Could such assets become unusable – what is known as ‘stranded assets‘?
In a speech on 3 March 2015, Confronting the challenges of tomorrow’s world, delivered at an insurance conference, Paul Fisher, Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, warned that a switch to both renewable sources of energy and actions to save energy could hit investors in fossil fuel companies.
‘One live risk right now is of insurers investing in assets that could be left ‘stranded’ by policy changes which limit the use of fossil fuels. As the world increasingly limits carbon emissions, and moves to alternative energy sources, investments in fossil fuels and related technologies – a growing financial market in recent decades – may take a huge hit. There are already a few specific examples of this having happened.
… As the world increasingly limits carbon emissions, and moves to alternative energy sources, investments in fossil fuels and related technologies – a growing financial market in recent decades – may take a huge hit. There are already a few specific examples of this having happened.’
Much of the known reserves of fossil fuels could not be used if climate change targets are to be met. And investment in the search for new reserves would be of little value unless they were very cheap to extract. But will climate change targets be met? That is hard to predict and depends on international political agreements and implementation, combined with technological developments in fields such as clean-burn technologies, carbon capture and renewable energy. The scale of these developments is uncertain. As Paul Fisher said in his speech:
‘Tomorrow’s world inevitably brings change. Some changes can be forecast, or guessed by extrapolating from what we know today. But there are, inevitably, the unknown unknowns which will help shape the future. … As an ex-forecaster I can tell you confidently that the only thing we can be certain of is that there will be changes that no one will predict.’
The following articles look at the speech and at the financial risks of fossil fuel investment. The Guardian article also provides links to some useful resources.
Bank of England warns of huge financial risk from fossil fuel investments The Guardian, Damian Carrington (3/3/15)
PRA warns insurers on fossil fuel assets Insurance Asset Risk (3/3/15)
Energy trends changing investment dynamics UPI, Daniel J. Graeber (3/3/15)
Confronting the challenges of tomorrow’s world Bank of England, Paul Fisher (3/3/15)
- What factors are taken into account by investors in fossil fuel assets?
- Why might a power station become a ‘stranded asset’?
- How is game theory relevant in understanding the process of climate change negotiations and the outcomes of such negotiations?
- What social functions are filled by insurance?
- Why does climate change impact on insurers on both sides of their balance sheets?
- What is the Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA)? What is its purpose?
- Explain what is meant by ‘unknown unknowns’. How do they differ from ‘known unknowns’?
- How do the arguments in the article and the speech relate to the controversy about investing in fracking in the UK?
- Explain and comment on the statement by World Bank President, Jim Yong Kim, that sooner rather than later, financial regulators must address the systemic risk associated with carbon-intensive activities in their economies.