In this Episode
According to a 2022 poll from the Associated Press, although 93% of Americans acknowledge that human activity impacts climate, nearly half of Americans (47%) feel that their actions don’t have an impact on climate change. And yet, we know – it is the collective momentum of tiny particles of snow that drive an avalanche.
In our upcoming episode, Climate Now sits down with James Regulinski, co-founder of Carbon Collective, to discuss the role of investing – even among individual, “retail” investors – in determining the pace at which clean energy technologies can replace our global dependence on fossil fuels. We will discuss why investing in your retirement and investing in clean energy technologies can be well-aligned endeavors, why most environmental, social and governance (ESG) investment portfolios aren’t having the impact they should, and why even small investments can make a big difference in accelerating the path to decarbonization.
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In the 2019/2020 fiscal year, the global climate finance sector reached a record 632 billion US dollars. Unfortunately – that is a little short of the more than $3 trillion US dollars needed each year to keep warming under 2 degrees C, according to the I
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Disclaimer from Carbon Collective regarding the use of MSCI data to develop ESG funds:
The claims Carbon Collective makes are:
- MSCI explicitly states that their data should not be used to determine how good or ethical a company is, just as supplemental data to understand its exposure to risk from ESG-related issues. This means the use of the data as a measure of how ethical your portfolio is, is not supported by the data provider, even when it is sold as such.
- MSCI (and other data providers) use data that is self-reported by the companies. This data is not standardized or verified by MSCI or anyone. The result is data that is noisy/inconsistent. When used to build funds, the fund design is inconsistent with scientific reports of the actions we need to take to address the E of ESG. For example, the IPCC report states that if we want to stay below 2 deg warming (which is already disastrously high), we can not invest any new money in fossil fuel exploration or reserve development. However, funds using MSCI data routinely have oil and gas companies. This is not MSCI’s “fault,” but it is an artifact of using that data.
- When you use single-factor scores to judge a company, unrelated factors can “balance” each other out. So a high S score can balance a low E score. This can also lead to the inclusion of companies that are inconsistent with models of how we solve climate change.
James Lawler: [00:00:00] Welcome to Climate Now, the podcast that explores and explains the ideas, technologies, and the solutions that we’ll need to address the climate crisis and achieve a zero-emissions future. I’m James Lawler. To sign up for our newsletter, which goes out every Tuesday morning with the link to the latest episode, background information, and links, you can go to climatenow.com and subscribe there. To get in touch with us, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We love to hear from our listeners. For today’s episode, we’re speaking with James Regulinski, who is co-founder of Carbon Collective, an online investment company and investment advisor with a focus on climate impact.
We’ll get into how climate-friendly “ESG” investing really is. Here’s a preview:
James Regulinski: And if it says ESG, well what are the methodologies they’re using? What companies did they- are actually in that fund? Does that align with your understanding of their- of what they’re trying to do? And a lot of times it comes up with nonsense answers.
James Lawler: But first, it’s time for our news [00:01:00] segment: This Week in Climate News.
Now, it’s time for our interview segment. James Regulinski studied engineering in college before going to work at several environmentally-focused startups, including a company working on gasification of organic matter to generate electricity. About two years ago, James co-founded the climate-focused investment advisor, Carbon Collective.
Over the course of our conversation, we’ll discuss the landscape of environmental, social, and governance or ESG investing, and how Carbon Collective’s approach differs from that of larger money managers like Vanguard. We’ll discuss Carbon Collective’s theory of change, as well as the historic returns from clean energy companies.
Finally, we’ll get into some of the arguments for and against divesting from fossil fuels and why Carbon Collective views divestment as an important tool in combating climate change.[00:02:00]
James, welcome to Climate Now. It’s great to have you on today.
James Regulinski: No. Thank you so much for having me.
James Lawler: So tell us, what is Carbon Collective? What do you guys do?
James Regulinski: Carbon Collective is an online-only investment advisor, and we started out with this goal of “how do we move as much money as we can from the current economy into one in which we are solving climate change?”
Now, the one in which we’re solving climate change is one that’s been modeled out by people who are- who’ve been doing this for a long time, like Project Drawdown, which we drew a lot of inspiration from. And there’s a- kind of a clear path of what we need to do. We need to stop investing in any new oil and gas infrastructure.
We need to be investing very heavily to the tune of $5 trillion a year in technologies that will transition us away from that, make our economy non-dependent on that, and we need to do this fairly quickly. But that- all those models, both, like, what Project Drawdown has done, what the International Energy Association and other models of- the sort of “what do we need to do as a society?” scope.
They generally rely on existing technologies in those models. So we’re not looking at a moon shot, we’re not [00:03:00] looking at um, oh, we have to get, uh, fusion up and running to solve this problem. It’s saying, with the technologies we have today, what would we have to do?
And that’s how you get to those numbers around sort of the $5 trillion a year investment. But that means that we need an investment from a lot of different sources happening relatively quickly. And at the time when we started the company, we didn’t see that happening on a government scale. That’s one way in which we make large changes.
We sort of say collectively, “what are we doing with human resources, intelligence, time”- government policy shapes that, uh, I joke that the other big one is religion, but in the US, it’s economic forces. It’s “how do we invest?”. And the investments that we as individuals have is small when we think about our own money. It’s often, we’re not talking about trillions of dollars, we’re talking about hundreds of thousands, maybe millions if we’re lucky.
But when you look at all of the money that’s invested in 401(k)s and in um, IRAs, that money does start to make a difference. And it is at the magnitude that we’re talking about, however, it also will start [00:04:00] to leverage- it can change the narratives around investing. And those narratives then shape how other money- how institutional dollars are invested and so forth.
So that was the, that was the impetus for why Carbon Collective. Now, what Carbon Collective does for an individual is maybe a little bit different than why we started it. So as an individual, we, we have the same mission. We’re still divesting your money from fossil fuels, proactively investing in climate change solutions, but we’re also helping you create financial security.
We’re helping businesses and companies deal with the complexities of having a 401(k) while offering better perks to their clients. So we have both the, the larger mission saying, “this is what drives us, this is our passion, this is what we know needs to happen in the world”.
But we also know that every individual has that tension. They have the imagined world they wanna live in. This is the world in which we solve climate change, and they have the realities that we currently live in a system- a capitalist system that requires them to be proactively saving and investing if they wanna retire, if they wanna have that security net.
James Lawler: Yeah. So, so James, how does, how does Carbon Collective [00:05:00] differ from, let’s say, a platform like Vanguard or some of the others that allow you to choose sort of an ESG-oriented basket of assets to put your funds into?
James Regulinski: Yeah, so ESG is an unregulated term. And it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.
And so it’s a hard term to look at and be like, ah, I see ESG, therefore I know they, they are doing what I expect them to be doing. Now, people have internalized, most retail consumers (retail is the, the technical, the financial term for like the average person investing). You’re not an institution, or retail investors.
We see that and say, “oh, if I invest in ESG, I’m investing in making the world better. The reality is ESG can mean anything from “I’m proactively screening out bad companies. I’m proactively putting in good companies”, but it can also mean “I’ve taken into consideration the downside risks of environmental, social, and government’s concerns on this stock.”
So [00:06:00] like what is the risk that, you know, of climate change to this company being able to do its core business? Well, the, the risk to a company doing its core business as a relation to climate change has nothing to do with building the world that we wanna live in. Has nothing to do with making a better world, has nothing to do with the ethics of the company.
And that is a permissible use of the term, I think in the most extreme cases where we think of it as the most greenwashing, it is simply the acknowledgement. And then it runs the gamut of the acknowledgement, they have a plan, they’re taking into consideration, they’re taking steps, they’re the best or worst performer within a category. So like, the best-performing oil company when it comes to environmental, social, and governance concerns.
Now, I don’t see a plausible model for us solving climate change, an incredible model in which we expand- we continue expanding fossil fuel production at this point.
James Lawler: Right.
James Regulinski: So saying that you are the best within that field doesn’t really help us on this larger question around investing in a sustainable and environmentally appropriate way.
Um, and I think that’s what I, you know, recommend to people when they look at [00:07:00] what they’re investing in. If it says ESG, well, what are the methodologies they’re using?
James Lawler: Right.
James Regulinski: What companies did they- are actually in that fund? Does that align with your understanding of their- of what they’re trying to do?
And a lot of times it comes up with nonsense answers.
James Lawler: Right. It’s kind of like you have this train that’s hurdling down the tracks toward us, and you have two options. One, to invest in companies that directly stop the train and the other to invest in companies that acknowledge the existence of trains.
James Regulinski: That’s a, a remarkably good analogy. I’d only put out that, unlike other environmental problems that we faced in the past, like, this is a problem where we kind of need to be building a second rail. Like we’re, we’re on tracks that are going towards a cliff and we kind of need to build another set of tracks to, to move the train a little bit because there’s no- like nobody is, nobody’s stopping this train.
James Lawler: Right.
James Regulinski: The train is gonna keep moving. Um, and when I say that, I mean like literally the status quo is, is bad for the environment and everything that would shift our economy away is more work. Like, we are going to be building new things, new [00:08:00] infrastructure, new buildings, changing existing infrastructure, building out more energy production, energy storage, transportation like these, these- it’s an investible.
It is a proactive act.
James Lawler: So James, how is Carbon Collective different in terms of its approach to identify companies that are actually working on solutions to the climate crisis?
James Regulinski: Yeah, so I’ll start with our basic portfolio theory of change, which is you divest from fossil fuels and you proactively invest in climate solutions, and then you use shareholder pressure to encourage companies to put pressure on companies to be changing what they’re doing faster.
And so each- those are the three ways we see money has, has power in being able to, to shape what, what’s happening in this transition. You can just take money away from, make the cost of borrowing higher, make the cost of borrowing lower, make the- these other investments more attractive.
Allow for a pipeline to pull companies sort of outta the private sector into the public sector. Give them an end state there. And then shareholder advocacy, which is the [00:09:00] right to vote on a share that you own, um, around a limited set, but still important set of, of issues.
James Lawler: Mm-hmm.
James Regulinski: That is our theory of change.
On that proactive side, which I think is very critical and, and different than what a lot of other companies are doing, is we are looking at the companies that are building the technologies that let all the other companies make the transition.
When we look at, again, Project Drawdown and International Energy Association’s study on how we, how we transition our economy, they call out particular technologies. And these technologies are ones we need to be investing in if we’re gonna be no longer dependent on fossil fuels.
So some of them are obvious, they’re like wind, solar, battery, energy storage. Energy, trans- uh, infrastructure. Uh, some of them are a little bit less obvious.
There are things like intelligent buildings, uh, having more efficient built environments, having landfills, um, having a circular economy, being able to recycle more things. Things like refrigerants we don’t think about a lot, but are, are critical in being able to address climate change, [00:10:00] reducing food waste.
Um, so it, it’s quite broad in its scope of kinds of solutions and we include all of those. And the company, we don’t look at whether a company claims it will do some work in this space. We don’t look at their ESG report. We look at their 10 K. Their 10 K is the SEC-regulated filing in which they say things like where they get their revenue from.
And we look at “did over 50% of their revenue come from one of the solutions identified in one of these sort of scientifically-backed models on what we need to be doing?”. And if it is, then it is a company that is primarily working on a climate change solution. And so that, to us, has a lot more weight than the CEO saying, we’re making a claim to net zero. I mean, net zero has a lot of problems inherent in itself, but even making that claim, it’s a non-binding claim.
James Lawler: What is the specific offering to Carbon Collective customers?
James Regulinski: Yeah, so we have several different customers we offer products to, so for companies, we offer 401(k) plans for their employees.
And if you’re an employee of a company, while you can’t directly [00:11:00] work with us on your 401(k) product because that is something that is offered by your company, you can advocate to have a climate-forward option in your 401k. And if they are unable to provide that, you can, uh, pressure your company or encourage them to look for a 3(38). That is someone like Carbon Collective who will build those portfolios for your company and help manage that and make that a reality.
Most individuals save for retirement through their 401(k) plans. It can be really effective. So we see a lot of folks having that be their primary way of saving. So this is a powerful way that you can have your investments working in climate-forward fashion is advocating with your company. Or if you own a company or are the HR representative of a company, um, being able- the decision maker, you can help make that happen even more quickly.
So that’s our, that’s our first offering is for companies. We build the same climate-focused portfolios that we’ve been describing earlier. We also have that for individuals. So if you just want to save in your IRA, which is an individual retirement account, or a [00:12:00] just general investing account, we, in the same way that other RoboPlatforms offer the ability to automatically invest in their portfolios, we offer that to individuals.
So you can sign up on our website. You can either transfer over an old account or start a new account, deposit money, that money’s automatically invested into our climate-forward portfolios.
And you can be saving for your retirement or other financial goals in that way. We keep the fees very low because this is a hands-off, uh, fashion. So we charge either 20 basis points or five basis points for the different portfolios that we offer.
And that’s because so often what we see is that environmentally-forward investing has a premium put on it, and that premium isn’t always reflected in, like, the amount of impact that’s happening.
And this greenwashing, because, because- how much impact you have or what environmental investing means or climate-forward investing means is unregulated, what we see is a lot of greenwashing in the space, and that greenwashing means that you are having less of an impact and you’re paying more for it. So you’re having even a higher drag on your [00:13:00] portfolio.
You could argue that paying more is worth it if you are having a positive impact, but we see a lot of funds that come out that are taking advantage of this trend without sort of substantiating their claims or having a really compelling argument that backs it up.
Those kinds of greenwashing are often- they outsource the ethics of the question to somebody else. So what we saw with, uh, BlackRock’s Low, uh, Low-Carbon Transition Fund is they use MSCI data. That data is, you know, provided by a third party and allows them to give rankings to each of the companies in their portfolio.
But what they end up with is a 70% overlap with the S&P500 and it’s being charged, you know, they’re charging four to five times as much as just buying an S&P500 and making claims about how green it is as a result of having this lower MSCI score or having zero coal in their portfolio and not really doing diligence beyond that.
So they do hold Berkshire Hathaway, which is one of the largest coal holders public investments in the US. So they, they’re definitely [00:14:00] trying to get, get on this bandwagon of showing that they are offering a green option or a environmentally-forward option and charging more for it, but not really backing that up.
So for us, it’s not only important to offer our clients something that is very clear and transparently how it makes a positive impact, but then also keep our fees as low as we can so that we’re not having that dragging on their portfolio and they are able to build up their retirement over time with a real impact to back it up.
James Lawler: What is your AUM at this point?
James Regulinski: So currently our AUM, when you look at all of our business sectors is over 50 million dollars. And while this isn’t yet the amount that is gonna change the world, there are a lot of stair steps that occur where you hit certain thresholds in AUM and then it opens up other larger packs of investment.
So we are really just keeping our heads down and pushing as hard as we can to, um, hit each of those, uh, different gates. And as we do, we, we hope that we do bring as much money as is needed [00:15:00] to bear on the problem.
James Lawler: Okay. Can you tell me a little bit about historic returns for some- for these companies versus a traditional, like an S&P basket or, you know, a fossil fuel-intensive portfolio?
James Regulinski: Um, hard question to answer, hard answer- question to answer in a compliant way. I can talk about companies in general. Our portfolios in particular, we’ve only been around for two and a half years, so we don’t have true data on, you know, live accounts that I can share.
James Lawler: Yeah.
James Regulinski: When we do back testing, there are, um, known issues with it, in particular, survivorship bias, uh, which is the most common, which makes portfolios when you back test them look like they are more successful than they would’ve been if you had modeled it at the actual time and then tested forward.
James Lawler: Right, because some of that- some of the companies would’ve failed, but you’re only looking at ones that succeeded. Right?
James Regulinski: Right. And it’s, it’s very easy to overlook companies that failed, but you didn’t hear about, et cetera. So we, we try to correct for it, but again, it’s limited .When you look at that on [00:16:00] our models, you can see a, you know, exceeding market performance.
And, in particular circumstances, by substantial amounts.
James Lawler: Mm-hmm.
James Regulinski: However, I’d be very cautious of saying that that is actually what people should expect in short term, especially. Now some- ’cause some of that period was really abnormal. Like if you look at 2020, it was a weird year and we saw a really high performance.
Now if you looked at that- at our stocks during 2022, uh, it would’ve been really poor performance, even slightly below what you might see from the baseline from S&P500.
However, I also wanna point out that if you looked at just an index investing- if you looked at with and without oil stocks in it. So that’s one way of looking at our core portfolio. It’s like, well, what if you invested in total market but you just cut out the worst actors? What does that do?
James Lawler: Okay.
James Regulinski: Well, over the last, I think it’s two decades, oil has been essentially flat. Oil, gas, coal has [00:17:00] not performed particularly well. Even with the current upswing from the Ukraine war.
I think we’re looking at a couple percent gain. Now, there are spikes of course, and I’m sure that if you look at just the right section, you can make a really strong case over the short term for oil and gas. But it has not actually been an incredibly lucrative investment.
So if you look at it from that perspective, yeah, divesting from fossil fuels and adding in these higher growth companies that were, you know, solar, the price of solar has fallen dramatically and companies in the space have, have grown a lot. That’s the same- it’s true of electric cars. We’ve reached peak cars. The only growing sector in auto, in passenger automobiles right now is electric vehicles.
They’re eating more and more of the market share. So the companies that have been in that space have performed disproportionately well. And so those things all help sort of support ,like, this case that investing in this transition has positive return potential. Positive return potential- that’s a really, a really protective way of, way of sort of shielding me.
But it’s saying that there is, there is a world in which we do all this [00:18:00] work, we make this transition, and there are a lot of gains. You can make a lot of money. I, I would never promise that because investing is not a guaranteed thing. And we saw, especially in short term, with things like the Ukraine war and inflation and to what the SEC is doing that-
James Lawler: Mm-hmm.
James Regulinski: Portfolios, you can lose a lot of money as well. It’s a, it’s a risky venture, but in terms of trends, that’s what I’m seeing.
James Lawler: Yeah. James, what are some of the, the views on divesting from fossil fuels pro and against? And, and why does, why do you think that Carbon Collective’s view makes the most sense?
James Regulinski: That’s a great question. So let me start with the why you shouldn’t divest one. Um-
James Lawler: Why you should not divest from fossil fuel. Okay we’ll start-
James Regulinski: This is not the Carbon Collective take, but there have been folks who have, who make this claim a lot.
James Lawler: Yes.
James Regulinski: Um, and there’s sort of couple groupings of arguments.
One is the seat at the table argument. That is, you own shares. If you own shares, you can vote on issues. If you own enough shares, you can, you put someone on the board. [00:19:00] Engine No. 1 did this with ExxonMobil, made a big splash around it. And the idea was if you put the right people on the board, they could make a difference in how the company is run.
And that ExxonMobil’s a large company with, you know, big lever arm and making a small change on a large company could still have very large impacts. So that’s the, the seat at the table argument.
The second one is like, it’s a secondary market. It’s not like I buy shares directly from the company and they have more money in their pocket in the same direct way.
Now, from the accounting sense, how much money they can borrow, what, what their finances look like, they are affected. And that’s, I think, an important thing to remember. It- it’s not emotionally as satisfying, but from a direct sense, you’re not directly putting money on and you sell a share, someone else buys it.
And so the question is, are you actually hurting the share price enough to reduce their borrowing power?
James Lawler: Mm-hmm.
James Regulinski: Um, and if you’re not, then you’re just missing out on the opportunity of being invested in that company. You could be making those dividends and putting those dividends to other use. I got this advice a lot when I was a kid, when I just started out investing right [00:20:00] after college.
I was looking at ethical impact investing and everyone kept saying, James, invest in an average index and then take the excess earnings and then donate them. I hated that advice for a whole host of reasons, but it was a very strongly-held belief and I think that’s sort of reflected in one of the current, like it’s- it doesn’t make sense to divest. You can use that money for more good if you make more money.
These- those are the pro-staying the course, let’s say.
James Lawler: Right.
James Regulinski: Now what I believe, what the Carbon Collective view is, is a- has- sort of addresses each of those in turn. The first is on the Engine No. 1, can you make a difference with ExxonMobil?
And what we’ve seen is like they, they got three board members, I think, and there’s 11 board members total, maybe 15. So the- not that many people. And we haven’t seen any of the major things we’d wanna see happen. We haven’t seen massive new investments in changing over the business structure. We haven’t seen really a phase out plan.
We haven’t seen a stop of exploration. So the question is like-
James Lawler: What are they doing?
James Regulinski: What are they doing? Um, go [00:21:00] on a little bit of tangent here. These are companies that have deeply invested in undermining the story around climate change.
James Lawler: Right.
James Regulinski: They have- we have- the science on climate change was not polarized, was not really ever contradicted.
And this is from the seventies and it has been, it’s been a, a large investment in these companies for a long time. It’s deeply embedded in their, in their company culture to, to essentially say that that is a false story. And then, even when they engage with it now, and they are engaging with it, but oftentimes, when you look at, like how much they’re investing to, how much they’re investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure, it’s dwarfed.
Like you have, you have a half a percent or something, or percent being invested into these, into these new transitionary technologies. And so it’s just not really commensurable.
So saying that you investing in supporting those companies and, and making these small changes is, is having a large impact, I think is, is suspect.
That comes to the next thing that I think that we believe, which is anything that you’re doing with your money, you could be doing something else. And it’s not just [00:22:00] that you’re invested in oil, it’s that you’re not invested in making it easier for these other companies to raise capital, making it easier for them to help pull companies into the public sphere.
So the next way is on the, the cost of capital side that I was talking about. So if you, if you can make the cost of capital easier to raise- and there’s two ways that this happens.
One is as that sort of- there’s an, or- it feels like a, a magic hand waving on your balance sheet when you- the share price goes up, your ability to raise money is, is greater. And there’s also direct sale that happens.
So the best example I have, this was Plug Power. They, in 2020, their share price shot up. And when it did, they sold additional shares of the company and they raised about a billion dollars to build out green hydrogen infrastructure.
That was a “the share price went up, we, as investors said, ‘we believe in this’. We’re gonna support the share price”. As a result, they raised a bunch of more money and they used it to directly do the work they were trying to do.
And the third, when we, when we are saying that these companies, [00:23:00] this class of companies are more valuable, we’re gonna pay more for their shares, it does a couple things.
It sends markets down signal, and I’ve mentioned this a couple times. If you are a VC investor or a private equity investor and you’re investing in an early stage company, you’re more likely to invest in them if there’s an exit strategy and something that will justify the price you’re paying for it.
So if you don’t see any public companies with, you know, strong share prices that are in that space or are similar, it’s gonna be sort of hard to justify. Like, if you don’t believe that they can exit with a good price-
James Lawler: Yeah.
James Regulinski: It’s gonna be hard to justify investing in them.
James Lawler: Right.
James Regulinski: So when we in the public markets and, as a retail investor, I can’t invest in private companies directly. There’s a few exceptions, but for the most part I can’t.
So one thing I can do is, in the public companies, be investing and sort of sending that signal downstream. The other is just in the narrative about what is valuable. And the other way that we borrow money is based off what stories are being told, what’s gonna have growth potential and what’s not.
And [00:24:00] the stock market is, kind of a collective storytelling exercise.
James Lawler: Right.
James Regulinski: I know it sounds a little bit wishy-washy, but at the same time when you-
James Lawler: but it is
James Regulinski: but it’s like, it’s, it’s emotional. We’re all saying like, “I believe this is gonna happen in the future.”
James Lawler: Right.
James Regulinski: And so us saying intentionally “we want to create this story about the future” makes that story more likely to come to fruition.
James Lawler: Yeah. Really interesting. Well, James, thank you so much for your time today. This was very, very, Interesting and, and helpful and inspiring. So, appreciate it.
James Regulinski: James, thanks for taking the time and creating such an interesting, uh, space and dialogue.
James Lawler: That was James Regulinski of Carbon Collective talking about the company’s approach to climate-friendly investing. That’s it for this episode of the Climate Now podcast. For more episodes, videos, to sign up for a newsletter, or register for an upcoming event, visit climatenow.com. We hope you’ll join us for our next conversation.