A recent report from the White House shows that climate change may be worse than we had feared and some of the biggest impacts are already too far along to be stopped. Suddenly, the climate debate is a hot issue again and there's little consensus on what to do next.
As usual, any report on climate change will become a political football with some saying it's a reason for action and others questioning the science altogether.
What I've learned about watching the political theater surrounding climate change and investing in the companies who could help it is that there's only one way to make a significant impact against climate change.
The only way to end this debate and do less harm to the environment is to make it economically attractive to lessen our collective impact on the environment. Whether it's creating energy, reducing chemical usage, or using energy more efficiency, the climate debate will be answered by the almighty dollar. And on that front there may be more progress than you realize.
Fossil fuel is already being priced out
Did you know that long-term oil consumption in both the U.S. and Europe is actually falling? It's true and it really has nothing to do with wanting to use less energy and everything to do with needing to spend less on energy.
The chart below shows just how fast oil, gasoline, and natural gas prices have risen over the past two decades in the U.S., demonstrating a big increase in all but natural gas costs. But even natural gas prices have risen 24%, and I think that will continue as the U.S. begins exporting natural gas and a more global market develops.
On the electricity generation side, we're already seeing coal being phased out in the U.S., in large part because it's more economical to build natural gas plants rather than coal plants.
When it comes to energy, fossil fuel costs are going up and renewable energy costs are going down. That means the economics of energy will drive a cleaner energy future.
Renewable energy is more developed than you think
While politicians and environmentalists have been squabbling over what to do about climate change, companies have been at work developing the technology that will attack the heart of the problem. But they're being driven by the economic and performance advantages their products provide rather than just the environmental ones.
Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) is the poster child of the fast changing energy market, charging on the scene in just the last few years and shaking up the auto market. But it isn't selling an electric vehicle for the environmental benefits, it's promoting the outstanding performance and cost saving. The Tesla Motors website estimates that a consumer driving 15,000 miles per year could save $261 per month by owning a Model S instead of a 20 mpg car. Even with a hefty price tag that can reach over $100,000 that catches the eye of car buyers.
The solar market may do even more to upset the balance of power in energy. In the chart below, you can see that solar system costs in the U.S. have fallen between 34% and 59% in the past four years depending on what size system you're building. If we look back two decades, like we did with oil and gas, costs are down 90% or more.
What's recently changed about solar is that it's cost competitive with the grid and that's now how it's being sold to consumers. SolarCity (NASDAQ:SCTY) is leading the charge in residential solar, offering consumers lower costs by putting solar panels on their roofs for $0 down and saving them money on their electricity costs. As costs have fallen, new financing programs have opened up like leases and loans that make solar accessible for millions of Americans. SolarCity is planning to install 1 million solar systems itself by 2018, an incredible feat that's driven by economics, not environmental concerns.
SunPower (NASDAQ:SPWR) takes a slightly different approach than SolarCity and builds both solar panels and solar systems. Like SolarCity it's offering solar leases and loans that make residential and commercial projects economically viable, but it's also building huge solar plants that are now competitive with the grid. The best example of that is the 70 MW merchant solar project in Chile that will be sold into the competitive grid market. Coincidentally, big oil is taking notice of this project because oil giant Total is not only the majority owner of SunPower, it's a part owner in the Chile project.
The reason these renewable energy companies are succeeding isn't that tree huggers or environmental regulations are driving demand, it's because they make great products and they're economically viable. Not everyone sees the Tesla Model S as an alternative to a conventional vehicle but enough do that the business is growing and costs are falling. Similarly, it doesn't make sense economically to go solar in many parts of the country but where costs are falling below grid parity there's a flood of demand. As these trends continue the economics of cleaner, more sustainable energy businesses will win out.
Companies are concerned about climate change
Whether you believe in climate change or its impact, you should know that corporate America is starting to take the risk very seriously. And it's not just energy companies who see it as a risk.
Starbucks has made climate change a priority, not only from an energy and conservation side, but from a sourcing perspective. Coffee is grown in very specific and environmentally sensitive regions of the world and according to Starbucks, "[C]offee farmers are reporting shifts in rainfall and harvest patterns." If the climate changes or weather events become stronger, there could be a huge impact on Starbucks' business.
Insurance companies are also starting to notice the impact of climate change, primarily because it impacts the bottom line when they have to pay damages of hurricanes, floods, and fires. Just this week, Lloyd's of London , the oldest and biggest insurance market in the world, called on insurers to include climate risk in their models. States like California , who may be the state at most risk of climate change, are starting to ask insurers for climate risk disclosures in an effort to understand if they're preparing and adjusting risk for climate change.
Big oil is starting to take notice as well. ExxonMobil released its first climate risk assessment this year and Chevron is "working internationally and at the U.S. federal and state levels to contribute to climate change policy discussions." As I mentioned above, Total may have done the most by buying a majority stake in SunPower. Big oil isn't going to lead the charge against climate change, but acknowledging that it's a risk to their business long term is a big step.
Whether a company is at risk of changing climate patterns, rising sea levels, environmental regulation, or higher insurance costs corporate America is starting to look at how they'll be affected by climate change. At the very least, it's worth considering how companies fit into the climate change discussion and what they're doing to ensure they have sustainable businesses if dire predictions of rising sea levels and increased catastrophes do come true.
China is the wild card
Talking about the impact energy usage or corporate America has on climate change is nice, but the elephant in the room is still China. As a recent report by the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment recently acknowledged, without changes in China these discussions are largely moot.
China is still fueling its expansion by building coal plants that are dirtier than would be allowed in the U.S. and a growing middle class means more cars on the road. Without changes to China's energy policy, the country could increase pollution so much that it would overshadow efforts to reduce pollution in other parts of the world.
But keep in mind that China is also a leader in renewable energy. The country installed 12 GW of solar last year, the most by any country ever, and plans to install at least 35 GW by 2015. It also installed nearly half of the world's wind turbines last year, or 16.1 GW, and plans to have 100 GW of wind capacity by 2015.
Rapid growth in demand also requires fossil fuel plants but China is both the potential problem and potentially the leader when it comes to the future of climate change.
What to do about climate change
Whether you believe in climate change or not, it's impossible to deny that companies and governments are beginning to look at it as a risk to long-term sustainability. Whether you're investing in energy, insurance, or coffee the risk of climate change can have an impact on your business and long-term profits.
The truth of the matter is that nothing is going to change until either the science is 100% proven -- and it's too late -- or the economics are strong enough to turn to renewable energy, sustainable farming, and other cleaner, more sustainable business practices. No report on climate change or image of melting ice caps can make a wholesale change in the way consumers or companies look at how they do business. But finding a cleaner energy source or more efficient car that's also cheaper to use will make all the difference in the world.
The good news is that "going green" is becoming the right thing to do economically. At the end of the day, that's the only way there will be progress on climate change. I, for one, hope the trend continues.
Travis Hoium manages an account that owns shares of SunPower and personally owns shares and is long options on SunPower. The Motley Fool recommends Chevron, SolarCity, Starbucks, and Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of SolarCity, Starbucks, and Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.