Future: Sustainable development goals tackle challenges of climate change and environmental degradation. Picture: 123RF/ SEBASTIEN DECORET
Future: Sustainable development goals tackle challenges of climate change and environmental degradation. Picture: 123RF/ SEBASTIEN DECORET

Modern businesses increasingly recognise that their sustained success depends on their ability to deliver real and lasting value to the society in which they exist. The UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) offer a solid framework on which to design and deliver those contributions.

Developed by the UN and agreed to by 193 countries, the SDGs are essentially a blueprint for the achievement of a sustainable future for the planet and its citizens. These 17 goals have been designed to address the main global challenges, not least of which relate to climate change, poverty, inequality, employment, education, environmental degradation, water quality and access, and peace and justice.

The goals are highly interconnected and all have a target of 2030, which means their achievement requires the commitment and collaborative effort of as many of the world’s public- and private-sector organisations as possible.

However, while many companies have embraced the goals and accepted the responsibility they have to help achieve them, translating these good intentions into meaningful action is proving challenging, at best, for most organisations. Financial institutions, especially, are faced with something of a dilemma in that the primary way they contribute to the SDGs is by deliberately channelling their funding activities and finance solutions to ensure the money with which their clients entrust them not only grows in value over time, but is also effectively applied to facilitate constructive economic, social and environmental activity that drives sustainable growth and development for the benefit of society.

In theory, it’s not a difficult balance to achieve. The long-term financial value and growth that can be unlocked through investment that considers and prioritises environmental, social and good-governance principles (ESG) has been repeatedly proven and well documented. However, the main challenge for banks and other financiers has been finding investable ESG — sustainability-focused investment opportunities that tick all the necessary regulatory and compliance boxes and have a clear potential to deliver solid returns for investors as well as society and the environment.

In 2018 alone global green-bond issues were valued at more than $167bn as corporates, municipalities and governments alike increasingly recognised the compelling green bond value proposition

The debt capital markets present an ideal mechanism with which to bridge this gap between the desire by companies and investors to contribute to the achievement of the SDGs, and the specific investment actions that represent such a contribution.

Social and environmental development bonds (most often called green bonds) are a proven way to mobilise the financial resources of capital markets and apply them directly in support of projects that address issues such as climate change, energy, food and water insecurity, social and economic inequality, and environmental degradation.

Small wonder then that since 2007, when the first official green bond issued jointly by the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the World Bank captured the attention of global investors, the green-bond sector has experienced strong and steady growth. In 2018 alone global green-bond issues were valued at more than $167bn as corporates, municipalities and governments alike increasingly recognised the compelling green-bond value proposition.

This value proposition is significantly bolstered in the SA context. Apart from the opportunity these capital market instruments present to raise and meaningfully deploy capital for the benefit of society and the environment, they also deliver the benefit of relative financial security for investors in what can only be described as particularly volatile economic times for the country.

When the focus of this type of impact investing is on leveraging the proceeds to add momentum to the country’s renewable energy efforts, the appeal is further enhanced. While SA’s shaky sovereign-debt position has reduced investment in many sectors to a pedestrian pace at best, the ongoing energy crisis has created significant opportunities for renewable energy to enjoy sustained stellar growth in the coming years. Bonds with a focus on renewables therefore present local and international investors with a unique opportunity to contribute to, and benefit from, risk-managed investment into the country’s vital energy infrastructure.

Impact investing

It’s this dual benefit proposition, combined with its commitment to making a tangible contribution to the achievement of the SDGs, that led Nedbank to conceive and create its Renewable Energy Bond. The auction opened on April 24.

The first such SDG-focused capital market instrument to be delivered by a bank in SA capitalises on our extensive experience in the sector, which includes funding 42 of the transactions, worth R40bn, across the four rounds of the country’s renewable energy independent producer procurement programme.

The creation of the bond also demonstrates our understanding that the concept of impact investing, while still relatively new in the global investment space, is already evolving from a “return-first” approach to an “impact-first” requirement. As this balance continues to shift, the support by financial and investment instruments of the SDGs, with their clear alignment with ESG principles, will become the ticket required by organisations, particularly financial institutions, to participate in society and the global economy.

Ultimately, a sustainable society is the only way to achieve sustainable investment returns, and green bonds are a viable way to shift funding to where it is needed most, thereby creating a symbiotic relationship between society, the planet and the economy, for the benefit of all three.

• Stewart is head and Singh principal of debt capital market origination at Nedbank CIB.