Everyone thinks their age is particularly bad; the younger generation always seems to know less than their parents, society always seems to be going to the dogs, and the barbarians always seem to be at the gate. Of course such assertions are impossible to verify; there is no control experiment that we can run on this or previous generations. So before I start my own jeremiad, let me put a few facts on the table. There is an unprecedented population of humans on the earth. There are unprecedented levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. The climate is warming at an unprecedented rate. Regardless of whether our kids speak more or less Latin and Greek than our parents, on all of these points, our times are objectively different from anything that any previous generation has known.
Another “unprecedented” to add to this list—and one that may seem rather inconsequential when put beside all these other facts—is the unprecedented transfer of wealth that is currently underway toward the younger generation. We are living on a hot and crowded planet with more rich under-40s than ever before. This article is an appeal to those young people who find themselves with money at their disposal to think about how they can use that wealth to address what is the defining moral issue of our time: anthropogenic climate change.
I do not want to force people’s hand—if impact investing is to work, it needs to come from each person defining what their priorities are and what their own attitude to their money is. I also do not mean to say that young people, irrespective of the financial means at their disposal, are not already conscious of and addressing this issue. There is a huge awareness among people in their 20s and 30s, and hardly a week goes by when I am not confronted by a new company or think-tank or citizen-led initiative that is addressing a social or environmental problem. I am confident that in 30 years time, when this generation is running the show, things will be different, and that governance at both the corporate and political level will be better than it is today—not because this generation is any better than the ones that went before it, but because the problems have become so flagrant that they are quite simply impossible to ignore.
What worries me is that in 30 years time, it may well be too late and all that energy will have been wasted. All these fantastic initiatives will prove to have been the equivalent of arranging deck chairs on the Titanic if we do not solve the problem of climate change. And I would argue that to do so, we need to confront the final “unprecedented” on my list: an unprecedented faith in technology.
A certain number of the young rich I mentioned above have made their money in technology or inherited it from parents who have, and even for those who haven’t the myth of the Silicon Valley start-up is an extremely pervasive one; technology has had such a massive influence on our lives and tech firms occupy such a large place in our collective psyche that they can appear to be the solution to everything. As a consequence they attract a disproportionate amount of investment capital. The spirit of innovation is fantastic, and it is this that will create the companies of the future; the problem is that if we don’t address climate change, these companies and their customers won’t have much of a future. And to address climate change, we need to get money flowing in large amounts to solutions that exist now, not the ones that will exist in 10 or 20 years’ time. The window of opportunity is very, very small.
The area that interests me as an impact investor is real assets, in particular sustainable forestry and farmland. In both of these areas, solutions already exist (FSC-certified forests and organically-certified farmland) that do not involve any game-changing technological fixes but are nevertheless demonstrably better than the alternatives, and have the capacity to absorb significant amounts of capital both from private individuals and institutional investors such as endowments, pension funds, and insurance companies. Organic farming is not dependent on fossil fuel-based inputs, uses less direct and indirect energy than conventional farming, and—through the use of cover crops and increased soil organic matter—significantly increases the carbon sequestration rates of the land; figures from the Rodale Institute point to a 30 percent increase in soil carbon over a 27-year period. A sustainably managed forest sucks carbon out of the atmosphere, and—provided the timber produced is not burnt—stores that carbon permanently; thanks to decades of investment in forestry the Nordic region is thus able to absorb 120 million metric tonnes of CO2, half of its total emissions. Both asset classes are also, by their very nature, long-term investments and hence, well-suited to people who have come into money early in life.
Investing in farmland or forestry is not going to get you Gates- or Jobs- or Zuckerberg-like returns, and it isn’t going to get you that level of fame either. But the impact in terms of climate change and our future as a species is immense. There is currently only 1 percent of certified organic farmland worldwide, so the potential to acquire and convert conventional farmland is immense. Turning to forestry, as things stand, one-third of our timber comes from plantations and two-thirds from natural or semi-natural forests. The specialist forestry consultant Indufor estimates that over the next 20 years, those percentages will change to one-quarter and three-quarters, while total demand for industrial roundwood will grow from 1.5 billion m3 to 4 billion m3. Trees take time to grow, which means that unless investors start converting degraded and marginal land into new plantations now, then there will be increasing pressure on existing natural forests, both tropical and boreal. Instead of creating a new carbon sink, we will have destroyed an existing one.
To produce an additional 2 billion m3 of timber and take the pressure off the world’s natural forests will require an area of plantations equivalent to six times the size of Finland. As with organic farmland, there is a huge investment opportunity here, and the opportunity to make a huge environmental impact. For my part, I would rather have Finlands than Facebooks. I’d rather have apples than Apple.