Progress over perfection is the goal for sustainable finance

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Creating a low-carbon economy requires financial tactics currently being put to use across many industries, but participants at Fortune‘s Global Sustainability Forum on Thursday said the key to achieving this will be to focus on progress over perfection. The difficulty lies in making decisions for how to allocate capital when companies have imperfect information. 

“I wouldn’t even call it a frustration, it’s a reality that we are moving forward, you know, based on imperfect data and imperfect information,” said Val Smith, chief sustainability officer at Citi. 

“There was a study put out earlier this year, which showed looking back over the history about a decade of history of investing in climate tech, that 75% of the capital had only gone into solutions that address 25% of the emissions,” said Nili Gilbert, vice chairwoman of Carbon Direct. “You really need to flip that. I think one of the reasons that that is happening is because some of the emissions and solutions are hard to abate.”

Gilbert pointed out that many of the emissions Carbon Direct deals with are last mile emissions; things like tech for sustainable aviation fuel, green hydrogen, green cement, and carbon capture where some emissions that can’t be abated have to be taken back out of the atmosphere. Some of this can be done a small scale and some of the tech isn’t yet scalable. 

“At Carbon Direct, we’re a science first organization, we’re employing a team of about 50 climate scientists and rowing if you know any good scientists,” Gilbert explained. “And you know, and I really think that when it comes to advancing trust in this part of the industry, that it’s a trust built on the back of expertise in implementation.”

A few months ago, Smith said another frustration in this space would have been a lack of policy support. But since implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act, some believe there will be increased demands for clean energies, which will bring down their costs, making them more accessible. 

Tariq Nanji, partner at Boston Consulting Group, said the capital is available, but doesn’t always get where it needs to go.

“Capital is there, capital is committed, and there’s a major need, but as was discussed earlier, it’s not always getting to the right places,” he said. 

While there might not be a perfect solution at the moment, the show must go on, which is progress enough. 

“You have to sit with the discomfort of not having perfect information, and in fact, we’ve never had perfect information in capital allocation,” said Lila Preston, partner at Generation Investment Management. “The market is still in training wheel zone of that.”

In the meantime, collaboration within and across industries is key to solving these problems. 

“There is no more collaborative space than this space right now. Particularly in the corporate environment,” said Sarah Chapman, global chief sustainability officer at Manulife.

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