ESG-related derivatives: innovation or fad?

March 2022
3 min read

Over the past years, more and more corporates have implemented a sustainability framework, incorporating specific KPIs that can be used as a basis to arrange sustainability-linked funding instruments.

Next to sustainable funding instruments, including both green and social, we also see that these KPI’s can be used for other financial instruments, such as ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) derivatives. These derivatives are a useful tool to further drive the corporate sustainability strategy or support meeting environmental targets.

Since the first sustainability-linked derivative was executed in 2019, market participants have entered into a variety of ESG-related derivatives and products. In this article we provide you with an overview of the different ESG derivatives. We will touch upon the regulatory and valuation implications of this relatively new derivative class in a subsequent article, which will be published later this year.

Types of ESG-related derivatives products

Driven by regulatory pressure and public scrutiny, corporates have been increasingly looking for ways to manage their sustainability footprint. As a result of a blooming ESG funding market, the role of derivatives to help meet sustainability goals has grown. ESG-related derivatives cover a broad spectrum of derivative products such as forwards, futures and swaps. Five types (see figure 1) of derivatives related to ESG can be identified; of which three are currently deemed most relevant from an ESG perspective.

The first category consists of traditional derivatives such as interest rate swaps or cross currency swaps that are linked to a sustainable funding instrument. The derivative as such does not contain a sustainability element.

Sustainability-linked derivatives

Sustainability-linked derivatives are agreements between two counterparties (let’s assume a bank and a corporate) which contain a commitment of the corporate counterparty to achieve specific sustainability performance targets. When the sustainability performance targets are met by the corporate during the lifetime of the derivative, a discount is applied by the bank to the hedging instrument. When the targets are not met, a premium is added. Usually, banks invest the premium they receive in sustainable projects or investments. Sustainability-linked derivative transactions are highly customizable and use tailor-made KPIs to determine sustainability goals. Sustainability-linked derivatives provide market participants with a financial incentive to improve their ESG performance. An example is Enel’s sustainability-linked cross currency swap, which was executed in July 2021 to hedge their USD/EUR exchange rate and interest rate exposures.

Emission trading derivatives

Other ESG-related derivatives support meeting sustainable business models and consist of trading carbon offsets, emission trading derivatives, and renewable energy and renewable fuels derivatives, amongst others. Contrary to sustainability-linked derivatives, the use of proceeds of ESG-related derivatives are allocated to specific ESG-related purposes. For example, emissions trading is a market-based approach to reduce pollution by setting a (geographical) limit on the amount of greenhouse gases that can be emitted. It consists of a limit or cap on pollution and tradable instruments that authorize holders to emit a specific quantity of the respective greenhouse gas. Market participants can trade derivatives based on emission allowances on exchanges or OTC markets as spots, forwards, futures and option contracts. The market consists of mandatory compliance schemes and voluntary emission reduction programs.

Renewable energy and fuel derivatives

Another type of ESG-related derivatives are renewable energy and renewable fuel hedging transactions, which are a valuable tool for market participants to hedge risks associated with fluctuations in renewable energy production. These ESG-related credit derivatives encourage more capital to be contributed to renewable energy projects. Examples are Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs), Renewable Energy Certificate (REC) futures, wind index futures and low carbon fuel standard futures.

ESG related credit derivatives

ESG-related CDS products can be used to manage the credit risk of a counterparty when financial results may be impacted by climate change or, more indirectly, if results are affected due to substitution of a specific product/service. An example of this could be in the airline industry where short-haul flights may be replaced by train travel. Popularity of ESG-related CDS products will probably increase with the rising perception that companies with high ESG ratings exhibit low credit risk.

Catastrophe and weather derivatives

Catastrophe and weather derivatives are insurance-like products as well. Both markets have existed for several decades and are used to hedge exposures to weather or natural disasters. Catastrophe derivatives are financial instruments that allow for transferral of natural disaster risk between market participants. These derivatives are traded on OTC markets and enable protection from enormous potential losses following from natural disasters such as earthquakes to be obtained. The World Bank has designed catastrophe swaps that support the transfer of risks related to natural disasters by emerging countries to capital markets. An example if this is the swap issued for the Philippines in 2017. Weather derivatives are financial instruments that derive their value from weather-related factors such as temperature and wind. There derivatives are used to mitigate risks associated with adverse or unexpected weather conditions and are most commonly used in the food and agriculture industry.

What’s old, what’s new and what’s next?

ESG-related credit derivatives would be best applied by organizations with credit exposures to certain industries and financial institutions. Despite the link to an environmental element, we do not consider catastrophe bonds and weather derivatives as a sustainability-linked derivative. Neither is it an innovative, new product that is applicable to corporates in various sectors.

Truly innovative products are sustainability-linked derivatives, voluntary emissions trading and renewable energy and fuel derivatives. These products strengthen a corporate’s commitment to meet sustainability targets or support investments in sustainable initiatives. A lack of sustainability regulation for derivatives raises the question to what extent these innovative products are sustainable on their own? An explicit incentive for financial institutions to execute ESG-related derivatives, such as a capital relief, is currently absent. This implies that any price advantage will be driven by supply and demand.

Corporate Treasury should ensure they consider the implications of using ESG-related derivatives that affect the cashflows of derivatives transactions. Examples of possible regulatory obligations consist of valuation requirements, dispute resolution and reporting requirements. Since ESG-related derivatives and products are here to stay, Zanders recommends that corporate treasurers closely monitor the added value of specific instruments, as well as the regulatory, tax and accounting implications. Part II of this series, later in the year, will focus on the regulatory and valuation implications of this relatively new derivative class.

For more information on ESG issues, please contact Sander van Tol.


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