As concerns over climate change and natural resource depletion grow, investors have begun seeking opportunities for generating both market-rate financial returns and quantifiable environmental gains. Investing with the objectives of social or environmental return is often referred to as impact investing. Measuring and reporting the environmental impact of such investing is becoming of greater interest to environmental managers and investors. This report presents findings from interviews of investment fund managers of environmental real assets—defined here as real assets that rely on ecological systems to generate cash flows (e.g., timber, agriculture, fisheries, water rights). The interviews reveal little consistency in how environmental returns are measured and reported. Importantly, most of the environmental metrics are not designed to allow for evaluation of funds’ environmental performance. Hence, investors are unable to distinguish among funds in terms of environmental returns. Moreover, investors are also generally uninterested in such information. In short, impact investors seek environmental impact funds so long as they have risk-adjusted, market-rate returns regardless of environmental performance. To better evaluate the environmental returns of impact investments, whether real assets or other types of investments, fund managers and investors should directly engage the environmental science and operations management community. That community could offer insights to help ensure that investments are delivering and reporting on promise and that capital is being steered toward effective projects and opportunities.
Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions