Nazmeera Moola: net zero without government policy ‘woefully naïve’
Ninety One’s head of sustainability speaks to Net Zero Investor on both the opportunities and limitations for asset managers when combating emissions
After kicking off a promising career as an economist at Merrill Lynch, Nazmeera Moola joined Ninety One Asset Management - formerly known as Investec - a decade ago, and has worked various roles since.
Initially in positions connected to her native South Africa, such as co-head of Africa fixed income, Moola has been Ninety One’s chief sustainability officer since November 2021.
For all her achievements, she is not blind to the fact that the asset management industry can only do so much in the fight for net zero, and it is the policymakers and legislators that need to step up.
“The idea that finance can engineer change, and therefore you don't need government policy, is woefully naïve. Personally, I think it's much more a question of finance anticipating the likely moves in policy, and then urging companies to be faster on that journey”, Moola says.
Key developments in sustainability
Nevertheless the coming months look to be ushering in key changes in the sustainable finance world, between a slew of regulations regarding emissions disclosures that will be implemented across the globe, to the anti-ESG movement currently gaining momentum in the US.
Of what developments to be expecting, Moola comes back to the thorny issue of ESG data: “In terms of sustainable strategies, more broadly, is there's a big push towards trying to measure impact. Simultaneously, there’s an increasing distrust in a lot of the data and the widely available databases that are out there.
“You're almost at the space where if you're going to claim that something is an impact investment, the hurdle to do that is rising. As the need to measure is rising, the trust in broadly available data is falling. What you need to be able to do is demonstrate doing the bottom up work, and actually be able to demonstrate that impact from that work.”
Moola is also keen to see the “practical application” of responsible investing; looking at how such investments can be made, what are the side effects, what are the positives, and investigating how real world impact can be achieved.
She notes that these were the motivations for Ninety One joining the Net Zero Asset Managers Initiative in May 2021, but waited until five months after the organisation’s formation to join so as to ensure the firm could become signatories without making any exclusions from its portfolio.
Africa: Sleeping lion?
Moola became Ninety One’s chief sustainability officer after her investigation of South Africa’s energy system piqued her interest, exploring a market still dominated by coal power and badly in need of update. This interest was relayed to Ninety One chief executive Hendrik du Toit, who offered her the role.
While Moola may have advanced at Ninety One, South Africa’s energy has devolved into rolling blackouts, a situation generally ascribed to a combination of government corruption and infrastructure collapse.
Of this and further challenges facing the African energy sector, Moola says: “There needs to be focus on the transition holistically in emerging markets, something that is being badly neglected right now.
“Transition in emerging markets needs green infrastructure, new technologies, and decarbonisation investment by high emitting companies. Much of Africa’s energy needs are not just about decarbonisation. They need massive renewables investment, they need new power.”
This continental transition will also require outside investment. Yet the green finance market is still in its infancy in many emerging economies, which generate more than half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
For example, only 29% of the $226bn of green bonds issued in emerging markets globally between 2012 and 2020 were issued outside of China. However, in September last year, the African Development Bank issued its inaugural Green Bond in the South African rand market.
By Moola’s own admission, Ninety One has previously shied away from setting portfolio decarbonisation targets. This couples with continuing to have holdings in oil and gas giants such as BP, a position recently defended by Tom Nelson, head of thematic equity within the multi-asset team at Ninety One.
However, Ninety One is warming to the notion of target setting, but only with careful consideration: “Instead of decarbonisation targets, we’ve set portfolio coverage targets," she notes.
"We have committed to a proportion of our corporate equity and debt holdings having Paris Agreement aligned targets. We assess not just the target, but the plans and the implementation of those plans by 2030, working particularly with the highest emitters in the Ninety One portfolio”, says Moola.
Moola also offers a case of in which setting decarbonisation targets can backfire. She refers to mining giant Anglo American finalising in 2021 a transition from thermal coal via sale of its shareholding in Columbian mine Cerrejón to Glencore, a move in part driven by shareholder pressure.
According to Moola, “many of [these shareholders] have now realised this divestment is probably not the best option in the real world” because it has led to a standalone thermal coal company where management is entirely incentivised to expand its production of such high emission fuels.