Green Bonds: Types, How To Buy, and FAQs

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by KnowESG
Graphic of green plant watered as investment, growing money

Green Bonds are fixed-income instruments, created to leverage the power of capital markets to fund initiatives that protect the environment. These bonds are typically tied to assets and backed by an issuer's balance sheet, thus carrying a credit rating similar to their other debt obligations. Harnessing investor interest in green investments and offering attractive returns, Green Bonds provide an effective tool for businesses seeking additional funding resources while also working towards sustainability goals.

Green bonds have been around since the early 2000s, but they are not always synonymous with climate bonds. The difference is that while green bonds can finance a variety of sustainability projects, climate bonds specifically focus on reducing carbon emissions and alleviating impacts from climate change. As such, these two terms should be used differently depending on the context in which they are applied. 

This World Economic Forum explainer, while published in 2017, is still a worthwhile overview. Here's our extensive overview on Green Bonds that will answer all your questions:

Key Takeaways

  • Green bonds are a type of fixed-income investment that help fund climate action and environmental projects.

  • To bolster their appeal to certain investors, green bonds may be accompanied by tax advantages.

  • The terms "green bond", "climate bonds" and "sustainable bonds" are often used interchangeably.

  • As part of the bigger picture for investing in a socially responsible and ecologically-sound manner, green bonds pave the way for environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing.

Grasping the Concepts of Green Bonds

Investing in green bonds is a great way to spur sustainability and fund climate- oriented, environmentally conscious projects. From energy efficiency initiatives to the support of clean transportation systems, these investments help create a better world for future generations. Additionally, they can finance technological developments that aid in the mitigation of global climate change while also promoting sustainable agriculture practices such as fishery and forestry conservation and water management strategies.

Investing in green bonds can be advantageous, as they come with a variety of tax incentives like exemptions and credits that make them more profitable than taxable bonds. On top of their financial benefits, these investments have the potential to address pressing ecological problems such as climate change and renewable energy sources - making it an excellent way for investors to contribute towards social progress. For additional assurance on the projects being funded by these bonds, you may wish to consult third-party organisations such as the Climate Bond Standard Board, which is dedicated to verifying its credentials against environmental standards.

The Origins of Green Bonds: An Overview

Since 2012, the volume of green bond issuance has been small, measuring only $2.6 billion. However, by 2016 these bonds began to spread and Chinese issuers dominated with an impressive 34% share ($32.9 billion). There is now a worldwide interest in this form of debt - particularly from the EU and the United States, who are also key players.

The green bond market reached new heights in 2017, with an impressive $161 billion invested worldwide. Although the growth rate somewhat slowed to $167 billion for 2018, it quickly rebounded due to an increasingly climate-aware global population and achieved record numbers of $266.5 billion in investments in 2019 and just under $270 billion in 2020, according to Moody's rating agency report.

During the 2010s, a new opportunity arose that allowed retail investors to join in on green bonds. Companies like Allianz S.E., Axa S.A., State Street Corp., TIAA-CREF, BlackRock, and HSBC took advantage of this trend by introducing innovative mutual funds or exchange-traded funds (ETFs). This initiative empowered everyday people with the ability to make a major impact on environmental efforts through their investments.

Applying Green Bonds in the Present Climate

The World Bank has been a prominent provider of green bonds, issuing $14.4 billion in them from 2008 to 2020 alone — funds that have gone towards 111 projects globally, mainly in renewable energy and efficiency (33%), clean transportation (27%) and agriculture/land use (15%).

In its maiden venture into green bonds, the bank funded Rampur Hydropower Project to generate 1.4 million tons of low-carbon electricity annually for India's northern grid. That financing has already delivered tremendous results - a two-megawatt production capability that is estimated to prevent over 1.4 million tonnes of carbon emissions each year!

Types of Green Bonds 

Green bonds are a form of debt financing for environmental projects, but the features and terms may vary substantially depending on its issuer, what it is used for, the bondholder's rights to access issuer assets in case of liquidation and more. Here are some examples you should be aware of when considering green bonds:

  • “Use of Proceeds” Bonds: This form of financing is exclusively allocated to fund eco-friendly undertakings, yet lenders still have access to the issuer's other assets in case of liquidation. Furthermore, this type of instrument has an identical credit rating as the rest of that individual's debt securities.

  • “Use of Proceeds” Revenue Bonds or Asset-Backed Securities (ABS): Green projects may be funded or refinanced with these securities, however, the debt is backed by streams of revenue from the issuer like taxes and fees. State and municipal entities will typically choose this type of setup when issuing green bonds.

  • Project Bonds: This form of investment is confined to a single green initiative, meaning that investors have access solely to resources that belong directly to the project.

  • Securitization Bonds: Green securitization bonds incorporate a collection of projects into one debt portfolio, giving bondholders access to the assets associated with the full set of projects. Renewable energy initiatives such as green mortgages and solar leasing are among some popular examples of these debt instruments.

  • Covered Bonds: This instrument entails financing a set of green projects, which is recognized as the “covered pool”. Investors may depend on the issuer for payments should something go wrong, however, bondholders gain access to the covered pool if there are any payment issues from the said issuer.

  • Loans: To finance green initiatives, borrowers have the choice of obtaining secured or unsecured loans. Securing a loan involves providing collateral to guarantee repayment while an unsecured credit line is without assets backing the amount provided. In cases where the borrower opts for a secure transaction, lenders can obtain full recourse and in some instances partial recourse to their assets.

Featured Article: The Top 3 Visible Benefits Of ESG Investing

How to Buy Green Bonds 

Institutional investors, such as mutual funds, hedge funds and endowments typically invest large sums in green bonds. If retail investors wish to match their fixed-income portfolios with ecological objectives and ideologies, then there are numerous ETFs or Mutual Funds that offer exposure to the Green bond market.

The iShares USD Green Bond ETF (BGRN) is an excellent example of a sustainable and reliable investment for environmental projects. It mimics the performance of U.S.-based investments in green bonds, with both non-U.S. and U.S- based debtors included under its umbrella, while only using dollar-denominated debts as collateral to guarantee returns on your investment.

Retail investors may experience more complexity when looking to purchase individual green bonds. It's possible that your broker can help you to invest in such assets, but investing in corporate-issued green bonds could oblige you to satisfy the minimum deposits, maintenance fees and commissions set forth by them. Government-backed green bonds can also be procured through either your broker or directly from the issuing entity. ETFs such as BRGN are also accessible for acquisition via brokerage accounts or web-based trading platforms.

How does a green bond work?

Green bonds are no different than any other government or corporate bond. They are simply issued by borrowers to obtain capital for projects that will have a beneficial impact on the environment, including things like reducing pollution and restoring ecosystems. Investors who purchase these securities receive not only their profits when the bond matures, but can enjoy the tax advantages as well.

How big is the green bond market?

The Climate Bonds Initiative reports that, in 2020, the issuance of green bonds reached an all-time high of $269.5 billion with the United States, leading at a staggering $50 billion new issuances, so this figure has brought the cumulative global issuance of green bonds to over one trillion dollars.

How are green bonds different from blue bonds?

Blue bonds are an invaluable means to support the conservation of our planet's oceans and related marine species. These sustainability bonds finance projects such as sustainable fisheries, protection of coral reefs, prevention of pollution or acidification, etc. It is important to note that while all blue bonds are green bonds, not all green bonds are blue bond investments.

What are climate bonds?

Climate bonds are green debt instruments that are specifically issued to finance green projects and initiatives. They are a type of bond that has been created to help advance green investments and projects in order to help combat climate change. A green bond is essentially a loan taken out by a government or private organisation which is then invested into green initiatives such as renewable energy, green buildings, green transportation and other environmental-related projects. Green bonds typically offer low-risk returns for investors, allowing them to support causes they believe in while potentially earning money, as the capital raised is used to fund green projects.

The Climate Bond Initiative (CBI) was established in 2009 to promote the development and issuance of green bonds. It sets standards for green bond issuance, creates market transparency and encourages dialogue between investors, governments and companies on how best to put green bonds into use. 

The CBI works with organisations such as the International Finance Corporation (IFC), World Bank Group, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and others to create an enabling environment for green bonds through its certification process, which ensures that climate bonds meet four essential criteria; they generate proceeds that will be used exclusively for eligible green projects; they have been structured properly; they are backed by transparent reporting; and they are accompanied by clear objectives related to climate change mitigation or adaptation goals.

Climate bonds provide access to investments with low risk profiles while supporting sustainable development initiatives that are crucial in helping us tackle climate change. As more countries recognise the value of investing in green projects, climate bonds have grown in popularity among investors seeking ethical options with potential financial gains while helping address critical global issues at the same time.

How are green bonds different from climate bonds?

Although the terms "green bonds" and "climate bonds" are sometimes interchangeable, certain experts use climate bonds to refer specifically to initiatives designed for diminishing carbon emissions or mitigating the impacts of environmental change. The Climate Bonds Initiative is a group that aims at creating an authoritative standard for labelling climate bonds.

How do I know if a green bond is actually green?

Despite initiatives such as the Climate Bonds Initiative, there is still no official standard to recognise a bond's environmental friendliness. It is possible that debt instruments may be advertised to investors as 'green' even though their positive effects on the environment are questionable. These cases of greenwashing--making false or exaggerated claims about an item's eco-friendliness--illustrate why it’s so important for investors to do proper research before investing in potential green bonds.

The Climate Bonds Initiative is not the sole organisation providing assessments of bond issuers' environmental claims - Bloomberg L.P Moody's, and other specialised firms have joined in with their own examinations as well.

Problems with green bonds

One of the main problems with green bonds is the lack of standardisation. Every green bond issuer may use different criteria to define green investments, which makes it difficult to compare green bonds across issuers. This can make it hard for investors to understand how green the investments are compared to other green bonds. The Climate Bonds Initiative has developed a framework and certification program to address this problem, but some green bond issuers may not comply with these standards and labels, meaning investors need to do their own research into what qualifies as green under each bond issuer's guidelines.

Another issue is that green bonds can be expensive due to high marketing costs, low liquidity in secondary markets, and low investor demand. Additionally, there can be significant transaction costs associated with green bonds due to complex structures such as derivatives and weather-based index triggers. These additional costs often mean that investors may not recoup their initial investment or achieve expected returns from green bonds.

Finally, there is a risk that money from green bonds could end up funding projects that are not actually benefiting the environment or climate change mitigation efforts, instead simply being labelled as “green”. Without proper oversight or transparency around how these funds are used, there is no guarantee they will be put towards sustainable development goals - meaning investors may not receive their expected returns on their investment if projects fail or don't meet their objectives.

Despite these challenges and risks when investing in green bonds, they remain an important source of finance for many climate-related initiatives globally and can provide opportunities for long-term value growth if managed carefully by investors who understand the additional risks involved with this asset class.

(For comparison, check out our overview on Impact Investing)

Last Word

If you're an investor looking for funds aligned with your environmental values, green bonds may be the perfect option. They do provide tax advantages and financial incentives, although to guarantee that bond issuers' claims of sustainability are credible, it is essential to do some research before investing in these types of assets. Trading with virtual money can also help investors practise without taking any risks.

For regular updated ESG investment news, follow our Investors section.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

When was the first green bond issued?

In 2007, a group of Swedish pension funds actively sought to invest in ventures that would benefit the environment. By November 2008, the World Bank became a pioneer in green bonds and was able to successfully gather resources from investors for climate-related projects. This marked an important milestone for environmentally conscious investments!

Are green bonds tax-free?

By investing in tax-exempt bonds, bondholders are exempt from paying income taxes on their interest payments. This incentive is usually offered to municipal bonds investors in the US market, allowing them to attain a lower interest rate than they would otherwise have access to.

Who invests in green bonds?

Green bonds are just like any other fixed-income instrument, but the proceeds from these instruments must be used for green projects. Corporates, banks and financial institutions, multilateral development banks and sovereign nations can all act as issuers of this special type of bond.

How do green bonds make money?

With the first option, green bond investors gain tax credits as opposed to interest payments, thus zeroing out any obligation of interest on the issuers' part. The second option results in government cash rebates for net interest payment coverages - a major advantage to bond issuers.

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