The Role of Capital Markets in Saving the Planet and Changing Capitalism - Just Kidding

36 Pages Posted: 2 Mar 2022

See all articles by Michael H. Grote

Michael H. Grote

Frankfurt School of Finance & Management

Matthew Zook

University of Kentucky

Date Written: January 28, 2022


Environmental, social, and governance or ESG investing has experienced a massive inflow of funds in recent years. Given the emphasis on ESG in the media and among the finance community one could easily believe that capital markets are a major contributor to the goal of limiting global warming. Focusing on the environmental dimension of ESG we argue this perception is largely false; a narrative strongly pushed by the finance industry to highlight green initiatives and in so doing, block further (potentially profit-reducing) regulation. We frame our work relative to the finance literature, mostly drawing from economists, but with a critical sensibility drawn from financial geography more generally. Our contribution is to offer a critique of ESG financing on “its own terms” and show how it is largely failing to deliver the outcomes that the finance literature and economic theory would predict. Three main arguments back our analysis: First, actual real-world climate-change prevention driven by capital markets are rather minuscule. Slightly higher capital costs do not translate into meaningful price changes, and in any case, demand often has very low elasticity. Second, while some investors are willing to sacrifice returns for climate-change prevention, most intermediaries are not. Instead, the risk of greatest concern to the finance community is not a warming planet, but potentially upcoming climate-change regulation (“transition risk”). Absent clear standards for measuring impact on climate change, many standard financial products are easily “greenwashed”, providing opportunities for higher fees by funding managers and other financial actors but little actual impact. Third, many green investments would have been done anyway, and so green financing is hard to distinguish from conventional funding. Given this, we argue that even fully green capital markets will not save the planet and may be counter-productive to the extent they provide arguments and political cover against enacting stricter real-world regulation.

Keywords: ESG, sustainable finance, green finance, greenwashing, transition risk, policy failure

JEL Classification: G18, D62, D72, O16

Suggested Citation

Grote, Michael H. and Zook, Matthew, The Role of Capital Markets in Saving the Planet and Changing Capitalism - Just Kidding (January 28, 2022). Available at SSRN: or

Michael H. Grote (Contact Author)

Frankfurt School of Finance & Management ( email )

Adickesallee 32-34
Frankfurt am Main, 60322

Matthew Zook

University of Kentucky ( email )

Lexington, KY 40506
United States

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