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Green Bonds, Explained

By Laurel Tincher · December 15, 2022 · 9 minute read

We’re here to help! First and foremost, SoFi Learn strives to be a beneficial resource to you as you navigate your financial journey. Read more We develop content that covers a variety of financial topics. Sometimes, that content may include information about products, features, or services that SoFi does not provide. We aim to break down complicated concepts, loop you in on the latest trends, and keep you up-to-date on the stuff you can use to help get your money right. Read less

Green Bonds, Explained

Green bonds are debt instruments used to raise money for new and existing environmental and sustainability projects while providing investors with steady returns, similar to ordinary bonds. Green bonds may help fund climate change mitigation and adaptation, renewable energy, conservation, waste management, transportation, and more.

To qualify as actual green bonds, these investments have to be certified by a third party, like the Climate Bonds Standard and Certification Scheme. Green bonds may offer investors certain tax benefits versus other kinds of bonds.

What Is a Green Bond?

A green bond is a type of fixed-income security that pension funds or institutional investors can buy. Individual investors can add green bonds to their portfolio by purchasing ETFs or mutual funds that include green bonds. They are issued by corporations, governments, and financial institutions to raise money for specific sustainability and environmental projects. The World Bank is one of the largest green bond issuers.

A green bond is similar to other types of bonds, but the money borrowed through their sale goes towards vetted projects that fit into pre-determined frameworks to meet sustainability standards.

Most green bonds are asset-linked bonds or “use of proceeds” bonds, where the money raised from the sale of the bonds is earmarked for green projects and backed by the issuer’s balance sheet. For example, “use of proceeds” revenue bonds use the issuer’s revenue as collateral; green project bonds rely on the assets and balance sheet of the particular project as collateral; and green securitized bonds where a group of projects are collateral.

Green Bonds vs Climate Bonds vs Blue Bonds

Green bonds can be structured in different ways and generally fall into the category of impact investing.

•   For example, the term green bond can cover a broad spectrum of projects, from renewable energy to waste management to climate change.

•   There are also climate bonds that put money specifically towards climate change projects such as reducing emissions or adapting infrastructure to changing climate conditions.

•   Blue bonds specifically fund water-related projects, such as cleaning up plastic from the oceans, marine ecosystem restoration and conservation, sustainable fisheries, and wastewater treatment projects.

How Do Green Bonds Work?

Green bonds work much the same as other types of bonds. They’re issued by an entity and pay a certain interest rate, with the main difference being that institutional investors are usually buying the bonds, not retail investors.

Who Issues Green Bonds?

When a company, government, or financial institution wants to raise money for a sustainability project, they might choose to issue green bonds, which can be purchased by individual or institutional investors. Generally green bond issuers are large municipalities or public corporations, because a strong credit rating provides the issuer with a better borrowing rate.

The difference between investing in a green bond and buying a traditional bond is the issuer publicly discloses their plans for how the money will be spent. Uses of the money must be considered ‘green’ for it to be marketed as a green bond. The issuer generally releases a pre-issuance report describing the projects the funds will be used for and their expected impact.

Certifying Green Bonds

Issuers don’t have to follow specific requirements to call their bond green, but many follow voluntary frameworks such as the Climate Bonds Standard (CBS) or the Green Bond Principals (BGPs). By following those frameworks the bond will have a higher rating and investors will be more likely to buy it.

The guidelines outline the types of projects funds are recommended to be used for, how to select green projects, and how to report on the use of funds and results of the bond issuance.

Third-party firms work with the issuer as underwriters, certifiers, and auditors to ensure the money is going towards quality projects and used in the ways the borrower claimed it would be.

The Importance of Pre-Issuance Reports

Many issuers also work with third parties to prepare pre-issuance reports. Those parties help validate the quality of the bond to the extent the issuer chooses. There are four levels of validation a third-party can provide:

1.    An external opinion about the quality of the bond

2.    Verification that the bond aligns with certain environmental and business goals and criteria

3.    Certification with a particular standard such as CBS or BGPs

4.    A bond rating or score

If an issuer plans to issue multiple bonds, they might develop their own green bond framework to outline their particular criteria, goals, and impact. Issuers can either sell directly to investors or go through an exchange that works with green bonds, like the Luxembourg Stock Exchange (LuxSE).

Since the process of creating and tracking a green bond is costly and time consuming, they tend to be issued for large-scale projects.

Once the bond is issued and money raised, the issuer puts the money towards the projects stated in the pre-issuance report. The project could either be directly funded and internally run, or the money could go towards a service company like an energy provider.

The green bond issuer then puts out regular public post-issuance reports to investors, usually on an annual basis. The reports describe the way money has been used, progress, and results of the projects.

Green Bond Principles

In 2014, a group of investment banks established four “Green Bond Principles” to help investors understand green bonds. The principles are:

1.    Use of Proceeds: How money is spent and what types of projects are included

2.    Process for Project Evaluation and Selection: How projects are chosen and vetted

3.    Management of Proceeds: How the money raised by the bond is managed

4.    Reporting: How project progress and impact is shared

Issuers

Issuers of green bonds can include federal, state or city governments, financial institutions, or corporations.

Some reasons a company, government, or financial institution might issue a green bond include:

•   The desire to promote one’s sustainability efforts and image

•   Attracting new investors looking specifically for ESG investment products

•   There can be tax benefits and incentives for issuing green bonds

•   Issuing green bonds can be a good way to raise low-cost capital

•   The issuer is looking to raise millions of dollars or more for particular sustainability projects

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Examples of Green Bonds

One example of a green bond is the World Bank Green Bond, which was developed in collaboration with Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken (SEB) and launched in 2008. SEB and the World Bank saw that there was a demand for a triple-A-rated fixed income product that supports climate change projects, so they developed the World Bank Green Bond in response.

Sale of the bonds raises money from investors looking for a fixed-income asset, and the money goes towards projects vetted by the World Bank that focus on mitigating and adapting to climate change.

Around $18 billion in World Bank Green Bonds have been issued since 2008. There have been 200 different bonds available in 25 currencies. Investors who buy the bonds can both earn a fixed amount and know that their money is going towards climate change mitigation and adaptation projects.

Other green bonds that have been issued by corporations include:

•   Goldman Sachs Renewable Power issued a 24-year, $500 million bond, certified by Sustainalytics, to use for solar energy projects

•   PNC Financial Services Group issued a 5-year, $650 million bond, using an internal green bond framework, to use for energy projects

•   Verizon Communications Inc. issued a 10-year, $1 billion bond to use for energy generation and storage, buildings, and land use projects

When Did Green Bonds Start?

In 2008, the first green bond was issued by the World Bank and European Investment Bank (EIB). The bond was rated AAA. After that it took a few years for green bonds to take off, but since 2014 the market has grown significantly each year.

In 2013, the first USD 1 billion green bond issued by IFC sold out within just one hour after issuance. The first green bond issued by a corporation was issued in 2013 by Vasakronan.

Also in 2013, the first green muni bond was issued by Massachusetts, the first Green City bond was issued by Gothenburg, and the first solar asset-backed securities (ABS) were issued by SolarCity (now Tesla).

The Growth of the Green Bond Market

Over $1 trillion in green bond issuance has been put on the market since the first green bonds were issued in 2007.

Over the past 15 years, the green bond market has grown exponentially. In 2019, $51.3 billion in green bonds was issued in the U.S., and $257.7 billion in bonds was issued worldwide.

The largest green bond issuer is government-backed mortgage firm Fannie Mae in the United States. They issue 9% of the world’s green bonds. Green bonds have been issued by city governments and large corporations including Verizon, Pepsi, and Apple.

Although the U.S. currently has the biggest green bond market, it is projected to be overtaken by the EU in coming years. Between European companies and governments, about $300 billion has been allocated to green bond issuances over the next five years.

Investing In Green Bonds

Interest in sustainability, ESG, renewable energy, and climate change has increased significantly in recent years and is projected to keep growing. As investor interest grows, more and more green bonds are being made available with better disclosure and transparency to give investors peace of mind about the quality of the asset.

Investing in green bonds can be a good way for investors to put their money where their values are. Like other kinds of sustainable investing, ESG investing, or impact investing, green bonds are a way to both make money and make a positive difference in the world

While individuals can’t usually purchase green bonds directly, they can add them to their portfolio by purchasing certain ETFs and mutual funds.

Are Green Bonds a Good Investment?

Like other types of bonds, green bonds can be a relatively safe investment that provides fixed income without a high risk of loss. Bonds don’t tend to pay out high interest rates, but are less risky than other types of investments.

One risk of investing in green bonds is the phenomenon of greenwashing, where an issuer markets a bond as green but it doesn’t actually result in as much positive impact as advertised. A few questions an investor can explore to choose the best green bonds are:

•   Why is the bond being marketed as green?

•   What is the definition of green being used?

•   Is the issuer using a standard such as CBS and working with a third-party certifier?

•   Does the bond have an independent rating?

•   How will the use of funds and impacts be disclosed to investors?

•   Has the issuer issued green bonds in the past and what were the results and reporting standards?

Benefits Of Green Bonds

The main benefit of green bonds is they are designed help support sustainability projects (companies, new technologies) that support people and ecosystems around the world. Market demand is growing for green bonds, and they can be a good way to earn stable, low-risk interest.

Another benefit of green bonds is they can come with tax exemptions and tax credits, so investors might not have to pay income tax on the interest earned from the bond.

The Takeaway

Green bonds are an increasingly popular type of investment product that aim to help make the world a more sustainable place. When a company, government, or financial institution wants to raise money for a sustainability project, they might choose to issue green bonds.

Though green bonds work similar to other types of bonds, in that they’re a form of debt issued by an entity and pay a certain interest rate, the main difference is that institutional investors typically purchase the bonds, not retail investors.

Generally green bond issuers are large municipalities or public corporations, because a strong credit rating provides the issuer with a better borrowing rate.

Investors interested in adding green bonds to their portfolio can purchase ETFs and mutual funds that include green bonds. If you are interested in investing in green bonds through the purchase of fund shares, consider using SoFi Invest®. You can set up an Active Invest account seamlessly and security. The online investing platform lets you research and buy ETFs, stocks, and other assets right from your phone. All you need is a few dollars to get started with sustainable investing.

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Photo credit: iStock/PeopleImages

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