ESG in real estate finance, part 1: How a loan can be good for the environment

In the first of a three-part deep dive, we ask how real estate lenders are addressing the E of ESG.

When real estate debt deals are announced, lenders and  borrowers are increasingly likely to badge them as ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’. But it is not always clear how they are beneficial to the environment or to wider society.

In recent years, investors in real estate have recognised the importance of managing environmental, social and governance risk. The industry, a major contributor to carbon emissions and rarely celebrated as a positive contributor to society, has been criticised in the past for its sluggish progress in this area. Now, those who build, buy or manage property are expected to ensure their buildings meet environmental standards, have a positive social impact, and that stakeholders in them operate in a responsible manner.

Yet for those supplying the buildings’ owners with debt finance, who are one step removed from the bricks and mortar, integrating ESG into their activities is less straightforward. As industry leaders contemplate a landscape irrevocably changed by covid-19, ESG matters have been propelled higher up the agenda. That has placed an onus on debt providers to consider how all three aspects of ESG can be part of their activities.

According to Emmanuel Verhoosel, global head of real estate and hospitality in French bank Natixis’s corporate and investment banking division, more progress in this area can be expected in 2021: “The wider financial industry is evolving more rapidly than the real estate sector on ESG. Occupiers are also driving this, as they require better assets from a sustainability point of view.”

We asked property debt market participants how they are thinking about the E, S and G parts of sustainability, and how those factors can be a meaningful part of a real estate financing deal.

How can a loan be good for the environment?

Emmanuel Verhoosel
Verhoosel: “The wider financial industry is evolving more rapidly than the real estate sector on ESG”

So far, the E is where real estate lenders have made the most progress.

Loans written using environmental financing frameworks have become a market feature. Facilities in keeping with the Green Loan Principles, published by the Loan Market Association in 2018, are the most common.

These must be allocated to financing the acquisition, development or refurbishment of assets that meet the finance industry body’s definition of ‘green’.

The LMA’s Sustainability Linked Loan Principles, published in 2019, are also increasingly used. Proceeds of such loans can be used for general purposes but must offer the borrower an incentive to meet sustainability targets.

There is a lack of data on what proportion of European real estate loans are structured using these principles. However, Bloomberg and Nordic bank Nordea recorded $7.7 billion of green loans and $6.5 billion of sustainability-linked loans announced by real estate companies worldwide in 2020.

The problem is that such frameworks are not specific to real estate finance and leave considerable room for interpreting what ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ mean. Thomas Garnier, originator in Natixis’s green and sustainable hub, says his bank’s solution was to create its own definitions: “We have built our green framework of eligibility criteria for each kind of asset class and type of financing opportunity. For example, in a refurbishment, to be eligible for a green loan, the borrower would need to demonstrate that such renovation will improve the building’s energy efficiency by at least 30 percent in absolute terms.”

Transition loans

Aviva Investors, the investment manager of UK insurer Aviva, in December launched a proprietary framework for ‘climate transition’ loans for commercial real estate. Stanley Kwong, who leads ESG origination and impact investment strategy for Aviva Investors’ real assets business, says it enables the company to identify existing buildings that need improvement: “To truly tackle climate change, it is important to think about this as a transition. You are transitioning assets that already exist, rather than focusing on shiny, brand-new buildings.”

Since 2016, German bank Berlin Hyp has provided loans that incorporate a 10-basis-point discount for developments or investments that fulfil its green criteria. Like Aviva, it is now expanding its green lending repertoire.

Winkler-Viti: “The bank is currently working on the creation of a ‘transformation loan’ “

Bodo Winkler-Viti, head of funding and investor relations at Berlin Hyp, explains: “Being aware of the still high number of buildings that do not meet the green building criteria yet, the bank is currently working on the creation of a ‘transformation loan’, which is intended to enable the financing of transformation measures in the building sector, such as energy-efficiency optimisation.”

Such products raise the question of whether just choosing to finance the market’s best assets, which typically have the highest environmental performance credentials, should be enough to earn the kudos of being a ‘green lender’, or whether the onus should be on funding the transformation of brownfield sites or underperforming buildings into sustainable assets.

Most of our sources argue there is a need for both types of finance. The most important consideration, they say, is the availability of clearly defined loan products aimed at the right outcome.

Janssen: “If there is not a meaningful reward-penalisation mechanism to incentivise sustainability performance, it’s just a normal loan”

Christian Janssen, head of Nuveen Real Estate’s European lending business, says a loan must include conditions linked to the collateral’s environmental performance: “If there is not a meaningful reward-penalisation mechanism to incentivise sustainability performance, then it is just a normal loan. We have to try to avoid weakening the aim of a green loan, which seeks to bring a real benefit through the use of proceeds for new or existing green projects, or through incentivising a borrowers’ behaviour to be more sustainable.”

Eyes on the KPIs

Kirkman: “This is not what will make us work towards sustainability improvement, but it will definitely incentivise us to do more”

Loans in which the margin fluctuates depending on the borrower’s success against sustainable key performance indicators are not new, but they are gaining traction. In September, listed UK property company CLS Holdings sourced a £154 million (€168 million) loan from Aviva, featuring a 10bps margin reduction if the company hits targets including reduction of carbon usage.

Andrew Kirkman, CLS’s chief financial officer, says it is a real incentive. “On this loan, 10bps means we will be saving £150,000 per year. This is not what will make us work towards sustainability improvement, but it will definitely incentivise us to do more.”

Cliquet: “In order to be credible, lenders and borrowers need some sort of external review or assessment, although they do not have an obligation”

Meaningful targets and clear financial implications within loan structures can ensure green loans have an impact, sources agree. Benjamin Cliquet, head of sustainable finance business development at Vigeo Eiris, an ESG rating and research agency that provides firms with a second opinion on sustainability matters, says one of the firm’s main duties is helping organisations avoid accusations of ‘greenwashing’.

“In order to be credible, lenders and borrowers need some sort of external review or assessment, although they do not have an obligation,” he explains.

Janssen agrees that green targets need to be clear in loan deals: “Some lenders might be tempted to have minimal green targets but are aiming to gain a publicity-led green halo, which is something the industry should discourage to avoid the ESG drive becoming meaningless and devalued. The European taxonomy and disclosures regulations should help address this.”

McGinley: “We build to hold assets for 20 to 30 years, so for us to invest in sustainability credentials makes sense”

From 2022, managers will be required to identify sustainable economic activity, as defined in the EU’s new taxonomy – an example of how regulators are holding the financial sector to account on ESG. However, there is also a sea change in real estate investor and manager activity as it becomes clear that high-carbon projects have no viable future. Pat McGinley, chief operating officer of Irish property company IPUT, is among the investors embracing the change: “We build to hold assets for 20 to 30 years, so for us to invest in sustainability credentials makes sense, as it enables us to ensure we can attract the widest possible tenant base.”

He says it also made sense to agree a €300 million revolving credit facility in May 2020 with US bank Wells Fargo in which a €200 million component could only fund sustainable assets – the type of properties he says his company is already focused on.

Transferable benefits

Within the credit market, there is a growing acknowledgement that the transferability of sustainable debt is a benefit for lenders. Natixis’s Verhoosel says it is easier to syndicate a green loan. “An increasing number of lenders have quantified targets to green loans,” he says. “Disclosing the transaction as green in the credit committee internally helps onboarding because it meets some of the targets that lenders have set for themselves.”

Demand for green bonds is also encouraging real estate sponsors to issue debt instruments with sustainable credentials. In January 2020, Goldman Sachs issued Europe’s first ‘green’ commercial mortgage-backed securities deal against a Paris office complex. Jan Janssen, co-head of the US bank’s European real estate financing group, says plenty of work went into ensuring the assets were suitable for a green financing.

“Different investors have different internal ESG criteria,” he says. “Whilst you can conduct your internal due diligence on the asset and get a third-party certification, investors also do their own due diligence in respect to what they consider ESG-eligible.”

However, he adds that the result was worthwhile for the bank: “We think the green rating helped with the distribution because we saw incremental demand from investors.”

Read more:
ESG in real estate finance: Considering societal impact
ESG in real estate finance: How governance fits in