Fossil Fuel Investment Risk: Losses, and Pressure to disclose Risks to Investors

A March 2 article in The Tyee, “How a B.C. union dumped fossil fuels and cashed in”   highlights the profitable  decision of the B.C. Government Employees Union to move $20 million in its strike fund and general reserves from equities (and fossil fuels)  into cash in 2014. The article then discusses the more complex issues of climate risk in pension fund investing (B.C.GEU did not divest its pension fund). A March 1 article  in Grist, “New York lost Billions with Fossil Fuel Investments”  estimates  that the New York State Common Retirement Fund,  the third largest pension fund in the U.S., lost $5 billion over three years through its investments in fossil fuel companies.  The estimate is based on the analysis of Toronto-based Corporate Knights, using its Decarbonizer  calculator.  Another Corporate Knights analysis of the performance of 14 major funds  , including Harvard’s endowment, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the pension plans of Canada and the Netherlands, estimated that the combined losses of the 14 funds since  2012 was $23 billion.

In early March, the investment committee for the largest pension fund in the U.S., California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) voted  to require that the corporations it invests in must include people on their boards who have expertise in climate change risk management strategies.  On March 24, CBC reported  that the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) has ordered Exxon to put to a vote at its shareholders’ meeting in May a resolution which would require Exxon to make annual disclosure of risks to company’s operations from climate change or legislation designed to control carbon pollution.

These are all evidence that the investment community is paying attention to the investment risks of fossil fuels, particularly stranded assets.  At COP21, a global Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) was established, with Michael Bloomberg at the head, to“consider the physical, liability and transition risks associated with climate change and what constitutes effective financial disclosures across industries”… and to “ develop voluntary, consistent climate-related financial risk disclosures for use by companies in providing information to investors, lenders, insurers, and other stakeholders”.  In January, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland,  proposals for risk reporting by fossil fuel companies were set out in  Considerations for Reporting Disclosure in a Carbon-constrained world   from Carbon Tracker Initiative and the Climate Disclosure Standards Board .  Too Late, Too Sudden: Transition to a Low-Carbon Economy and Systemic Risk (Feb. 2016)     from the  European Systemic Risk Board in February recommends that policymakers increase disclosure of the carbon intensity of non-financial firms (that would include the fossil fuel industry), noting that “Fossil-fuel firms and electricity utilities are substantially debt financed, exacerbating the potential financial stability impact of a sudden revaluation of stranded assets.”  For a Canadian context, see an October 2015 working paper from SHARE, Integrating the Economy and the Environment: An Overview of Canadian Capital Markets  .

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