U.K. guide to pension fund divestment includes a role for unions

Divesting to protect our pensions and the planet:  An analysis of local government investments in coal, oil and gas was released in February by Platform, Friends of the Earth Scotland and Friends of the Earth England Wales and Northern Ireland.

The report details the extent of fossil fuel investment by local governments in the U.K., and their progress in divestment. However, of broader interest, it summarizes the financial status of the declining fossil fuel industry, explains the process which lead to stranded assets, and describes the financial dangers for all pension funds in quite understandable terms:  “pension funds exposed to the fossil fuel system in the coming decade will face a rollercoaster ride of disruption, write-downs, financial instability and share price deratings as markets adjust.”  In an explanation very relevant to Canadians, whose own Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board still clings to the “staying invested and ‘engaging’” approach –    the report uses the example of investing in Blockbuster videos vs. Netflix, to debunk the “engagement” approach: “The argument for ‘engagement’ tends to be one made by asset owners who employ investment managers who won’t or can’t accept that there is a technology-driven transition occurring. …. this approach of ‘we’ll decarbonise when markets decide to decarbonise’ is clearly not a risk management strategy. It is a ‘do nothing, and hope a few meetings will help’ strategy.”   

Divesting to protect our pensions and the planet offers practical steps for local councillors, community members, and labour unionists.  For unions, it points to the leadership of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), which passed a climate action motion in 2017 which included support for divestment, based on a motion by their constituent unions representing food workers, communication workers, fire brigades, train drivers, and other transport workers.  Unison, the primary union representing U.K.  government workers, also passed a strong divestment motion in 2017 – meaningful because in the U.K., union members in government workplaces are usually entitled to some form of representation on their pension fund committee and board. The report urges union members to become knowledgeable about financial issues and to speak up in committee meetings – advocating for divestment and re-investment in lower-carbon, socially just funds which benefit their local communities and economies, especially after Covid.  The report cites inspiring examples, such as investment in wind farms by Manchester and London Councils, the U.K.’s first community-owned solar power cooperative by Lancashire County Council, and social housing in the Forth Valley and in London Councils.

An earlier guide for unions was Our Pensions, Our Communities, Our Planet: How to reinvest our pensions for our good? published by the Trade Union Group within Campaign against Climate Change.  The 6-page, action-oriented fact sheet lacks all the up-to-date statistical detail in Divesting to protect our pensions and the planet but makes many of the same arguments for divestment, and includes links to U.K. resources, as well as a model motion for local unions.

Canadian university pension funds unite for low carbon goals, and public sector pension funds across the country act on sustainability

With the goal to leverage their collective financial clout, Canadian university endowment funds and pension plans launched the University Network for Investor Engagement (UNIE) on February 18.  Working through SHARE, Canada’s leading not-for-profit in responsible investment services,  “The UNIE initiative will focus on key sectors where advocacy can make the biggest difference, including finance, transportation, energy and utilities, and manufacturing, focusing both on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and accelerating the transition to a low carbon economy.”  Initial participants include Carleton University, Concordia University, McGill University, McMaster University, Mount Alison University, Université de Montreal, University of St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto Asset Management, University of Victoria, and York University.

This development  follows on a number of statements and initiatives by Canadian pension administrators – most of which reflect this general strategy to prefer  engagement as shareholders over divestment from fossil fuel holdings. Some examples:

In November 2020, the CEOs of Canada’s eight major pension administrators, with approximately $1.6 trillion in assets under management, issued a press release announcing their joint position statement, Companies and investors must put sustainability and inclusive growth at the centre of economic recovery.  The text  calls on companies to provide consistent and complete environmental, social, and governance (ESG) information, and continues: “For our part, we continue to strengthen our own ESG disclosure and integration practices, and allocate capital to investments best placed to deliver long-term sustainable value creation.”  The signatories included: AIMCo, BCI, Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, CPP Investments, HOOPP, OMERS, Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, and PSP Investments.

Why are Ontario pensioners investing in future Alberta stranded assets?” (in Corporate Knights, December 16, 2020)  describes investment by OP Trust (which holds the pension funds of Ontario civil servants, teachers and healthcare workers) in a natural gas electricity-generation plant in Alberta.  The authors summarize the growing global realization that fossil fuel investments are financially risky and conclude, “The people at OPTrust have begun to recognize this. They’ve created multiple reports, with pretty graphs and rosy statements about supporting the Paris Agreement. But this statement rings out: “Emission reduction targets are not today’s objective.” Like many other organizations, they are unwilling to walk the talk.”

Similarly, a Net Zero Emissions Commitment  released by the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan on January 21 has been criticized as possible greenwashing.   An article in The National Observer,  “Breaking down Ontario Teachers’ 2050 net-zero emissions promise” (Feb. 4)  states: “With no clear definition for what net-zero means or how it will alter investment decisions, the commitment runs the risk of becoming a cynical example of greenwashing……If OTPP is serious about adopting a globally significant climate-safe investment strategy, it needs a plan to exclude all new oil, gas and coal investments; a timeline for phasing out existing fossil fuel holdings; a commitment to decarbonize its portfolio by 2030; ambitious new targets for increasing investments in profitable climate solutions; and a requirement for owned companies to refrain from lobbying activities that undermine ambitious climate policy, set corporate timelines for reducing emissions, and link executive compensation to measurable climate goals.”   These goals reflect the position of the authors, who are members of ShiftAction for Pension wealth and Planet Health, which outlines the same demands in their  Open Letter campaign for teachers . (In the FAQ statement accompanying the Net Zero statement, the OTPP states:  “We favour engagement over divestment, since selling our stakes simply passes on the problem and causes us to lose our ability to influence for positive change.” )

On February 19, the British Columbia Investment Management Corporation (BCI), which manages pensions for B.C. public sector workers, announced  that it “will target a cumulative $5 billion investment in sustainability bonds by 2025 …. and reduce the carbon exposure in its global public equities portfolio by 30 per cent by 2025”  from 2019.  BCI was a  founding signatory to the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) in 2006, has supported the TCFD recommendations, and issued its own Climate Action Plan in 2018. The Energy Mix summarized the B.C. developments in this February 22 article .

Alberta public sector pensions lose more control over pension savings  

A joint press conference by union leaders protested the January 4 2021 Ministerial Orders which build on Bill 22 in 2019 by further weakening the  decision-making powers of the Alberta Teachers Retirement Fund . From the unions’ press release: “….. not only will AIMCo be the monopoly provider of investment management services, they will also be able to ignore the wishes of the pension plans when it comes to decisions about how the retirement savings of workers and retirees should be invested……We think Jason Kenney’s end game is to use the retirement savings of hundreds of thousands of Albertan to prop up oil and gas ventures in the province that are having an increasingly difficult time raising money from global investors and international markets …. To be clear: we are not opposed to all oil and gas investments. What we ARE opposed to is a system in which the government gives itself the power to invest other people’s money in risky ventures without their permission.”  The Alberta Teachers Association is preparing a legal challenge to the Ministerial Order, according to a CBC report.  The back story is described in  “Alberta’s United Conservative Party Has Seized Control of Its Public-Sector Pension Funds”  (Jacobin, Feb. 2), an interview with Alberta Teachers Retirement Fund Board Chair Greg Meeker .

Climate Risk consultations by Canadian pension fund regulator

On January 11, 2011, the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions     (OSFI), Canada’s regulator of banks and pension plans,  announced a three-month consultation on the climate change risks to financial stability, based on a discussion paper, Navigating Uncertainty in Climate Change: Promoting Preparedness and Resilience to Climate-Related Risks.

Climate change and health: U.K. National Health Service launches new campaign for greener health care; more medical associations divest from fossil fuels

England’s National Health Service (NHS) is the country’s largest employer with 1.3 million staff, and its operations are responsible for approximately 4-5% of England’s carbon footprint. On January 25, the Chief executive officer of the NHS announced a new campaign to tackle the global climate change health emergency through a greener health care system.  A website for the new campaign, “For a Greener NHS”, focuses on a goal of a net zero national health service, with an Expert Panel to compile experiences and make recommendations in an interim report due in summer 2020, and a final report scheduled for Fall 2020.  In the meantime, the Greener NHS campaign will encourage such initiatives as switching from coal or oil-fired boilers to renewable heat sources for buildings; switching to less polluting anaesthetic gases and better asthma inhalers in treatment; and introducing technological solutions to reduce the number of patient visits and travel miles.

Another part of the initiative is a grassroots campaign for front-line workers, supported by the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change – which includes representative bodies covering over 650,000 NHS staff, including the union UNISON . The NHS press release quotes UNISON:  “Involving staff is crucial if the NHS is to help the UK meet its emissions targets in good time. They know more than anyone how the health service ticks and so are best placed to make practical green suggestions to get the NHS to where it needs to be.”  Examples of existing staff-oriented programs are described in case studies :  reducing the use of disposable plastic gloves;  an electric bike courier system for delivery of medical and laboratory samples; and a sustainable travel initiative  to encourage staff use of transit, shuttle buses, bicycles and walking for journeys to work.

British medical associations and organizations are also acting at the societal level. In January, the prestigious British Medical Journal (BMJ) published an editorial: “Investing in humanity: The BMJ’s divestment campaign” , which calls on individuals and organizations to act immediately, stating: “Divestment offers health professionals and medical organisations, for the duty is both individual and collective, an opportunity to influence politicians and industry towards behaviours that are better for the planet and people’s health.”  While urging divestment, the BMJ states: ” we will not accept advertising or research funded by companies that produce fossil fuels. We will also explore how else our business might be dependent on fossil fuel companies and take steps to end any such reliance. The BMA has no direct holdings in tobacco or fossil fuel companies.”  (Note that The Guardian newspaper in the U.K. also announced in February 2020 that  it will ban any fossil fuel advertising. ) According to a press release from the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, six constituent groups of the Alliance have announced an intention, or are already divesting, from fossil fuels:  the British Medical Association, the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Faculty of Public Health, the Royal College of Emergency Medicine and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health,  and in January 2020, the Royal College of Physicians .   The Canadian Medical Association has also divested from fossil fuels.

Answering Mark Carney: What are the climate plans for Canada’s banks and pension funds?

On December 18, the Bank of England was widely reported  to have unveiled a new “stress test” for the financial risks of climate change. That stress test is a proposal contained in an official BoE Discussion Paper,  2021 biennial exploratory scenario (BES) on the financial risks from climate change , open for stakeholder comments until March 2020.  Mark Carney, outgoing Governor of the Bank of England, has led the BoE to a leadership position on this issue in the financial community and will continue  in his new role as United Nations special envoy on climate action and climate finance in 2020.  In a December BBC interview reviewing his legacy, he warned the world yet again about stranded assets and asked: “A question for every company, every financial institution, every asset manager, pension fund or insurer: what’s your plan?”

What are the climate plans for Canada’s pension funds ?

shift action pension report 2019In their June 2019 report, Canada’s Pension Funds and Climate Risk: A Baseline For Engagement  , ShiftAction concludes: “Canadian pension funds are already investing in climate solutions, but at levels that are far too low relative to the potential for profitable growth, consistent with levels required to solve this challenge.” The report provides an overview, and importantly, offers tips on how to engage with and influence pension fund managers.

Since then…..

The sustainability performance of  the  Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB) continues to be unimpressive, as documented in  Fossil Futures: The Canada Pension Plan’s failure to respect the 1.5-degree Celsius limitreleased in November ccpaFossilfuture2019 by the Canadian Centre for Policy Analysis-B.C. (CCPA-BC).  According to the CPPIB Annual Report for 2019, (June 2019) the CPPIB is aiming for full adoption of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures recommendations by the end of fiscal 2021 (page 28).

Canada’s second largest pension fund, the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ), announced in November that CEO Michael Sabia will retire in February 2020 and move to the University of Toronto Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. The press release credits Sabia with leading the Caisse to a position of global leadership on climate change, beginning in 2017 with the launch of an investment strategy which aims to increase low-carbon assets and reduce the carbon intensity of investment holdings by 25%. In 2019, the Caisse announced that its portfolio would be carbon-neutral by 2050.   Ivanhoé Cambridge ,the real estate subsidiary of the Caisse de dépôt, has a stated goal to increase low-carbon investments by 50% by the year 2020 and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by the year 2025. In December 2019, Ivanhoé Cambridge announced that it had issued a $300 million  unsecured green bond to finance green initiatives – the first real estate corporation in Canada to do so. Shawn McCarthy reviewed Sabia’s legacy in “Canada’s second largest pension fund gets deadly serious about climate crisis”, in Corporate Knights in December.

AIMCo, the Alberta Investment Management Corporation is a Crown Corporation of the Government of Alberta, with management responsibility for the public sector pensions funds in Alberta, along with other investments. In November 2019, the Alberta government passed Bill 22, which unilaterally transfers pension assets from provincial worker plans to the control of AIMCo (see a CBC summary here ). The Alberta Federation of Labour and the province’s large unions protested in a joint statement, “Union leaders tell UCP: ‘The money saved by Albertans for retirement belongs to them, not to you!’” (Nov. 20) . The unions state: “we’re worried that what you’re attempting to do is use other people’s money to create a huge slush fund to finance an agenda that has not yet been articulated to the public – and which most people would not feel comfortable using their life savings to support.” And in December 2019, those worries seem to come true as AIMCo announced  its participation in a consortium to buy a 65% equity interest in the controversial LNG Coastal GasLink Pipeline Project from TC Energy Corporation. Rabble.ca reported on the demonstrations at AIMCo’s Toronto offices regarding the Coastal Gas project in January .

On January 8, the Toronto Star published  “Toronto asks pension provider: How green are our investments?” – revealing that the city has asked for more details from the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement fund (OMERS). OMERS, with assets of over $100 billion, manages the pension savings of a variety of Ontario public employees, including City of Toronto and Toronto Police, Fire, and Paramedics. On January 8, OMERS announced the latest consolidation of Toronto pension plans with its consolidation of the Metropolitan Toronto Pension. Its Sustainable Investment Policy statement is here .

What are the climate plans for Canada’s private Banks?  

The 10th annual edition of Banking on Climate Change: the Fossil Fuel Finance Report Card was released in October 2019 by Banktrac, Rainforest Alliance Network and others . It states that $1.9 trillion has been invested in fossil fuels by the world’s private banks since the Paris Agreement, led by JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citi and Bank of America. Canadian banks also rank high in the world: RBC (5th), TD (8th), Scotiabank ( 9th), and Bank of Montreal (15th).  Also in October, the World Resources Institute green-targets2published Unpacking Green Targets: A Framework for Interpreting Private Sector Banks’ Sustainable Finance Commitments , which includes Canadian banks in its global analysis and provides guidance on how to understand banks’ public documents.  “How Are Banks Doing on Sustainable Finance Commitments? Not Good Enough”  is the WRI blog which summarizes the findings.

Since then….

On September 14, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce announced the release of their first climate-related disclosure report aligned with the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures. Building a Sustainable Future highlights the CIBC’s governance, strategy, and risk management approach to climate related issues. It provides specific metrics and targets, especially for its own operational footprint, but also a commitment: “to a $150 billion environmental and sustainable finance goal over 10 years (2018-2027).”

Scotiabank also announced climate-related changes in November, including “that it would “mobilize $100 billion by 2025 to support the transition to a lower-carbon and more resilient economy”; ensure robust climate-related governance and reporting; enhance integration of climate risk assessments in lending, financing and investing activities; deploy innovative solutions to decarbonize operations; and establish a Climate Change Centre of Excellence “to provide our employees with the tools and knowledge to empower them to act in support of our climate commitments. This includes training and education, promoting internal collaboration, and knowledge and information sharing.”  Their 4-page statement on climate commitment  is here. Their  2018 Sustainable Business Report (latest available) includes detailed metrics and description of the bank’s own operations, including that they use an Internal Carbon Price of CAD$15/tonne CO2, to be reviewed every two years.

RBC, ranked Canada’s worst fossil-fueling bank in the 2019 edition of Banking on Climate Change , released a 1-page statement of their Commitment to Sustainable Finance (April 2019)  and an undated Climate Blueprint  with a target of $100 billion in sustainable financing by 2025.  However, in their new research report,  Navigating the 2020’s: How Canada can thrive in a decade of change , the bank characterizes the coming decade as “Greener, Greyer, Smarter, Slower”, but offers little hope of a change in direction. For example, the report states “ Canada’s natural gas exports can also play a role in reducing emissions intensity abroad. LNG shipments to emerging economies in Asia, where energy demand is growing much faster than in Canada, can help replace coal in electricity production, just as natural gas is doing here in Canada. …As climate concerns mount, Canada’s challenge will be to better sell ourselves as a responsible, cleaner energy producer.”

Financial giants targeted by new U.S. divestment campaign; Youth challenge the Davos elites to stop investing in the fossil fuel economy immediately

stop the money pipeline targetsLaunched at Jane Fonda’s final #FireDrillFriday event in Washington D.C. on January 10, the Stop the Money Pipeline , according to a Sierra Club press release , will consolidate a number of existing divestment campaigns and target the worst climate offenders in each part of the financial sector. The first campaign round consists of three major targets: amongst banks:  JP Morgan Chase;  amongst  insurance companies: Liberty Mutual;  and amongst asset managers, BlackRock. Groups involved in Stop the Money Pipeline are: 350.org,  Rainforest Action Network (RAN), Sierra Club, Greenpeace USA, Sunrise Project, Future Coalition, Divest Ed, Divest-Invest, Native Movement, Giniw Collective, Transition U.S., Oil Change International, 350 Seattle, EarthRights International, Union of Concerned Scientists, Majority Action, The YEARS Project, and Amazon Watch.

The Stop the Money Pipeline website  has archived some of the arguments for their campaign – including Bill McKibben’s September Commentary in the New YorkerMoney Is the Oxygen on Which the Fire of Global Warming Burns”, and “Why Big Banks Are Accused Of Funding The Climate Crisis” in  HuffPost  in October 2019.  The campaign launch has been described in “Climate Movement Takes Aim at Wall Street, Because ‘Money Is Only Language Fossil Fuel Industry Speaks‘” in Common Dreams (Jan. 9);   , and  in  “Want to do something about climate change? Follow the money” in the New York Times  on Jan. 11. In that Opinion piece, Bill McKibben and Lennox Yearwood Jr.  describe their arrest at a sit- in at the Chase Bank which was part of the campaign launch. Democracy Now also covered the events in  “Stop the Money Pipeline”: 150 Arrested at Protests Exposing Wall Street’s Link to Climate Crisis  on January 13 .

Are campaigns having any effect?

Perhaps it is just coincidence, but on January 9,  BlackRock announced it is signing on to  Climate Action 100+, a global investor network formed in 2015 and which includes California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), HSBC Global Asset Management, and Manulife Asset Management.   BlackRock also announced a new investment strategy, summarized in  “BlackRock Will Put Climate Change at Center of Investment Strategy”   in the New York Times (Jan. 14) . The NYT article emphasizes the company’s influence as the world’s largest investment fund with over $7 trillion under management, and states that “this move … could reshape how corporate America does business and put pressure on other large money managers to follow suit.”  The new strategy is outlined in two Annual Letters from BlackRock’s CEO Larry Fink:  Sustainability as BlackRock’s New Standard for Investing , the letter to corporate clients states, “Our investment conviction is that sustainability-integrated portfolios can provide better risk-adjusted returns to investors”.  The second letter, titled A Fundamental Reshaping of Finance, acknowledges that  protests have had an impact on their position: Climate change has become a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects. Last September, when millions of people took to the streets to demand action on climate change, many of them emphasized the significant and lasting impact that it will have on economic growth and prosperity – a risk that markets to date have been slower to reflect.”   He continues: “…. awareness is rapidly changing, and I believe we are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance.… climate change is almost invariably the top issue that clients around the world raise with BlackRock. ….   In the near future – and sooner than most anticipate – there will be a significant reallocation of capital.”  However, this urgency seems somewhat at odds with another statement in the Letter to CEO’s: “…. While the low-carbon transition is well underway, the technological and economic realities mean that the transition will take decades. Global economic development, particularly in emerging markets, will continue to rely on hydrocarbons for a number of years. As a result, the portfolios we manage will continue to hold exposures to the hydrocarbon economy as the transition advances.”

Other divestment developments:

Urgency is a key theme in a new public call by Greta Thunberg and other youth leaders.  “At Davos we will tell world leaders to abandon the fossil fuel economy” – an Opinion piece carried by The Guardian on January 10,  directed to the world’s economic elite scheduled to gather at the World Economic Forum in Davos at the end of January. The core message is urgent:  “We call upon the world’s leaders to stop investing in the fossil fuel economy that is at the very heart of this planetary crisis. Instead, they should invest their money in existing sustainable technologies, research and in restoring nature.. …Anything less than immediately ceasing these investments in the fossil fuel industry would be a betrayal of life itself. Today’s business as usual is turning into a crime against humanity. We demand that leaders play their part in putting an end to this madness. Our future is at stake, let that be their investment. An article in Common Dreams on January 10 highlights the youth campaign and notes that it aligns with Stop the Money Pipeline .

C40 Cities released a new toolkit on January 7:  Divesting from Fossil Fuels, Investing in Our Future: A Toolkit for Cities.   The toolkit is directed at city officials, outlining steps required to divest their pension funds from fossil fuels. It includes eight successful case studies –  from Auckland, Berlin, Copenhagen, London, MelbourneNew York City, Oslo, and Stockholm – all of whom have divestment experience and none of whose city pension funds were negatively impacted by divestment.  C40 Cities is a network of 94 municipalities with a population of over 700 million people, active in promoting climate change action at the municipal level.