What if the financial sector moved away from fossil fuel investments?

On September 17, Bill McKibben, a leader of the divestment movement, wrote Money is the oxygen on which the fire of global warming burns , published in The New Yorker. The essay traces the progress of the divestment movement and asks, What if the banking, asset-management, and insurance industries moved away from fossil fuels?. On the same day came the announcement that “ University of California drops fossil fuels from its $80 billion portfolio”.   An article in Rolling Stone  quotes the UC representatives, stating “it wasn’t moral or political pressures that convinced them to phase UC’s hundreds of millions of dollars in fossil-fuel investments. Instead, they say, it was the growing realization that fossil fuel investments no longer made financial sense and weren’t a worthwhile investment.”

Investment performance of Fossil fuel companies

In what has been seen as an historical turning point, ExxonMobil lost its spot on the S&P Index list of “Top Ten Companies” in August 2019 –  the first time it had not appeared since the Index launched in 1957.  In 1980,  the energy sector as a whole represented 28% of the S&P 500 Index; as of August 2019, it represents  4.4%.  According to a summary by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), the energy sector claimed last place in the S&P rankings of sector performance in August 2019, following similar results in 2018 and 2017.“This is not some temporary aberration. The oil and gas sector is in decline, profits are shrinking and investment options problematic …. This is true even for companies like ExxonMobil that historically have deep pockets.”

The full Briefing Note,  ExxonMobil’s Fall From the S&P 500 Top Ten: A Long Time Coming (August 2019) also includes discussion of the role Canada’s oil sands have played in the decline of the industry.  Carbon Tracker Initiative provides further information in Exxon’s New Clothes – the tale of why Exxon lost its prized position in the S&P 500 .

Are the banking, asset-management, and insurance industries moving  away from fossil fuels?  

New initiatives launched at U.N. Climate Summit in New York in September point in that direction:

  1. 130 banks from 49 countries signed on to the Principles for Responsible Banking (PRBs), committing to align their business operations with the Paris Climate Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals. Despite the fact that the Bank of Canada issued a report flagging the investment risks of climate change in May, the only signatories from Canada were the National Bank of Canada and the Desjardins Group . Hardly surprising, given the April 2019 Fossil Fuel Report Card from Banktrack , which showed that Canada’s big banks rank 5th, 8th, 9th and 15th in the world for fossil fuel invesment since the Paris Agreement in 2015. In response to the PRI pledge, civil society groups issued a statement, “No More Greenwashing: Principles must have Consequences ”  which highlights the lack of concrete plans and the slow time frame: signatory banks are allowed up to four years to demonstrate their implementation of the principles.  A thorough discussion published by Open Democracy asks “The UN banking principles are welcome – but do they go far enough to stop climate destruction?
  2. A new Net Zero Asset Owner Alliance  was launched, convened by the U.N. Environmental Program’s  Finance Initiative and the Principles for Responsible Investment, and supported by WWF as part of its Mission 2020 campaign. The Net Zero Asset Owner Alliance signatories are insurance and pension fund management companies which hold approximately $2.3 U.S. Trillion. Their commitment document  pledges to re-balance those investment portfolios to make them carbon neutral by 2050, with intermediate targets set for 2025, 2030 and 2040. Founding members include   German insurer Allianz, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), Swedish pension fund Alecta, PensionDanmark, Swedish pension manager AMF, Nordea Life & Pension, Norwegian insurer Storebrand, and Swiss RE.
  3. European investment bank-logo-enThe European Investment Bank strengthened its climate commitments at the U.N. Climate Summit  pledging to “ position the EIB as an incubator for climate finance and expertise to mobilise others, helping our societies and economies transform to a low carbon future.” Specifically, the bank pledged that 50% of new investments will be for climate action and environmental sustainability by 2025 (previously the target had been 30% by 2020). Also,  “we aim to align all our financing activities with the principles and goals of the Paris agreement by the end of 2020. As an important first step, we will phase out energy projects that depend solely on fossil fuels.”
  4. financing the low carbon futureThe Climate Finance Leadership Initiative (CFLI) , chaired by Michael Bloomberg, released  Financing the Low Carbon Future  , a thorough but readable analysis of how clean energy investment works globally, with practical recommendations . The CFLI is composed of  senior executives of seven major private-sector financial institutions– Allianz Global Investors, AXA, Enel, Goldman Sachs, HSBC, Japan’s Government Pension Investment Fund (GPIF) and Macquarie.
  5. Over 500 environmental and advocacy groups from 76 countires supported the Lofoten Declaration at the U.N. Climate Action Summit. The Lofoten Declaration , (named after the Lofoten Islands of Norway where it was first drafted in 2017) states in part: “It is the urgent responsibility and moral obligation of wealthy fossil fuel producers to lead in putting an end to fossil fuel development and to manage the decline of existing production.”  Canada is one of those countries, and Catherine Abreu of Climate Action Network Canada was one of the supporters, stating: “True leadership in response to the climate emergency means having the courage to commit to ending the expansion of oil and gas production and make a plan to transition communities and workers to better opportunities.”  A summary  appears in “If a House Is on Fire, You Don’t Add Fuel’: 530 Groups Back Call to Rapidly Phase Out Fossil Fuels Worldwide” in Common Dreams (Sept. 23); Background to the Lofoten Declaration here  .

Much remains to be done:  Consider the September 2019 report by Carbon Tracker Initiative.  Breaking the HabitWhy none of the large oil companies are “Paris-aligned”, and what they need to do to get there. The report examines oil company investment activities , and concludes:

  • Last year, all of the major oil companies sanctioned projects that fall outside a “well below 2 degrees” budget on cost grounds. These will not deliver adequate returns in a low-carbon world. Examples include Shell’s $13bn LNG Canada project and BP, Total, ExxonMobil and Equinor’s Zinia 2 project in Angola.
  • No new oil sands projects fit within a Paris-compliant world. Despite this, ExxonMobil sanctioned the $2.6bn Aspen project last year – the first new oil sands project in 5 years.
  • The oil and gas in projects that have already been sanctioned will take the world past 1.5ºC, assuming carbon capture and storage remains sub-scale.

And Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2019 , commissioned by the United Nations, was published in September, reporting the good news that  global investment in new renewable energy capacity, led by solar power, “ is set to have roughly quadrupled renewable energy capacity (excluding large hydro) in the decade ending in 2019. Renewables accounted for 12.9 percent of global electricity in 2018—and if hydropower is also included, the renewable’s share of global electricity production is  measured at 26.3%.  Cost-competitiveness of renewables has “risen spectacularly over the decade, as the levelised cost of electricity has been steadily decreasing, down 81 percent for solar photovoltaics and 46 per cent for onshore wind since 2009.”

Yet despite this good news, the report states: “Overall, we note that these figures represent a small share of the overall economic transition required to address climate change…. global power-sector emissions are likely to have risen by at least 10 percent between the end of 2009 and 2019.”

 

FTQ shareholder resolution calls for GHG targets aligned with the Paris Agreement; corporations respond with a charge of “micromanagement”

As part of its stated Action Plan for Engaging in a Just Energy Transition , the Fonds de Solidarité des Travailleurs du Québec  (FTQ) (an investment fund controlled by Quebec trade unions) put forward the following shareholder’s resolution  at the Cenovus Energy Annual Meeting in Calgary in April.  (The text of the resolution appears on page 51, as Appendix A in the company’s Information Circular):

Resolved: That Cenovus Energy Inc. (“Cenovus”) set and publish science-based greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction targets that are aligned with the goal of the Paris Agreement to limit global average temperature increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels. These targets should cover the direct and indirect methane and other GHG emissions of Cenovus’ operations over medium and long-term time horizons. Such targets should be quantitative, subject to regular review, and progress against such targets should be reported to shareholders on an annual basis.

The Board’s written response and recommendation  states “…..Cenovus has always and will continue to assess our approach to climate change risk management with a view to maximizing shareholder value. ….Achieving the level of commitment contemplated by the Paris Agreement requires an integrated plan at a national and global level, with policies to guide the actions of governments, individuals and corporations to collectively work together toward the desired outcome. Our view is that it is an overly demanding request, and contrary to the best interests of shareholder value, to require an individual company to unilaterally set targets….   As such, we recommend voting against the proposal.”  And sure enough, as expected, the FTQ proposal was defeated by an  89% vote against. The news is summarized  and in The Energy Mix  and  by the CBC  .

The  Fonds de Solidarité des Travailleurs du Québec (FTQ), along with the Canadian shareholders’ non-profit  SHARE, was also part of the recent resolution to Exxon . That resolution, filed in the U.S.  by a group of investors led by the New York State Common Retirement Fund and the Church Commissioners for England, proposed that the company develop “short-, medium- and long-term greenhouse gas targets aligned with the goals established by the Paris Climate Agreement to keep the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C.”  In response,  ExxonMobil   applied for and received permission from the  U.S. Securities Exchange Commission (SEC), allowing it to exclude the resolution from its Proxy Circular.  In retaliation, SHARE states in a blog, Why we’ll vote against Exxon’s entire board of directors, that it is “recommending to our proxy voting clients that they withhold their support for all Exxon directors at the upcoming annual general meeting on May 29th.”

The “Micromanaging” argument:  “Investors Worried About Climate Change Run Into New SEC Roadblocks” from Inside Climate News (May 3), in addition to providing a good overview of shareholder actions, explains: “The term “micromanage” has become the linchpin to objections by companies seeking to block these resolutions. The precedent was set last year when the SEC agreed with EOG Resources, a Texas-based oil and gas exploration company, that a resolution asking the company to adopt emissions goals had sought to “micromanage” the company.”  More in  “Exxon Shareholders want action on climate change: SEC calls it micromanagement”  in the Washington Post (May 8). According to the CBC report about the FTQ resolution at  Cenovus, the corporate CEO called the proposal “overly demanding”, and said  “we had challenges with the prescriptive nature of the proposal”,  echoing the industry’s language and strategy.

To stay up to date: The U.S. non-profit As you Sow  monitors corporate environmental and social responsibility, including climate change and the energy transition  – through  press releases  , reports, and an up-to-date database of resolutions .

Divestment Still a Necessary Strategy as ExxonMobil Reports on Stranded Assets

The largest oil and gas company in the world, ExxonMobil, agreed under pressure from activist shareholders to publish a “Carbon Asset Risk” report on their website, to provide information to shareholders on the risks that stranded assets pose to the company’s business model, and how the company is planning for a low-carbon world. Stranded assets for Exxon are the carbon reserves which would need to remain in the ground if the world were to follow a carbon budget to keep below 2 degrees of global warming.

Some environmentalists are claiming this transparency as a victory – GreenBiz described it as “a pivotal milestone on the road to a low-carbon economy”. Bill McKibben, noting that the Exxon report was released on the same day as the IPCC Report, said it is “probably at least as important in the ongoing battle over the future of the atmosphere”. But McKibben sees “consummate arrogance” in Exxon’s statement that “we are confident that none of our hydrocarbon reserves are now or will become stranded”. For McKibben, the solution remains a divestment campaign – a strategy that Archbishop Desmond Tutu also urged in an April essay in The Guardian.

See “Exxon, Stranded Assets and the New Math” at GreenBiz: http://www.greenbiz.com/blog/2014/03/24/exxon-stranded-assets-and-new-math, and an article in the Wall Street Journal Market Watch at: http://www.marketwatch.com/story/landmark-agreement-with-shareholders-exxonmobil-agrees-to-report-on-climate-change-carbon-asset-risk-2014-03-20. But see also Bill McKibben’s article in The Guardian on April 3rd, “Exxon Mobil’s Response to Climate Change is Consummate Arrogance” at: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/apr/03/exxon-mobil-climate-change-oil-gas-fossil-fuels?CMP=twt_fd&utm_content=bufferfc5c8&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer, and Desmond Tutu, “We Need an Apartheid-style Boycott to Save the Planet” at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/10/divest-fossil-fuels-climate-change-keystone-xl.

For an overview of Stranded Assets, see Unburnable Carbon: Wasted Capital and Stranded Assets at:
http://www.lse.ac.uk/GranthamInstitute/publications/Policy/docs/PB-unburnable-carbon-2013-wasted-capital-stranded-assets.pdf.