San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank commissions studies of climate change risks to the economy, impacts on labour productivity

In “Scared Central Banks Face Up to Threats From Climate Change”  (Sept. 23) , Bloomberg News reported that “Most major central banks — with the exception of the U.S. Federal Reserve — are joining forces to promote sustainable growth, after realizing that climate change threatens economic output and could even sow the seeds of a financial crisis.”  Now it appears that even the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank, or at least one of its components, the San Francisco Fed., is catching up to the rest of the world. Climate Change and the Federal Reserve  drew attention when it was published by the San Francisco Fed in March 2019,  and a special climate change-themed issue of the newsletter, Community Development and Innovation Review  was published by the San Francisco Fed in October , highlighting independent economic analysis it had commissioned.  The New York Times summarizes that research in  “Bank Regulators Present a Dire Warning of Financial Risks From Climate Change ”.

The economic research was also highlighted  in a conference on November 8. Host Mary Daly, President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, introduced the event with  a speech entitled, “Why Climate Change Matters to Us ” .  Two highlighted conference papers: “Climate change: Macroeconomic impact and implications for monetary policy ” presented  by Sandra Batten from the Bank of England, which explains why central banks care about climate change, and includes the warning that “for each degree the temperature rises above a daily average temperature of 59°F, productivity declines by 1.7%”.   In “Long-Term Macroeconomic Effects of Climate Change: A Cross-Country Analysis “, six academics from the U.S., U.K. and Taiwan modelled the links between  historical levels of temperature and precipitation and changes in labour productivity. They conclude that global GDP per capita could fall 7% by 2100 in the absence of climate change mitigation effects, but that loss could be reduced to 1% by conforming to the Paris Agreement.

Of related interest:  SHARE Canada (Shareholder Association for Research and Education) summarizes the position of the major Canadian banks in an October 10 blog post “Responsible Banking – Part 2: Aligning finance with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement .”

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.”

 

New report recommends mandatory financial disclosure of climate-related risks for Canadian companies

iisdleveraging-sustainable-financeThough written mainly for a financial audience, a new report from the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) is relevant to the livelihoods and pensions of all Canadians.  Leveraging Sustainable Finance Leadership in Canada: Opportunities to align financial policies to support clean growth and a sustainable Canadian economy was released on January 16,  examining and making  recommendations for Canadian companies to disclose climate change risks to their shareholders and to the public. A press release summarizes the report.  Why is it so important?  It concludes with an analysis of financial disclosure in the oil and gas industry, (found in Annex E), and this warning about the dangers to us all of stranded assets: “When these emissions are counted via proved and probable reserves, as disclosed by Canadian oil and gas companies, a picture emerges of significant, undisclosed—and therefore unaddressed—risks to Canadian companies, financial institutions, pension beneficiaries and savers…. Once the implications of the Paris Agreement are fully priced into the market, oil and gas asset valuations will shift. If this change is sufficiently large, debt covenants may be triggered in companies. This will in turn impact financial institutions, including banks, insurance companies and pension funds. Debt downgrading could ensue, and bank capitalization thresholds could be impacted.” (And a related risk for oil and gas companies:  in December 2018, the Canadian Shareholders Association for Research and Education (SHARE) joined an international campaign for improved disclosure by oil and gas companies of the water-related risks of their operations ).

What is to be done?  Canada’s transition to a lower carbon economy requires private investment capital, and Canada’s financial markets cannot operate in isolation.  Canada has a lot of regulatory “catching up” to do regarding climate risk, (outlined in “Data Gap” in Corporate Knights magazine in May 2018) , and  evidenced by the examples given throughout the report of current practice amongst  European Union , G7 and G20 countries. The report shows the state of  Canadian regulation, with  frequent reference to the two major Canadian studies to date on the issue:  the Interim Report of the government-appointed Expert Panel on Sustainable Finance (Oct. 2018), and the Canadian Securities Association Staff Notice 51-354 (April 2018).  In Leveraging Sustainable Finance Leadership in Canada, author Celine Bak, sets out a three-year policy roadmap for Canada, calling for Canadian laws and statutes to be updated to require mandatory disclosure of climate risk by 2021. The report also calls for the Toronto Stock Exchange to  join the UN Sustainable Stock Exchanges Initiative, and that the the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board  be required to report on the climate change risks which might affect its fully-funded status.  Detailed and concise summaries are provided in the Annexes, titled:  “An Overview of the Key Reports on Corporate and Financial Sector Climate- and Environment-Related Disclosure”; “G20 and G7 Precedents for Implementation of TCFD Recommendations in Canada”; and  “Analysis of EU Sustainable Finance Proposed Actions, EU Laws and Canadian Equivalents”.

Expect more discussion and publications about sustainable finance issues, as Canada’s Expert Panel  concludes its public consultations at the end of January 2019, and releases its final report later in the year.  The European Union Technical Expert group on Sustainable Finance (TEG) is also expected to report in June 2019,  and the international  Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures Task Force will publish a Status Report in June 2019,  updating its first report,  published in September 2018, with analysis of disclosures made in 2018 financial reports .

Corporate Disclosure of climate change risks, and shareholder action by BCGEU on sustainability

The British Columbia Government and Services Employees’ Union  (BCGEU) issued a press release on April 20 to announce its partnership with the global advocacy group SumOfUs (Fighting for people over profits).  Over the summer, on behalf of BCGEU, SumOfUs will file proposals at annual general meetings of Canadian companies,  calling  for greater fairness in corporate governance and increased scrutiny around human rights and labour practices as well as of the impacts of deforestation.

BCGEU President Stephanie Smith stated “As a union, we need to make sure that funds our members count on, such as the strike fund, are financially healthy and this requires careful and responsible investment decisions. …Calling for greater corporate responsibility as a shareholder is not only financially prudent, but it allows us to pursue our values as a labour union as well.”  This is not the first time BCGEU has taken initiative  – in 2014,  the union divested its strike fund and general reserves from fossil fuel equities, and saw in increase in values.

With a similar strategy, the Fonds de Solidarité des Travailleurs du Québec (FTQ), empowered SHARE (Shareholder Association for  Research and Education), to file a shareholder proposal at the April 27 annual meeting of Imperial Oil, requesting better disclosure on its exposure to and management of water-related risks in its oil and gas operations.

Even Canada’s financial regulators are moving in the direction of increased transparency and disclosure for corporations. The Canadian Securities Administration,  concluding a process which had stretched out for over a year, issued a press release on April 5, announcing   CSA Staff Notice 51-354 Report on Climate change-related Disclosure Project.  The report announced  its intention to consider new disclosure requirements relating to material risks and opportunities and “how issuers oversee the identification, assessment and management of material risks.  This would include, for example, emerging or evolving risks and opportunities arising from climate change, potential barriers to free trade, cyber security and disruptive technologies.”

And on April 12, Minister of the Environment and Climate Change announced  the creation of an  Expert Panel on Sustainable Finance. Part of the mandate of the Expert Panel will be to  explore the issue of  voluntary standards for corporate disclosure of the financial risks associated with climate change, and to provide  recommendations to the federal government by the fall of 2018. Full Terms of Reference are here .  The Expert Panel is expected to build upon the work of the CSA Task Force, and the earlier, international Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCDF), led by Michael Bloomberg,  and chaired by  Mark Carney. Canada’s new Expert Panel will be chaired by Tiff Macklem, Dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and former Senior Deputy Governor of the Bank of Canada; the other three members are Andy Chisholm, member of the Board of Directors of the Royal Bank of Canada; Kim Thomassin, Executive Vice-President, Legal Affairs and Secretariat, Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec; and Barbara Zvan, Chief Risk and Strategy Officer, Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan.

For context on the issue of corporate disclosure, read “Investigation finds nearly half  of Canadian failing to  Disclose Climate-Related Risk” from the National Observer (April 5), and, in the opposite direction in the United States, In ‘Attack on Shareholder Rights,’ SEC Seeks to Sideline Activist Investors .

Clean Tech investment in Canada held back by a “fossil fuel comfort zone” and lack of financial disclosure

Canadian cleantech startups get ready for a breakout year”  appeared in the Globe and Mail on January 3, 2018 citing a 2017 report by Cleantech Group, which ranked Canada  “fourth in the world as a clean-technology innovator – and tops among Group of Twenty countries – up from seventh place in 2014.” Then on January 24, the San Francisco-based company Cleantech Group  released its ninth annual Global Cleantech 100 list for 2018 ; the List includes 13 Canadian companies, and the full Report is here (free; registration required).   Sure enough, Canada has improved its showing.  And on January 18, the Government of Canada announced that the federal government  will invest $700 million over the next five years  through the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) “ to grow Canada’s clean technology industry, protect the environment and create jobs “, as part of its larger Investment and Skills funding.  The same press release also announced the launch of the Clean Growth Hub, the government’s “focal point for clean technology”, which will focus on supporting companies and projects that produce clean technology, as well as coordinate existing programs and track results.

Yet in reaction to the government’s announcement,  the president of Analytica Advisors, which publishes an annual review of Canadian clean tech, had this to say in the National Post : “A $700-million investment to help clean technology firms expand and develop new products won’t turn Canada’s clean-tech industry into the “trillion dollar opportunity” the government keeps touting until we get out of our fossil-fuel comfort zone”.  She also co-authored an OpEd in the Globe and Mail, “Canada’s financial sector is missing in action on climate change” (Jan. 23)   where she berates the Canadian financial community for sitting on the sidelines amidst international initiatives for more climate-risk disclosure so that those risks can be priced into investment decisions.   For an update on the Canadian scene regarding this issue, see “Modernizing financial regulation to address climate-related risks” by Keith Stewart,  in Policy Options (Feb. 2).