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.

Landmark New York State divestment will begin with Canadian oil sands investments

The New York State Comptroller’s office announced on December 9 that it will begin a systematic review of the holdings of the New York State Common Retirement Fund in early 2021, with the ultimate goal to achieve decarbonization of all investments by 2040. The New York State Common Retirement Fund is the third largest pension fund in the U.S., valued at $226 billion, and provides retirement benefits for 1.1 million state and municipal workers.

The review will examine all investment holdings over a period of four years, beginning with what are judged the riskiest – oil sands investments such as Imperial Oil, Canadian Natural Resources, Husky Energy, Suncor Energy, and Cenovus Energy –  followed by companies in oil and gas, fracking, oil services and pipelines.   Details of the companies to be reviewed are in a Backgrounder by Divest NY; details are also provided in the press release from the Comptroller’s Office.  As described in  “New York State Just Set a New Standard for Fossil Fuel Divestment”  in Gizmodo:  “With the state of New York and New York City now ready to divest, it puts enormous pressure on polluting companies. As the beating heart of capital, the city and state’s pension funds—which together total around $500 billion—no longer going to fossil fuels sends a huge signal to Wall Street and the fossil fuel industry. But it also turns up the heat on other institutional investors, notably California’s pension funds, which are the largest in the nation, to catch up.”

Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and divestment leader, wrote an Opinion piece in the New York TimesYou should have listened, New York Tells Big Oil” . McKibben characterizes this divestment decision as a victory in an 8-year battle, and the latest development in the declining economic and political power of Big Oil.