Labour unions, pension funds and divestment: resolutions from Alberta, Ontario conventions and a U.S. report from Stand.earth

Labour Confronts the Climate Crisis” appeared in the November issue of Our Times magazine, written by James Hutt of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). He highlights the notable speakers from the November convention of the Ontario Federation of Labour, but states that the main discussion at the convention focused on if and how unions can fight climate change through divestment, ethical investing, and active involvement in their pension fund management.

From the article :  

“  Many speakers underlined that divestment may have limited financial impact but can be very effective as a political tool. Democratic institutions, in particular unions, can use it to make a powerful statement and undermine the social legitimacy of the fossil fuel industry…

…. speakers concluded that there are a number of important actions unions should take regarding their pension funds, including demanding transparency and input into how funds are being invested. Unions can also advocate for investing in community-led renewable initiatives, and they can help these initiatives scale up.

The final panel recognized that while pensions do have a role to play, ultimately our true power lies elsewhere. As workers and unions engaged in the climate fight, it’s clear that we must go beyond pension-board tables and the confines of capital markets.”

At its annual convention held in early December, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE)  passed three environmental resolutions, announced and summarized in a press release (Dec. 4).  These included calls for 1.  just transition for workers,  2. a green new deal that includes providing union jobs through an expanded public sector,  modernizes public infrastructure , recognizes Indigenous rights and treaties; and builds a just society, and 3. a  call for the  Alberta Investment Management Corp.  (AIMCo) to “quantify the climate risks of its investments and adopt a path to net zero” in the pension funds it manages.  Response from AIMCo is presented in an article in Benefits Canada , which notes that AUPE members have a seat on the AIMCo sponsors’ Board through their membership in the Local Authorities Pension Plan.   

AUPE members are right to be concerned with the performance of AIMCo – as described in the report published on December 15 by the Parkland Institute at the University of Alberta. Can AIMCo be Fixed?  traces the controversial moves by the UCP government to take control of public sector pensions, as well as AIMCo’s risky volatility trading strategy (VOLTS), which led to a $2 billion loss in 2020.  The authors at Parkland conclude that “A thorough rethink of AIMCo’s board of directors and ownership structure is required in light of the troubling actions by the UCP government, AIMCo’s poor performance as an investment manager in recent years, and the serious structural weaknesses of AIMCo”.  The report makes five policy recommendations for change, none of which relate to its management of climate risks, but focus on the ownership and governance structure, including: Eliminate the Crown’s sole ownership of AIMCo and “Implement a new ownership structure with the government holding a minority position to prevent governments using AIMCo funds for their own political purposes”.

The Parkland report is the latest of several which have condemned the Alberta pension manager for its bias to oil and gas investments, described in a previous WCR article when it invested in the Coastal GasLink pipeline in 2020, and in the 2019 report from Progress Alberta, Alberta’s Failed Oil and Gas Bailout .

From the U.S., a new report released by Stand.earth and the Climate Safe Pensions Network argues for the importance of divestment.  The Quiet Culprit: Pension Funds Bankrolling the Climate Crisis  details the fossil fuel exposure of 14 public pension funds, revealing that  $81.6 billion is invested in coal, oil, and gas. The report notes, for example, that nine of the fourteen funds  have invested over $281 million in TC Energy, the company behind the controversial Coastal GasLink pipeline violating Indigenous rights in Wet’suwet’en land. The pension funds also have over $3.24 billion invested in big tar sands miners Canadian Natural Resources, Cenovus, ConocoPhillips, Exxon and Suncor.  The conclusion?  “With over $46 trillion in assets worldwide, pension funds are among the largest institutional investors in fossil fuels. These investments have dangerously underperformed the rest of the market, making public pensions’ fossil fuels investments inherently risky….The fastest way for pensions to address climate change is to divest fossil fuel holdings and invest in just and equitable climate solutions.”

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.