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.

Canada Pension Plan Investment Board lags international financial community on recognition of climate change risks and stranded assets

In what the WWF has called   “a landmark moment for responsible investment in Europe” , the European Parliament voted in November 2016  to mandate that all workplace pension administrators must consider climate risk and risks “related to the depreciation of assets” -stranded assets-  in investment decisions.  It also requires greater transparency about investment policies. Individual governments of the EU now have two years to pass into national law this updated version of the  existing Institutions for Occupational Retirement Provision (IORP) Directive. Currently, the directive would affect occupational pension plans affected covering approximately 20% of the EU workforce, mostly in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Germany .  A September 2016 Briefing Note from the European Parliament  details the administrative/political evolution of the Directive; a December  article from Corporate Knights  or  Go Fossil Free or Reuters  provide summaries.

In December 14, 2016, the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosure, chaired by Michael Bloomberg,  released its report and recommendations  to the Financial Stability Board, a G-20 organization chaired by Mark Carney. An article by the two men appeared in The Guardian, capturing the gist of the work:  “We believe that financial disclosure is essential to a market-based solution to climate change. …. A properly functioning market will price in the risks associated with climate change and reward firms that mitigate them. As its impact becomes more commonplace and public policy responses more active, climate change has become a material risk that isn’t properly disclosed.” The Task Force calls for companies to make voluntary disclosure of climate risks to their business,  to help  investors, lenders and insurance underwriters to manage material climate risks, and ultimately to make the global economic and financial systems more stable.   A 60-day public consultation period began with release of the report; an updated report, incorporating that input,  will be released in June 2017.  The Task Force report was summarized in   “Climate disclosure framework creates a better environment for investors” in the  Globe and Mail Bloomberg News also reported on another recommendation, “Carney Panel Urges CEO Compensation Link With Climate Risk ” , stating that the time has come for organizations to provide detailed reporting of how manager and board member pay is tied to climate risks.  (See a Dec. 1 Reuters article about Royal Dutch Shell’s moves to link CEO bonuses to GHG reduction).

In Canada, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, which administers the assets of the national public pension fund, seems to be standing on the sidelines.  A recent article in the Globe and Mail was written by the director of the CPPIB Sustainable Investment department , which is described in  more detail in their 2016 Report on Sustainable Investing . The report states (page 11)   “ CPPIB has established a cross-departmental Climate Change Working Group to consider how physical risks, as well as technological, regulatory and market developments will impact climate change-related risks, and create opportunities, in the future. …. This review, which will take some time, is being done from a long-term perspective in light of how the gradual transition to a lower-carbon global economy might unfold….  On the topic of divestment and climate change, research has shown that investors with longer horizons tend to be more engaged with the companies that they invest in, and CPPIB is a case in point. As responsible owners, we believe that in many cases selling our shares to investors who might be less active in terms of considering material risks, including climate change, would be counterproductive.”   In light of this very slow approach, Friends of the Earth (FOE) has been frustrated in its divestment campaign for the CPPIB in 2016 ;  FOE maintains a petition website, Pensions for a Green Future, which calls for the CPPIB to, among other things,  “report immediately to its 19 million members on the carbon footprint and exposure to climate solutions of our CPP investment portfolio” and “to replace climate polluting investments with those in green energy, technologies and infrastructure that support Canada’s commitment to act to avoid 1.5°C of warming.” The CPPIB discloses the companies it is invested in here  .

In contrast to the CPPIB, the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ),  the second largest pension fund manager is Canada,  is highlighted in a new report by the World Economic Forum  as “ one of the most important institutional investors in wind power” for its investment of  close to $2.5 billion (US) in both onshore and offshore wind projects in Europe and North America, starting in 2013 with a tentative investment in the Invenergy , and now including the London Array wind farm in the outer Thames estuary.  The Caisse statements on environmental and social responsibility are here ; it is a signatory to the U.N.  Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), a member of the Carbon Disclosure Project and the Carbon Water Disclosure Project, and endorses the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative , which monitors the oil and gas industry .