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.

Canada Pension Plan Investment Board shifting toward renewables; new study shows fossil fuel investments lose value

Canadian workers can hope that climate change awareness is finally dawning  at the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB), responsible for the financial health of the Canadian public pension system. On November 4, a CPPIB press release announced that the Board entered into a purchase agreement with Pattern Energy Group Inc. ; the Globe and Mail describes the deal in  “CPPIB bets on renewable energy with $2.63-billion purchase of wind-farm operator Pattern Energy” . cppib 2019 report This would demonstrate a big leap for the CPPIB, which reported in its  2019 Report on Sustainable Investing, released on November 6,  “CPPIB’s investments in global renewable energy companies more than doubled to $3 billion in the year to June 30, 2019. This is up from just $30 million in 2016.”  The annual Report includes other details, including a description of the new climate change investing framework, launched in April 2019.   Bloomberg News video channel  (Nov. 5) offers an interview with the CEO  of CPPIB discussing the CPPIB climate risk strategy, and providing the good news that the CPPIB will not participate in the expected blockbuster fossil fuel public offering by  Saudi Aramco.

Changes to public sector pensions in Alberta

One hopes that the Alberta government may also invest in that province’s growing renewable energy industries, as it has made the unilateral decision to consolidate Alberta public sector pensions under the control of the Alberta Investment Management Corporation, a crown corporation administered by the provincial government . According to an article in the Calgary Herald,  “Unions blast provincial decision to shift billions in public sector pension funds” : “(The) government intends to reverse the option of public sector pension plans leaving AIMCo as a fund manager. Moreover, the Alberta Teachers Retirement Fund, Workers’ Compensation Board and Alberta Health Services will be expected to transfer funds to AIMCo for management, reducing redundant administration.” More details appeared  in  “Government contemplates changes to management of more than 400,000 Alberta workers’ pension plans” in the Edmonton Journal (Nov. 1) which summarizes the opposition  by the Alberta public sector unions on the grounds that the decision reverses a recent change that gave more than 351,000 public sector employees joint control of their pension funds  – a joint governance model that had been authorized by 2018 legislation under the previous NDP government, and which only took effect in March 2019.  The Edmonton Journal article also states that police and firefighter pensions might also be included in their plans.  “Alberta’s public unions prep for a fight, whether in the streets or the courts” is a broader overview from CBC Calgary which discusses the pension consolidation, as well as the wage cuts and workforce reduction included in Bill 21 of the new budget under the new UCP government.

The dangers of investing pension funds to prop up the Alberta fossil fuel industry are indicated by a recent study of three major state public pension funds in California and Colorado (CalSTRS, CalPERS and PERA) . “Study Shows Pension Funds’ Refusal to Divest From Fossil Fuels Cost Retired Teachers, Firefighters, and Public Workers $19 Billion”  appeared in  Common Dreams  on November 5,  summarizing a study by Canadian publisher Corporate Knights.  Their analysis concluded that those three pension funds collectively lost over $19 billion in retirement savings for teachers, state troopers and public workers by continuing to invest in fossil fuels.  The full reports are not available yet on the Corporate Knights website, but are on Google Drive here .  A response by 350.org  also summarizes the study,  calls fossil fuel investments  “a Losing Strategy for Retirement Savings  — and the Planet” and asks “Why would any fund manager continue to invest in fossil fuels? Risky, harmful to our planet and shared future, and less profitable than many other investment opportunities, fossil fuel investments are a lose-lose choice.”