Majority of public pension funds failing to prevent climate change

Written by Rebecca O'Connor on 11th September 2018

Is your pension pot saving the planet?

Probably not, as more than 60 per cent of the world’s largest public pension funds are in breach of duties on climate change, according to new data, because they have little to no strategy on climate change.

The three largest UK funds are behind the rest of Europe on climate action, according to Share Action, the campaign group.  In Europe, Swedish and Dutch funds lead the way, while in US, California and New York come out on top.

Alarmingly, less than 1 per cent of assets ($90 billion) of the world’s largest 100 pension funds are invested in low-carbon solutions, and only 10 per cent of assessed pension funds have a policy to exclude coal from their investment portfolio.

Pensions in a changing climate’ is the first in a series of four reports on the pensions sector produced by the Asset Owners Disclosure Project (AODP), which is part of the responsible investment organisation ShareAction.

The report assesses the world’s 100 largest public pension funds (with combined assets worth over $11 trillion) against the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) recommendations.

This is the first published analysis of pension funds using the TCFD framework. It highlights the value of the TCFD framework in rigorously and fairly assessing financial institutions. Funds are rated from AAA to D, with an X-rating reserved for those who show no evidence of responding to climate change.

Disappointingly, 63 per cent of pension funds are found to provide very little to absolutely no information on the financial implications of climate change to their portfolios, putting them at risk of breaching their fiduciary duties to savers. Environmental lawyers have warned that such funds may be exposed to heightened litigation risks, as one Australian fund found out when a member took them to court.

Results show that three of the four funds to achieve an AAA – AA rating (AP4, FRR, and ABP) come from Europe, with Sweden and the Netherlands each housing five funds with a leading rating (AAA-B). The strong performance of European funds reflects a growing momentum at the EU policy level in favour of stimulating low-carbon investments, and clarifying investors’ duties around sustainable investments.


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The three UK pension funds, USS, Railpen, and Electricity Supply Pension Scheme, received a rating of only CCC or D, and are found to be lagging against some UK insurance companies and smaller funds who are demonstrating clear climate leadership. Earlier this year, six of the UK’s largest pension funds came under fire by MPs for being ‘worryingly complacent’ on climate risks.

In the US, despite a clear lack of leadership from the national administration on climate change, there are signs that pension funds are fighting back at the state level. In contrast to the overall weak performance of US-based pension funds, New York and California are the only US states to house AAA – C rated funds, showing that innovative and progressive climate-related investment responses are possible, even in a hostile political environment at the national level.

Low-carbon investments in assets like renewable technology are vital for driving the transition to a low-carbon economy. The pensions industry can play a central role in stepping up these investments, as the industry accounts for one third of all assets owners’ investments globally.

This is dramatically shy of the IPCC’s recommended annual investment of $1.1trillion per year that is needed from the investment system, if we are to secure savers’ future financial health and accelerate the transition towards a low-carbon economy.

These lacklustre investment figures are exacerbated by the fact that only 10 per cent of assessed pension funds have introduced policies to exclude coal from their investment portfolio, despite it being the most polluting fossil fuel.

Felix Nagrawala, AODP Analyst, said: ”AODP is turning up the heat on public pension funds who fail to address climate change in their investments. Our comprehensive review of the climate-competence of the industry against the TCFD recommendations exposes those funds who are all talk and no action, and those showing real climate innovation. Pension funds have a duty to serve the long-term interest of their members, which isn’t being met if the money they invest is depleted along with the health of the planet. It’s high time the industry takes action.”

Niklas Ekvall, CEO, AP4 said: “As large investors, pension funds own substantial parts of the global economy and have a stake in maintaining its long-term health and stability. AP4 has identified climate change as the single biggest systematic threat to asset values in the long term, and therefore we have taken action to ensure our investment portfolio supports the low-carbon transition through investment and engagement activities. We hope our ambitious agenda in line with the TCFD recommendations will have an impact and be an inspiration to other investors towards a solution to the global climate challenge that we currently experience”.

ClientEarth pensions lawyer Joanne Etherton said: “Internationally, we’re slowly seeing improvement in pension funds’ responses to climate change. But too many funds, including in the UK, are lagging, and still exposing their pension members to potential and unnecessary investment risk. Climate change should be a standing agenda item for all asset owners and managers. Failure to properly consider and manage the ensuing financial risks may amount to a breach of fiduciary duty; end investors should interrogate this strategy as a serious governance issue. It is time for all pension funds and advisors to finally get to grips with the climate challenge.”

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