‘Sustainable’ pension funds accused of greenwashing over billions held in oil and gas firms

Warning comes as UK watchdog set to tighten rules for asset managers given short-term targets

People investing their pensions in funds that claim green credentials are being warned they may actually be backing the world’s largest oil and gas companies.

Carbon Tracker Initiative said that asset managers have invested $376bn (£295bn) in oil and gas companies, despite publicly pledging to back efforts to limit global temperature rises to 1.5C. The environmental thinktank based in London and New York found that more than 160 funds with a green label held $4.6bn in 15 companies including ExxonMobil, Chevron and TotalEnergies.

It also found that 25 members of the Net Zero Asset Managers initiative had invested in those companies and some had increased their holdings in 2022. NZAM said its international initiative started two years ago and investors needed time to change their strategies.

The warning comes as the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority prepares to publish anti-greenwashing rules that are intended to clean up how investment funds are labelled.

Just under 50% of all UK employees now pay into employer schemes or private pensions where they can make a choice about how their money is invested – a huge rise since 2012 when employers became legally obliged to automatically enrol workers in a workplace scheme. Most people with a private pension or a stocks and shares ISA make a choice as to how their money is invested and many emphasise sustainability.

The financial industry has reacted by creating funds badged as sustainable, climate, carbon, transition or ESG – short for environmental, social and governance.

“What we found is that these funds, despite their names, can often include sometimes large positions in fossil fuel companies,” said Maeve O’Connor, one of the report’s authors, and an analyst at the Carbon Tracker Initiative. “For retail investors that could be seen to be misleading. If I’m investing in a green fund, do I want my investment to be going to ExxonMobil? Probably not.”

According to the report, BlackRock’s ACS Climate Transition World Equity Fund says it invests in companies “well-positioned to maximise the opportunities and minimise the potential risks associated with a transition to a low-carbon economy” – but it has $219m in 10 of the 15 leading oil and gas companies.

O’Connor said asset managers were usually given performance targets over short periods, which might influence their thinking. She said: “They could be assessed over two to five years and that timescale doesn’t really fit with the realities of the energy transition.”

Coalitions such as UK Divest and Share Action campaign for pension funds to be invested sustainably. Robert Noyes, an energy economist at Platform London, part of UK Divest, said that with about £2tn invested in pensions, it was the largest source of investment in the UK and people should ask their pension providers for information.

“People should ask three questions,” he said. “Does it invest in the problem, like a company that spends money on fossil fuels? Does it invest in things that drive changes in the real economy that lead environmental programmes? So, for example, it’s hard to see how investing in Microsoft is driving a change towards net zero.

“And thirdly, is it vocal about the need for political action?”

A spokesperson for NZAM said that while its partners “share Carbon Tracker’s perspective that the oil and gas industry must very rapidly decarbonise to meet the urgency of the climate crisis, the Net Zero Asset Managers’ commitment statement does not require signatories to choose equity holdings to meet a particular climate target”. It added: “Passive investors cannot divest from the oil and gas sector without significantly changing their investment strategy.”

NZAM expected those funds with passive portfolios to engage in dialogue with companies, proxy voting and policy advocacy to align their holdings with the 1.5C commitment. Asset managers depended on governments to follow through their own commitments under the Paris agreement, the spokesperson added.


James Tapper

The GuardianTramp

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