Church Commissioners on climate change: Why we have not left the room

by
12 October 2018

The Church is using its investment muscle to address climate change, says Loretta Minghella

DENNIS SCHROEDER/NREL

An employee runs diagnoses on heliostats at the SolarReserve’s Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Facility, near Tonopah, in Nevada, in July 2017. The facility, which was built with US-sourced steel, glass, and technology, provides more than 500,000 megawatt hours of electricity every year, which is available day or night through molten salt storage

An employee runs diagnoses on heliostats at the SolarReserve’s Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Facility, near Tonopah, in Nevada, in July 2017. The facili...

YOU will no doubt have seen news coverage last month that asked how the Church Commissioners could justify holding Amazon stock, given widespread concerns regarding tax fairness (News, 21 September). Our answer to the media was simple: “It’s better to be in the room.”

It is a strategic point of view which informs our approach to climate change. We need a seat at the table, with other investors, to press for meaningful change.

Runaway climate change is already damaging the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. We need to see emissions peak without delay and then rapidly decline.

The Church Commissioners know climate change to be a wicked problem in every sense.

As far back as 2015, the Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EIAG), which advises the National Investing Bodies of the Church (including the Church Commissioners), stated: “Humankind has a divinely mandated responsibility for the physical world, for its creatures, and for one another, especially the weakest. . .

“This mandate . . . requires us to do all we can to minimise whatever is damaging creation . . . and to promote all that is good and that brings the kingdom of heaven into ever greater realisation on earth.”

WITH the Paris Agreement, we now have an agreed global goal: to “hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels”, and to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels”.

But what does the Paris Agreement mean for church investors?

There is no single means by which investors can bring about the urgent transition to a low-carbon economy: we need to make determined, sustained, long-term use of all the tools at our disposal: disinvestment, engagement, and investment.

On the adoption of our climate-change policy in 2015, the National Investing Bodies sold £12 million of shares in companies focused on the mining of thermal coal and the production of oil from oil sands — the highest-carbon fossil-fuels. These are fossil fuels for which we have viable lower-carbon replacements, and from which we must transition quickly. Our disinvestment signalled this loudly and clearly.

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But the whole basis of our climate-change policy is that, for an investor, there is no easy escape from climate change. Carbon emissions are everywhere in our economy. We must all transition to lower-carbon business models, consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement.

That is why we worked with the Church of England Pensions Board and Environment Agency Pension Fund and the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics to create the Transition Pathway Initiative (TPI).

We have created and are developing the best tool in the investment industry for tracking whether companies are aligned with the Paris Agreement, and using it to engage with companies and encourage them to do more. We are showing that we can help shape the approach to climate change of investors with trillions of dollars of assets under management.

The initiative was launched only in January 2017, but already we have investors with more than $9 trillion supporting the initiative and using its assessments. Furthermore, in the past few weeks it has been adopted by Climate Action 100+ — a $31-trillion investor coalition — as a benchmarking tool.

TODAY, our investments give us the opportunity to be in the room and engage with fossil-fuel companies. Leading a landmark shareholder revolt against Exxon management last year is our best-known example. If all financially and environmentally significant companies aligned themselves with TPI by aligning their business plans, it would be transformational.

We want to do everything we can, as institutional investors, to make sure that that happens. And, if it doesn’t, we’ve made it clear that we will divest. The year 2023 is our backstop date for fossil-fuel companies which, our TPI assessments suggest, are not prepared to align with the goal of the Paris Agreement.

Then there is the other side of transition: the fast-growing low-carbon economy. One of the commitments of the Church Commissioners is to put our capital to work in the low-carbon economy — to do our utmost to seek out and scale up investments in renewable energy and low-carbon technology which meet our risk/return criteria.

At the end of 2017, the Church Commissioners had under five per cent of their listed equities portfolio in the world’s big oil and gas companies. Companies working on climate solutions comprised nearly ten per cent.

We need real-world, urgent, practical change to cut carbon emissions dramatically, while embracing the move away from fossil-fuel dependency to new forms of energy. We need to do both as fast as we can.

Loretta Minghella is the First Church Estates Commissioner.

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