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Investors are stepping up to climate challenge

22 October 2021

The Commissioners are working to help companies to align with the Paris goals, say Bess Joffe and Olga Hancock

WITH just days to go until COP26, the UN climate conference in Glasgow, it is worth reflecting on where we have come from and where the global community needs to go to meet the ambitious goals set down at the Paris Climate Conference (COP21) in 2015.

The Paris Agreement was a great achievement, because, for the first time, both developing and developed countries agreed to reduce their carbon emissions. It was the culmination of several decades of negotiation, which began at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, and with the creation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

For the Paris Agreement to be agreed among the 195 parties, consensus had to be reached between developing and developed countries on target-setting and responsibility for reducing emissions, based on the underlying principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, as set out in the UNFCCC.

In short, there was a recognition that the world needed to cut carbon emissions drastically to hold the increase in global temperatures to 1.5º. Historic responsibility for carbon emissions lay with the developed countries. The developed countries also had the economic and technical capability to decarbonise rapidly. Developing countries bore little responsibility for historical carbon emissions, and they are still developing their economies, many of them on a carbon-intensive trajectory.

Accordingly, the concept of nationally determined contributions (NDCs) was created to reflect both historical carbon budgets and responsibility and the respective abilities of countries to reduce their emissions. There was consensus that developed countries should reduce their emissions rapidly over the decade to 2030. Developing countries would be permitted to reach a peak in emissions at a later date, in accordance with their development trajectory and limited historical carbon emissions, while being supported by developed countries in developing with a low-carbon trajectory.


THIS presents a challenge for global asset-owners and -managers, such as the Church Commissioners, whose money is invested globally in companies and, hence, countries that are on different carbon trajectories, with both increasing and decreasing carbon emissions. The Commissioners have an absolute commitment to using our investment portfolio and our position as a well-regarded responsible investor to combat climate change.

In January 2020, the Church Commissioners signed up to the UN-convened Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance (News, 24 January 2020), one of a then small group of asset-owners who recognised the need for cross-sector collaboration to align portfolios with a 1.5º scenario, consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement. The group has since grown to 42 asset-owners, managing a combined $US6.6 trillion of assets. They had to meet the challenge of how to align investment portfolios with this goal when invested in a global economy, not all of which is aligned with the global temperature goal.

A first approach to addressing this issue is through engagement. An investor has the right to speak to the management of companies in which they own shares about climate change and other issues that they might want to address, and to file and vote on company resolutions in relation to climate change and other issues.

The Church Commissioners engage with carbon-intensive companies in their portfolio to effect real-world change on their journey to being net zero no later than 2050: a realistic target, given the Commissioners’ portfolio. As a global investor in many developed and developing markets, the Commissioners have an opportunity to work with, and make a difference with, companies in countries at various stages of their net-zero journey. This is an opportunity afforded to us as global investors with the ability to pull levers of change, which even many governments do not have. It is a responsibility that we take very seriously.

If the Commissioners immediately pulled their money out of companies, markets, or countries that are not aligned to being net zero, they would be walking away from giving further support to developing markets and companies in these markets in their transition efforts. This approach would not support the consensus reached in Paris. If engagement is unsuccessful, however, disinvestment is an option that the Commissioners will consider and have implemented.


THE second response is through our ability to engage with governments globally to encourage them to increase ambition and create the enabling environment for countries around the world to ensure that they meet the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement.

The Commissioners believe that the current ambition of public policy-makers around the world is not sufficient. Engaging with governments and policy-makers is, therefore, a critical part of our strategy. The Commissioners’ Responsible Investment team is involved in policy engagement with governments through the Asset Owner Alliance policy workstream, the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change policy working group, and as members of the Investor Policy Dialogue on Deforestation, of which the Commissioners are co-chairs of engagement with Indonesia.

The Commissioners are also a member of the Financing a Just Transition Alliance to support a just transition in key energy-intensive sectors, so that workers and communities are not left stranded by climate policies. As part of our effort, we are engaging with energy companies around the world in which we are invested on how they are transitioning their workforces. For example, one company that we are engaging with is training the operators of coal-fired facilities in a developing country to work in the fishing industry.

Third, we are able to make a difference by investing in climate solutions. We have invested in a range of solutions from wind farms to solar panels and sustainable forestry, in various locations around the world and across a number of developing markets. The Commissioners’ investment teams work closely with their responsible-investment colleagues to identify positive solutions to invest in, which can help to solve the climate crisis. Our dedicated approach is unique in the investment world. To this end, in 2020, we won the inaugural award from IPE for impact investing (News, 18 December 2020).

The Commissioners held approximately £630 million of climate-solution investments, or about seven per cent of total assets under management, at year end 2020. That is in addition to the Commissioners’ largest public-equity mandate with one of the world’s leading sustainability-focused managers, and investments in firms.

While these may not be counted as climate “solutions”, they are actively driving the low-carbon transition, such as companies’ investing money to research new technologies in hard-to-abate sectors such as cement manufacture or air travel. Redirecting money to these sectors has also helped us to reduce our exposure to oil and gas companies to just 0.5 per cent of the total investment portfolio, as of 31 December 2020; further reductions are expected in 2021.

The Commissioners’ work to address climate targets and to challenge the companies in which they invest on their journey to net zero is critically important in trying to effect the change in the real-world economy which is necessary for bringing about a just transition. The urgency has been further highlighted by the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change about the impact of global warming on the world.

Bess Joffe is Head of Responsible Investment, and Olga Hancock is Senior Engagement Analyst, for the Church Commissioners.

Read more about COP26 and the climate crisis in this week’s features 

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