THE Church of England Pensions Board has joined five other pension funds to bring legal action against Volkswagen AG (VW), after it refused repeated attempts to reveal crucial information on its corporate climate-lobbying activities.
The funds, four Swedish and one Danish in addition to the C of E board, are all part of the Institutional Investment Group on Climate Change (IIGCC) and the Climate Action’s 100+ initiative. These have asked the company repeatedly to clarify its lobbying position. VW discloses trade association memberships, but does not disclose how the goals of these associations align with its own climate goals.
The boards wanted to table an agenda item at VW’s AGM, seeking publication of a report setting out how the company’s lobbying of policy-makers matched its stated ambition to support the Paris Agreement goals by becoming a net-zero company. VW refused to table the item.
The investors say that they tried over several years to get information before tabling the amendment. The case, supported by the legal charity ClientEarth, will test whether VW has the right to refuse the agenda item.
ClientEarth describes itself as a non-profit organisation using the law to create systemic change that protects the earth for and with its inhabitants: “We hold industry and governments to account, and defend everyone’s right to a healthy world.”
The Chief Responsible Investment Officer (CRIO) of the Church of England Pensions Board, Adam Matthews, said: “VW is failing to demonstrate that the lobbying undertaken and funded by the company through the industry association memberships is aligned to their own climate goals.
“Despite repeated efforts to engage the company to adopt industry best practice, it is extremely disappointing to have to turn to the courts to get VW to do the right thing. This is not an unreasonable request, and a step many of their peers in the auto sector and in German listed companies have already taken and found beneficial.
“VW’s intransigence raises serious questions as to what they are scared good governance will reveal. We are shareholders that want to see the company succeed in the climate transition, and in order to protect our rights and those of shareholders we are challenging VW’s refusal in the courts.”
Emma Henningsson, from the Swedish fund AP7, said: “The success of the Paris Agreement is dependent on responsible corporate lobbying. As a long-term owner, we encourage Volkswagen to keep up with its peers and ensure there is no misalignment between its stated climate ambition and its lobbying activities.
“It is worrying that our shareholder rights to contribute to the annual meeting agenda has been refused. As a result, we felt the need to go to court to clarify this grey area for corporate law in Germany.”
She said that the impact could also apply to issues such as diversity and inclusion, discrimination or conflicts of interest. “Success would mean that more shareholders could actively contribute to improving the governance of the companies they own in an active way.”