1 This edition of Pensions Watch supplements editions 1, 7 and 16, which also consider aspects of climate change risk management and reporting on climate risk exposures. See: https://www.columbiathreadneedle.co.uk/en/inst/ insights/pensions-watch-november-2020/; https://www.columbiathreadneedle.co.uk/en/inst/insights/pensions-watch-issue-7/; and https://www.columbiathreadneedle.co.uk/en/inst/insights/pensions-watch-issue-16/. For more on the climate challenges faced by pension funds and the potential solutions, see: There is no Planet B: Why climate change risk management is the world’s hottest topic and how asset owners and asset managers should be responding. Chris Wagstaff. Columbia Threadneedle Investments. June 2020. See: https://www.columbiathreadneedle.co.uk/en/inst/insights/there-is-no-planet-b/
2 Most textbooks characterise risk as the range of uncertainty surrounding an expectation about a future outcome. Others, the possibility that more things could happen than probably will happen. Indeed, as events rarely unfold in the way we initial expect, while others occasionally catch us off guard by seemingly surfacing from nowhere, it pays to expect the unexpected. Nowhere is this truer than within the world of pension scheme management. This is where the late Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous 2002 quote comes in: “There are known, knowns. These are the things that we know. There are the known, unknowns… [the] things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown, unknowns… the things we don’t know we don’t know.” While ridiculed at the time, Former US Secretary of Defence, Rumsfeld was simply pointing out that while the sources of some risks – the known, unknowns – are known and might even be quantifiable, others – the unknown, unknowns – the bolts from the blue, or Black Swans, cannot always be anticipated, let alone quantified. As pension scheme management is littered with known, unknowns and unknown, unknowns, pension fiduciaries, must ensure that the uncertainties surrounding future outcomes are efficiently managed within acceptable tolerances.
3 For a defined benefit pension scheme, this also extends to the impact on the sponsor covenant and the scheme’s liabilities.
4 An alarming, albeit slightly tangential, example of how climate change could turn the world upside down is provided by Bill Gates in his recently published book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, in which he writes: “During the age of the dinosaurs, when the average temperature was perhaps 4 degrees Celsius higher than it is today, there were crocodiles living above the Arctic Circle.”
5 Although perhaps stating the obvious, net zero means removing as much GHG emissions from the atmosphere as has been created. Of equal importance is for this transition to be a, so-called, just transition – that is, one that maintains full employment through training and reskilling and which transitions to a nature-positive world. The latter is expanded upon later in this paper.
6 Unlike its master trust peers, Nest Corporation, the Trustee that runs the Nest scheme, is a public corporation, with its trustees chosen by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. It’s accountable to Parliament through the Department for Work and Pensions but is generally independent of government in its day-to-day decisions.
7 Coming into force in November 2016, following its ratification by 146 countries, the Paris Agreement’s central aim has been to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping the global temperature rise
this century well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5°C.
8 The FAIRR Initiative is, a London-based, diverse and collaborative global investor network which, in focusing on ESG risks in the global food industry, provides cutting-edge research, best practice tools and collaborative engagement opportunities to help investors integrate these risks and opportunities, such as the rising popularity of non-dairy milks and plant-based alternatives to meat, into their investment decision-making and active stewardship processes.
9 By end-2020, NEST’s climate policy, applied since 2017 to its developed equity holdings, had effectively taken 236,561 cars off the road.
10 NEST calls time on unresponsive energy companies. NEST press release. 21 December 2021.
11 NEST, National Grid, BTPS and the Brunel Pensions Partnership are all signatories to the Paris Aligned Investment Initiative and have committed to drawing on the IIGCC Net Zero Investment Framework for their methodology. See:
Signatories – Paris Aligned Investment Initiative. Also see footnote 32.
12 The Task Force on Climate Related Disclosures (TCFD) framework was established by the Financial Stability Board with the goal of harmonising climate disclosures across the financial intermediation chain, including companies, banks, investors and pension funds. These disclosures are detailed in Pensions Watch – edition 7 (April 2021). See: https://www.columbiathreadneedle.co.uk/en/inst/insights/pensions-watch-issue-7/ and Pensions Watch edition 1 (November 2020). See: https://www.columbiathreadneedle.co.uk/en/inst/insights/pensions-watch-november-2020/ Although some LGPS Funds are already voluntarily complying with annual TCFD disclosures, the recent consultation from The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) will result in a more definitive shaping of the rules on how the LGPS Funds should report on the climate-related impact of their investments.
13 The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), introduced in 2015 and agreed by 193 member countries, set out to achieve, by 2030, defined sustainability goals for all (on everything from eradicating poverty and hunger to building liveable cities) regardless of income and wealth. Those SDGs that most closely align to achieving a just transition to a net zero carbon economy are: 3. Good Health and Wellbeing; 6. Clean Water and Sanitation; 7. Affordable and Clean Energy; 8. Decent work and economic growth; 9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure; 11. Sustainable Cities and Communities; 12. Responsible Consumption and Production; 13. Climate Action; 14. Life Below Water, and 15. Life on Land. The Worcestershire County Council Pension Fund specifically targets SDGs 6, 7, 8, 9, 11 and 13.
14 A number of pension funds are setting themselves carbon reduction targets along the lines of targeting a 50% cut in emissions by 2030. In so doing, there is a risk this will be achieved through divestment of high-carbon sectors – even if companies within those sectors have considered transition pathways. Consequently, sector diversification may be lost, e.g. if pension funds shift toward healthcare, technology, financials etc. at the expense of industrials, materials etc. See: Without ‘buffer’ on Net Zero commitments members could be forced to divest, Net Zero Asset Owner Alliance warns. Paul Verney. responsible-investor.com. 27 January 2022.
15 Indeed, the introduction of ESG, notably climate change, risk factors into investment analysis sets a new investment challenge, in that climate change, and ESG risk factors more generally, move a traditionally two-dimensional risk and return analysis to a three-dimensional one. Additionally, whereas investment theory (and intuition) suggests that a constrained portfolio should underperform an unconstrained, if holding carbon intensive stocks isn’t rewarded with a carbon risk premium, then their exclusion should result in the former outperforming the latter. Moreover, the performance of this constrained portfolio should potentially be bolstered by engagement that seeks to make bad companies good and good companies even better.
16 As at end-Q321. See: PFZW to divest fossil fuel companies unless they align with Paris Agreement. responsible investor.com. 16 February 2022.
17 To be Paris-aligned requires the exclusion of companies which generate more than 1% of their revenues from coal, more than 10% from oil, more than 50% from natural gas and high emitting electricity producers.
18 Pensions for Purpose identifies 40 different climate benchmarks used by asset managers within the following four categories of climate benchmark: Low Carbon, Climate Transition (CTBs), Paris-Aligned (PABs), and Positive Impact. See: Industry trends in climate indices. Karen Shackleton and Lewis Kilbride. Pensions for Purpose. March 2022. Moreover, as more than 50% of global GDP/USD44tn of economic value generation is dependent on nature and its services (see: Half of World’s GDP Moderately or Highly Dependent on Nature. World Economic Forum Davos, Switzerland. 19 January 2020), and following the publication, in February 2021, of the Dasgupta Review [see: Dasgupta, P. (2021), The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review. Abridged Version. (London: HM Treasury)], which puts biodiversity at the core of macroeconomic models of growth and development, discussions are now being had around the role of introducing the transition to a nature-positive world and of natural capital into climate benchmarks.
19 This approach is increasingly being harnessed within DC default funds in an attempt to make DC more climate transition focused. However, this is not uncommon even within big DB, despite the move among this cohort to more bespoke climate benchmarks within segregated mandates. For example, earlier this year, the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the UK’s largest funded DB scheme, cut its absolute emissions by 30% by realising a £5bn portfolio of developed market equities and transferring the proceeds to a climate transition benchmark (CTB) index fund, which overweights companies that can demonstrate they are on the path to reducing GHG emissions, while eliminating those companies that do not meet UN SDGs. Although the transaction doesn’t markedly move the decarbonisation dial for the planet in absolute terms, by way of mitigation USS did simultaneously invest £500m of new capital to bolster the £1.6bn already invested in renewables to support the move to electric vehicles, solar photovoltaic farms and wind power developments – an investment that should materially dial down emissions.
20 Aside from index funds, there are also active fundamental funds, which in benchmarking themselves against traditional financial market indices and Paris-aligned benchmarks, can offer a more concentrated exposure to climate solutions.
21 For instance, NEST seeks to address the risks and capture the opportunities associated with climate change, through its developed equities exposure, via its Climate Aware Fund, set up in 2017. This it does by broadly tracking the FTSE Developed Index, but over- and underweighting companies depending on their alignment with the transition to a low carbon economy. For example, a positive “tilt” is applied to companies providing renewable energy or those Paris-aligning their business models, while a negative “tilt” is applied to companies that are heavy carbon emitters, have fossil fuel reserves, or are not adapting their business models. Despite it being a low carbon index fund, it applies an active voting and engagement policy to those companies that need to adapt their business models to meet climate change goals. Also see: Voting Matters 2021. Are asset managers using their proxy votes for action on environmental and social issues? ShareAction. December 2021.
22 Likewise, NEST is a good example of a scheme that puts engagement first and divestment second, by following a 3-year engagement program as part of its Climate Aware framework. Moreover, NEST has made clear to all investee companies that it will not support those companies it owns which don’t proactively manage their exposure to climate risk, or do not engage with shareholders over their concerns. For example, in 2020 NEST publicly pre-announced its support for a shareholder resolution at Barclays, which ShareAction, a sustainability charity, had called, for the bank to set concrete targets to tackle climate change. On discussing the resolution with the Chair of Barclays, who acknowledged that the bank needed to do more, Barclays formally announced their commitment to be a net-zero bank by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement.
23 The Transition Pathway Initiative (TPI) is a global, asset-owner led initiative which assesses companies’ preparedness for the transition to a low carbon economy and is rapidly becoming the go-to corporate climate action benchmark
24 A4S engages with senior leaders across the financial system, so as to transform finance to deliver a sustainable future.
25 The Climate Action 100+ (CA100+) initiative is an investor-led initiative which engages with the world’s largest corporate GHG emitters to improve their climate performance and ensure the transparent disclosure of emissions.
26 Pensions for Purpose (P4P) exists as a bridge between asset managers, pension funds and their professional advisers, to encourage the flow of capital towards impact investment. P4P aims to empower pension funds to seek positive impact opportunities and mitigate negative impact risks. The Paris Alignment Forum was established by Pensions for Purpose to help pension funds and other asset owners on their journey towards alignment with the goals of the Paris Agreement, by sharing climate-related thought leadership written by P4P’s Influencer members (asset managers, consultants and lawyers), by running free training workshops for trustees and by engaging in industry-wide conversation through quarterly all-stakeholder and asset-owner events.
27 With particular thanks to Karen Shackleton and Mike Rogers at The Paris Alignment Forum, Kerry Perkins at Accounting for Sustainability (A4S), Tegs Harding at Independent Trustee Services and Doug McMurdo at Bedford Pension Fund for sharing their valuable insights. My thanks also go to Vicki Bakhshi, Director, Governance and Sustainable Investment, Columbia Threadneedle Investments, for her thoughtful comments.
28The TCFD framework was established by the Financial Stability Board with the goal of harmonising climate disclosures across the financial intermediation chain, including companies, banks, investors and pension funds. These disclosures are detailed in Pensions Watch – edition 7 (April 2021). See: https://www.columbiathreadneedle.co.uk/en/inst/insights/pensions-watch-issue-7/ and Pensions Watch edition 1 (November 2020). See: https://www.columbiathreadneedle.co.uk/en/inst/insights/pensions-watch-november-2020/
29 Somewhat paradoxically, the notion of a transition alpha has begun to surface, in that the sharing of ideas may compromise the potential rewards to a scheme unilaterally moving into a decarbonisation asset class or strategy which has yet to attract widescale attention.
30 See: https://www.robeco.com/en/insights/2022/01/podcast-stick-to-your-long-term-investment-beliefs.html
31 Many pension schemes and sponsors alike are setting themselves increasingly ambitious net zero targets, often far in advance of the UK government’s commitment to a 2050 target date.
32 The Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change (IIGCC) Net Zero Investment Framework, is an investor-led initiative that sets out the key actions and methodologies that can be used by asset managers and asset owners to implement a Paris Agreement-aligned investment strategy, based on the expectation that governments and policymakers will deliver on commitments to achieve the +1.5°C temperature goal of the Paris Agreement. In essence, this comprises decarbonising investment portfolios in a way that is consistent with achieving global net zero GHG emissions by 2050, while increasing investment in the range of climate solutions needed to meet that goal.
33 Noting that just 0.5% of $27tn global fund assets are currently aligned with the Paris Agreement. This drops to 0.2% when the Scope 3 emissions of organisations’ supply chains are considered. See: CDP. October 2021. That said, climate opportunities in the private markets/illiquid assets space can also help address other challenges, such as providing sustainable cashflow generation to those mature DB schemes which are cash flow negative.
34 All trust-based pension schemes with 100 or more members must set out, within their statement of investment principles (SIP), their policy on managing financially material climate risks, publishing this with an annual implementation statement, which discloses the extent to which the Trustees have followed the objectives and policies set out in their SIP, on a publicly accessible website. See: https://www.thepensionsregulator.gov.uk/en/ document-library/strategy-and-policy/climate-change-strategy
35 As Winston Churchill once said, “Perfection is the enemy of progress.”