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Students call on UK university endowments to invest responsibly

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University endowments across the UK, which oversee £15bn in assets, are being urged to “radically reform” how they invest by a new student-led campaign that calls for higher education institutions to pile cash into renewable energy and social housing. 

The Invest for Change campaign, which launches on Monday, reflects growing pressure on universities to invest responsibility as concerns mount about climate change and social injustice in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Students have made it clear that universities can no longer get away with investing in the climate crisis and social injustice,” said Larissa Kennedy, president of the National Union of Students. “We urgently need them to listen to students’ demands and invest in solutions to the global problems we face.”

She added: “Whether that means investing in new renewable energy infrastructure, local affordable housing developments or retrofitting public buildings, we need university money to further global efforts towards climate justice.”

The campaign, led by the Students Organising for Sustainability group and funded by Friends Provident Foundation, a charity, follows on from the successful divestment efforts that resulted in more than half of UK universities committing to ditching at least some fossil fuel holding. 

The campaigners are calling for “university money to act in the interests of students, not against them”. They have urged university endowments to focus on environmental, social and governance issues in their investment decisions and conversations with companies, as well as backing so-called positive impact investments, which aim to do good as well as generating returns. 

A shift in how university endowments invest would have an impact not just on the funds but also on external asset managers, who often manage money for higher education institutions.

This week, the University of Cambridge’s £3.5bn endowment, one of the largest in Europe, made the landmark decision to sell out of fossil fuels following years of protests by students and academics.

Cambridge said it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from any company in which it invests to net zero by 2038 by measuring emissions across its portfolio, pulling money from conventional energy-focused funds and building investments in renewable energy.

Tilly Franklin, who took over as the endowment’s chief investment officer this year, said divesting from fossil fuels, a process it aims to complete by 2030, was “just a symbolic step” on the road to the fund developing a “positive screen” to make company practices more sustainable.

The University of Oxford, which along with Cambridge manages one of the largest higher education endowments in the UK, also pledged this year to sell out of fossil fuels across its £4.1bn fund. It also said it would only work with fund managers that had a plan to achieve net carbon emissions across their investments. However, the university provided few details of how it would measure this and did not set a deadline for fossil fuel divestment, according to campaign group People & Planet.

Ms Franklin said that while repositioning Cambridge’s investment portfolio would be difficult, growing agreement among investors of the imperative to act would facilitate the process. “We’re catching a wave, as the extent of this emergency is becoming widely known,” she said. “Every single institutional investor is focusing on how they can make their portfolios more sustainable.”

Colin Baines, investment engagement manager at Friends Provident Foundation, said the exclusion of fossil fuels “should just be the start of developing a robust responsible investment policy”.



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Andrew Yang; Facebook; WallStreet Bets and much more . . . 



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A carbon registry leaves polluters with nowhere left to hide

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The writer is the founder and executive chair of the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a think-tank

No one yet knows which countries will extract the last barrel of oil, therm of gas or seam of coal. But the jostling has started. Every nation has reasons to believe it has the “right” to continue fossil fuel extraction, leaving others to deal with the climate crisis.

In the Middle East, oil producers can argue that the cost of extraction is low. In Canada, they market their human rights record. Norwegians trumpet the low-carbon intensity of their operations. And in the US under Donald Trump, they touted the virtues of “freedom gas” and called exports of liquefied natural gas “molecules of freedom”.

The dilemma for governments is that if one country stops producing fossil fuels domestically, others will step in to take market share. And so the obligation to contain emissions set out in the Paris Agreement risks being undermined by special pleading.

In the UK, the furore over plans for a new coal mine in Cumbria the year that the country is hosting the UN’s climate summit is indicative of the contrary positions many countries hold. Facing one way the government says it is addressing climate change. But looking the other, it consents not just to continued extraction, but to support and subsidise the expansion of production.

Climate Capital

Where climate change meets business, markets and politics. Explore the FT’s coverage here 

To keep warming under the Paris Agreement limit of 1.5C, countries need to decrease production of oil, gas and coal by 6 per cent a year for the next decade. Worryingly, they are instead planning increases of 2 per cent annually, the UN says. On this course, by 2030 production will be too high to keep temperature rises below 1.5C. The climate maths just doesn’t work.

One of the problems in attempting to track fossil-fuel production is the lack of transparency by both governments and corporations over how much CO2 is embedded in reserves likely to be developed. This makes it difficult to determine how to use the last of the world’s “carbon budget” before temperature thresholds such as 1.5C are exceeded.

Governments need a tool that establishes the extent to which business as usual overshoots their “allowance” of carbon. There needs to be a corrective because the cost competitiveness of renewable energy, and the risk of stranded energy assets, has not stopped governments heavily subsidising fossil fuels. During the pandemic, stimulus dollars have been dumped into the fossil-fuel sector regardless of its steady financial decline, staggering mounds of debt and falling job count. 

This is why my initiative and Global Energy Monitor, a non-profit group, are developing a global registry of fossil fuels, a publicly available database of all reserves in the ground and in production. This will allow governments, investors, researchers and civil society organisations, including the public, to assess the amount of embedded CO2 in coal, oil and gas projects globally. It will be a standalone tool and can provide a model for a potential UN-hosted registry.

With it, producer nations will have nowhere left to hide. It will help counter the absence of mechanisms in the UN’s climate change convention to restrain national beggar-thy-neighbour expansion of fossil-fuel production.

No country, community or company can go it alone. But governments can draw from the lessons of nuclear non-proliferation. First, they must stop adding to the problem; exploration and expansion into new reserves must end. This must be accompanied by “global disarmament” — using up stockpiles and ceasing production. Finally, access to renewable energy and low-carbon solutions must be developed in comprehensive and equitable transition plans.

The choice is between phasing out fossil fuels and fast-tracking low-carbon solutions, or locking-in economic, health and climate catastrophe. A fossil-fuel registry will help governments and international organisations plan for the low-carbon world ahead.

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Hasty, imperfect ESG is not the path for business

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The writer is a global economist. Her book ‘How Boards Work’ will be published in May

Good environmental, social and governance practices take a company from financial shareholder maximisation to multiple stakeholder optimisation: society, community, employees. But if done poorly, not only does ESG miss its sustainability goals, it can make things worse and let down the very stakeholders it should help.

To be sure, the ESG agenda should be pursued with determination. But there are a number of reasons why it threatens to create bad outcomes. The agenda is putting companies on the defensive. From boardrooms, I have seen organisations worry about meeting the demands of environmental and social justice activists, leading to risk aversion in allocating capital. Yet innovation is the most important tool to address many of the challenges of climate change, inequality and social discord.

Pursued by $45tn of investments, using the broadest classification, ESG is weighed down by inconsistent, blurry metrics. Investors and lobbyists use different evaluation standards and goals, which focus on varied issues such as CO2 emissions and diversity. Metrics also depend on business models.

Without a clear, unified compass, companies that measure themselves against today’s standards risk seeming off base once a more consistent regulator-led direction emerges (for example, from worker audits, the COP26 summit and the Paris Club lender nations).

ESG is not without cost and the best hope for long-term success lies with business leaders’ ability to stay attuned to its impact and unintended consequences. For example, while the case for diversity is incontrovertible, efforts at inclusion should account for the possible casualties of positive discrimination.

Furthermore, despite ESG advocates setting a strong and singular direction for governance, organisations have to maintain their operations and value while managing assets and people in a world where cultural and ethical values are far from universal. While laudable, a heightened focus on ethics (such as human rights, environmental concerns, gender and racial parity, data privacy and worker advocacy) places additional stress on global companies.

It is often asked if advocates appreciate that ESG is largely viewed from the west’s narrow and wealthy economic perspective. To be truly sustainable, ESG demands global solutions to global problems. Proposals need to be scalable, exportable and palatable to emerging countries like India and China, or no effort will truly move the needle.

Much of the agenda is too rigid, requires aggressive timelines and lacks the spirit of innovation to achieve long-term societal progress. Stakeholders’ interests differ, so ESG solutions must be nuanced, balanced and trade off speed of implementation against the breadth and depth of change.

Business leaders are aware of the need for greater focus and prioritisation of ESG. We also understand that deadlines can provide important levers for senior managers to spur their organisations into action. After all, in the face of pressure for a solution to the global pandemic, vaccines were produced in months instead of the usual 10 years.

I live at the crossroads of these tensions every day. Raised in Africa, I have lived in energy poverty, and seen how it continues to impede living standards globally. As a board member of a global energy company, I have seen much investment in the energy transition. Yet from my role with a university endowment, I have also been under pressure to divest from energy corporations. 

Business leaders must solve ESG concerns in ways that do not set corporations on a path to failure in the long term. They must have the boldness to adopt a flexible, measured and experimental agenda for lasting change. In this sense, they must push back against the politically led narrative that wants imperfect ESG changes at any cost.



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