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Universities urge urgent action to cease fossil fuel support

01 June 2023

Leading UK universities have formed a coalition to call for asset managers to rescind their support for the expansion of fossil fuel expansion projects.

In the lead-up to COP26 in Glasgow, Newcastle University and 24 other institutional investors teamed up to publish a set of climate-related minimum expectations for the asset management industry. These outlined the core actions and principles required for the industry to support global efforts to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Since the release of the declaration, experts from the world's leading climate scientists and energy experts have sounded the alarm, identifying new oil, coal, and gas ventures as an urgent threat to the critical target of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C.

The academic community has similarly raised concerns about planned expansions in the fossil fuel sector. Earlier this year, over 700 UK scientists signed an open letter to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, urging an immediate halt to new oil and gas licensing in the North Sea. Against this backdrop, asset managers need to prioritise the discontinuation of new fossil fuel projects, as part of their efforts to facilitate a transition aligned with the 1.5°C target.

To address this pressing issue, many of these institutions, representing over £4.5 billion in assets under management, are collaborating. Their primary objective is to engage with asset managers and evaluate the extent to which the industry is meeting the original expectations set forth in the original declaration.

By taking swift and decisive action, the coalition aims to foster a collective endeavour that will effectively curb the expansion of fossil fuel activities. This collaborative effort is crucial in building a sustainable and resilient future in line with global climate goals.

The new letter reads as follows:

Ahead of the 2021 COP26 Climate Conference, Newcastle University, along with 25 leading asset owners, published a set of climate expectations for the asset management industry. These expectations aimed to establish a minimum standard for action necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

We are writing to you as AGM season begins in earnest to reaffirm our support for these expectations, which we believe represent a vital minimum standard for ensuring the asset management aligns with the 1.5° Cambition laid out in the Paris Agreement.

Since the release of the expectations, the world’s pre-eminent climate science and energy system experts have identified new fossil fuel projects as one of the clearest threats to reaching net zero global emissions by 2050 and limiting global temperatures to the critical 1.5°C ambition laid out in the Paris Agreement. Despite this, many large global companies with public commitments to the 1.5°C goal continue to support major fossil fuel expansion projects through insurance services, financing, infrastructure construction and exploration activities.

In this context, it is vital that asset managers’ approach to alignment with the Paris Agreement prioritises halting fossil fuel expansion activity.

As such we, your client, have three clear requests of you. These detailed asks are based on the high-level principles set out in the COP26 Asset Owner Climate Expectations and we will use performance against these three asks as a key metric for assessing your compliance with the climate expectations more broadly.

Specifically, we urge you to:

1) Halt financing for fossil fuel expansion. We are asking you to publicly commit to halting new financing for fossil fuel expansion projects. This must include halting primary market financing to companies expanding fossil fuel output or infrastructure. Specifically, asset managers should commit to no longer purchasing new bonds associated with fossil fuel expansion projects, or issued by companies involved in constructing new fossil fuel infrastructure and/or exploring for new oil, coal or gas reserves. Divestment from existing bond holdings associated with fossil fuel expansion should also be initiated in a phased but timely manner.

2) Vote in favour of pro-climate shareholder resolutions. As is laid out in the COP Declaration expectations, we expect you to adopt a presumption to vote in favour of all climate-related shareholder resolutions. This AGM season, we will pay particular attention to voting behaviour for resolutions highlighted in ShareAction’s 2023 Resolutions to Watch list, as well as any resolutions which relate to a company’s involvement in new oil, coal or gas projects. We also expect to see strong performance in ShareAction’s next Voting Matters report, which will take account of voting during this AGM season.

3) Escalate engagement with companies facilitating new fossil fuel projects by voting against their directors. Even where there are no climate-specific resolutions at a company, we expect our asset manager to use the most robust possible engagement escalation tools if that company is involved in fossil fuel expansion projects. This should include voting against director re-elections at any bank, insurance, utilities or fossil fuel company which remains involved in facilitating new fossil fuel projects. We have identified these sectors as they are closely involved in facilitating new coal, oil and gas projects. Escalation could also involve voting against the company’s annual report and audited accounts on the basis that they do not appropriately factor in the climate risk of the company’s continued involvement in expanding oil, coal and gas infrastructure.

We believe that these actions must be adopted as standard practice by yourselves and the asset management industry in order to ensure the global economy meets critical international climate targets. We expect our asset managers to lead the way in initiating this kind of robust engagement during the 2023 AGM season and beyond.

Please respond outlining your compliance with our COP Declaration expectations, as well as specifically how you will meet the three requests outlined in this letter during the 2023 AGM season and beyond.

Yours,

The signatories include the University of Sussex, the University of Newcastle, the University of Bristol, Jesus College, Cambridge and Trinity College, Cambridge.


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