An ambitious year in climate action by shareholders in leading financial institutions
We’re at the end of another year of company annual general meetings (AGMs) critical for companies whose actions are shaping the future of our planet. Year on year, we’re seeing shareholders in public companies increasingly making use of AGMs to make direct contact with management and have their say on resolutions relating to social, environmental and governance issues. 2021 saw a sea change, with increasing numbers of shareholder resolutions put forward demonstrating the need and desire for real action on ending fossil fuel financing, right now. This year, we’ve seen consolidated gains and even more ambitious resolutions put to a vote by climate-concerned shareholders. We’ve also seen regression, with corporate co-opting of the war on Ukraine as an excuse to backtrack on climate commitments and push for increased investment in fossil fuels. In this long read blog, we’re going to give you the rundown of all the critical developments this year.
What happened during this year’s AGM season was certainly influenced by the events in Ukraine. The invasion sparked international outcry and saw condemnation from powerful political players, businesses, and the global financial system. As a response to Russia’s invasion, many countries decided to reduce their exposure to Russian owned fossil fuel assets.
However, the wider complexities surrounding Russia and their fossil fuel exports has had a knock on effect, including the global cost of living crisis, which has impacted countries all over the world from Nigeria to Taiwan, as the Guardian reported earlier this year. As Europe is structurally dependent on Russia’s fossil fuel production for energy, many European countries are currently facing a particularly acute crisis with soaring energy prices and inflation reaching never before seen levels.
Shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, major players, including BP, Legal and General, and BlackRock limited their exposure to Russian assets. While this is a strong move and demonstrates the ability of investors and companies to rapidly and responsively shift gears and put pressure on when needed, it has also highlighted the fallacy of incremental change that has been pedalled around in financial commentary surrounding the climate. However, the Ukraine conflict has also been used as an opportunity to put the climate crisis on the backburner. It has been used as an excuse to push fossil fuel solutions as a response to the global energy supply crisis. This is hypocritical and short-sighted. New fossil fuel infrastructure, such as additional LNG terminals — facilities for managing the import and/or export of liquefied natural gas (LNG) — and pipelines take years to construct, and are not a viable solution to a short-term supply crisis. What’s more, fossil fuel expansion is the very thing that will cause more economic chaos and extreme weather events (not to mention the irony that the conflict itself was made possible by Russia’s lucrative fossil fuel industry).
During North American AGMs at global oil and gas firms, the conflict in Ukraine and its impacts were used to cause fear mongering among investors. Companies pushed narratives of the ongoing energy crisis stemming from the Russia-Ukraine conflict as being more important than the climate crisis. However, this was just one factor that contributed to a decrease in support for shareholder filed climate resolutions within the banking sector, in comparison to 2021. Another contributing factor was the ambition of this years’ shareholder resolutions’ demands which set the bar much higher than before; in light of this, senior executives tried to deflect climate scrutiny by misrepresenting the actual substance of the resolutions they faced and investors were willing to give companies more time to align their climate strategies with their public net-zero commitments before supporting tough resolutions like those put forward this year.
Nevertheless, increasing numbers of shareholders showed a willingness to engage on climate issues and to challenge management who are not willing to comply with their demands. Shareholders in the banking sector showed considerable support for ambitious shareholder climate resolutions this year, with an average of 11 percent of investors supporting proposals asking US banks and insurers, among them Citi, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and Chubb, to align their business with the IEA’s 1.5 net zero pathway and put a full stop on fossil fuel expansion.
For the first time, these resolutions asked for concrete policies and funding exclusions to be implemented by the end of this year, a much bigger ask than requesting disclosure or emissions targets. We also saw pre-declarations of support from New York State, New York City, Rhode Island and Seattle pension funds. While this may seem like a small percentage, it’s important to remember that investors will vote differently in the next AGM if companies will continue to drag their feet, failing to present credible plans to align the business with a trajectory that limits global warming to 1.5 degrees in line with the Paris Agreement.
Any shareholder resolution with over 5 percent support can be re-filed in the next season. Proposals with more than 10 percent support generally raise alarm bells for management, indicating that shareholders are not content and that failure to address the issues may lead to divestment.
About to call out the shareholders at the Citigroup and Wells Fargo annual meetings. Citi invested $5B in Enbridge corporate financing. Wells Fargo invested $4B. These are the pocketbooks of big oil.#StopLine3 #StopLine5 #NoDAPL
Learn about divestment at: @StopMoneyPipe pic.twitter.com/groLB0C7Kb
— tara houska ᔖᐳᐌᑴ (@zhaabowekwe) April 26, 2022
The rights of Indigenous Peoples were at the forefront of resolutions filed this year because of the impact that fossil fuels have on Indigenous communities, their land, and subsequently their very existence. Resolutions were filed at both the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) and Citigroup calling on the banks to respond to the concerns of Indigenous peoples who are affected by projects that these two banks fund. We saw tremendous support for Indigenous rights at Citigroup’s AGM with 34 percent of investors supporting the resolution calling on Citigroup to evaluate its compliance (or lack thereof) with providing Free, Prior, and Informed Consent.
If @RBC were serious about their commitment to helping “communities prosper” as stated during their AGM, they wouldn’t have cancelled in-person attendance upon Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs announcing their attendance.#RBCAGM #NoMoreDirtyBanks #WetsuwetenStrong pic.twitter.com/58NmcIfXaR
— Climate Votes (@climate_votes) April 7, 2022
However, RBC showed a complete disregard towards Indigenous rights, having cancelled the in-person segment of their shareholder meeting only 24 hours before it was scheduled to begin. This decision was made after Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs announced they were to attend the meeting to confront management for their financing of Coastal GasLink.
RBC also faced scrutiny for their lack of transparency surrounding the criteria that allows for projects to receive ESG financing. It was with respect to this that Investors for Paris Compliance filed a shareholder resolution at RBC, prompted by the bank using “sustainability linked bonds” to support new oil pipelines, including the highly contested Line 3 pipeline which is transporting tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to Superior, Wisconsin, USA.
Right wing lobbyists in North America have recently intensified their attacks on ESG investors. Examples of this can be seen through right wing actors’ determination to turn climate policies into a culture war issue, by referring to ESG as “corporate cancel culture” or the “radical ESG agenda”. Moves being made, from the restriction of states’ rights to pull back fossil fuel investments to lobbying the SEC to prevent companies from having to disclose their financial and climate risks, are a clear constriction of the very free market they profess to defend. Forcing financial institutions to ignore economic risk, seeking to allow companies to obscure known financial risks from their investors, and punishing them for seeking to limit their exposure to a volatile industry with high risk of stranded assets doesn’t make any sense from a financial point of view.
THE LEFT GOES CORPORATE: @IngrahamAngle rips the Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) ‘scam,’ says those behind the movement are ‘self-appointed thought and governance police’ for American corporations and voters. pic.twitter.com/uV8UhQYtbu
— Fox News (@FoxNews) May 27, 2022
Furthermore, the far-right is fanning panic about regulations on the fossil fuel industry to try and gain favour among voters ahead of critical midterm elections. Part of this tactic is portraying energy transition policies at odds with generating energy and profit. According to this logic, the cost of living crisis is a result of the finance industry being ‘made to’ focus on ESG issues, as opposed to the actual cause: financial downturn and inflation related to Covid-19 and Ukraine-related supply and demand issues. As such, the valid concerns of voters and their financial security are being preyed upon to push a new form of climate change denialism.
HAPPENING NOW: I’m at @Shell_UKLtd AGM where a choir has disrupted the chairman’s speech singing a rendition of “we will stop you” 🎶 #RallyAgainstShell pic.twitter.com/JlYDT3ChF6
— Mia Watanabe | 渡辺みあ (@MiaHWatanabe) May 24, 2022
Across the pond, activists representing communities impacted by fossil fuel expansion and concerned citizens disrupted both Shell, Total Energies and HSBC’s AGMs.
Shell’s AGM in London was disrupted and delayed for three hours after activists protested both outside and inside the conference venue. Votes against Shell’s own (greenwash) climate plan doubled to 20 percent (up from 11 percent who dissented in 2021), suggesting growing dissatisfaction and distrust with company management. However, support for the shareholder resolution filed by Follow This decreased from 30 percent in 2021 to 20 percent . This was linked by Ceres analyst Andrew Logan to the war in Ukraine, which has created “headwinds” for climate proposals calling to halt scope 3 emissions. Similarly, Total Energies’ AGM attracted hundreds of protesters in France and shut the AGM down , yet – despite this – we saw investors vote for business as usual, with 89 percent voting favourably for Total’s inadequate climate strategy, a slight improvement on last year’s 92%.
“Crève et fais pas chier”
C’est comme ça que certains actionnaires de @TotalEnergies se sont adressés aux activistes du mouvement climat qui protestaient contre le modèle destructeur déployé par la multinationale. Soutien à elles et eux 💚 #BlocageTotal pic.twitter.com/EDunbeQ863
— Greenpeace France (@greenpeacefr) May 25, 2022
As mentioned, the cost of living crisis within Europe has been exacerbated by the invasion of Ukraine and a regional energy supply question has loomed over a market highly-dependent on Russian imports. As such, investors are responding to climate resolutions from a place of anxiety, and are voting to protect their short-term finances rather than for meaningful climate action. This short-sided approach is being taken despite the fact that the latter would ultimately stabilize their portfolios as well as the economy their business depends on.
“Investors have given in to Shell’s narrative that the crisis created by the war in Ukraine overrides the climate crisis. Both crises must be dealt with simultaneously by shifting investments to renewables,”
— Follow This founder Mark Van Baal (@followthis2015) May 24, 2022
The controversial East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) was at the forefront of Standard Bank’s AGM. While many African banks have chosen not to support the pipeline, the South African-headquartered bank affirmed its support for fossil fuels and this project in particular by acting as a financial advisor for EACOP.
Standard Bank faced a climate resolution filed by Just Share and Aeon Investments, calling on the bank to set short-, medium-, long- term targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and provide further transparency on their progress in tackling their financed emissions.
The resolution was filed after Standard Bank’s climate strategy published earlier this year provided no targets for reducing emissions. By limiting its commitments in this way the bank’s policy allows the bank to expand fossil fuel finance until at least 2030, which could potentially allow the bank to fund EACOP or similarly destructive projects.
CEO Sim Tshabalala: “We have not yet committed to EACOP financing, and won’t do so until we are satisfied that the project complies with our policies. We continue to engage with NGOs, however we have also engaged with Total Energies and the Uganda government who make a different case.”
During the Standard Bank AGM, #StopEACOP activists, with deep connections to affected communities, gathered outside the AGM in response to Standard Bank current support as structuring advisor on the oil pipeline, as well as their not ruling out future financial support for EACOP.
However, investors showed up and showed out, with 99 percent voting in favour of the resolution filed by Just Share and Aeon Investments. With such a significant amount of support, Standard Bank must now assess its climate strategy and rethink its position on the climate, and address its position on future fossil fuel expansion , including with respect toEACOP, if it is to retain credibility with shareholders. The test will come next year when Standard Bank will need to disclose their Africa-wide emissions and present a plan to align their operations with the Paris agreement, two demands they agreed to pursue this year by supporting this resolution.
At AGL’s shareholder meeting in Australia, management buckled under pressure from activist shareholder Mike Cannon-Brookes and his campaign to prevent the energy company from offloading its emissions-heavy activities through a demerger rather than an actual transition of its business strategy. AGL is Australia’s largest polluter, with 8 percent of the country’s emissions coming from AGL’s coal fired plants. The proposed demerger would have split off its retail energy services with some clean energy sources and formed Accel Energy as a new company for its continued coal business.
After Mike Cannon-Brookes bought a majority stake in AGL, aiming to accelerate the company’s actual transition to clean energy, the demerger was subsequently cancelled. With AGL stating that they “believe that the Demerger Proposal will not receive sufficient support to meet the 75 percent approval threshold for a scheme of arrangement,” the resignation of CEO Graeme Hunt and Chairman Peter Botten soon followed.
The cancellation of the AGL demerger shows the voting power of the investor block, as well as the growing concern from investors regarding the lack of genuine commitment to tackle the climate crisis from the companies they are investing in.
Japanese companies, such as J-Power, SMBC Group, Tepco and Mitsubishi, have all faced resolutions calling for greater action and transparency on meeting net-zero carbon emissions targets.
SMBC Group’s dedication to fossil fuels over the past five years has led to over $109 billion in fossil fuel investment, and is currently acting as one of three financial advisors for EACOP. The banking group has been criticised for their unclear and loophole-ridden climate policy allowing for ongoing support for existing coal-fired plants, even after their climate strategy was updated. SMBC Group’s current climate policy also allows for further support for oil and gas projects, despite this being in violation of their commitments to the Net Zero Banking Alliance.
We saw considerable support with 27 percent of shareholders voting in favour of the first proposal calling on SMBC to set and disclose short- and medium-term greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement.
The second proposal, called on SMBC to align its funding with the IEA’s net zero scenario and to ensure no further financing is provided to fossil fuel expansion. It was filed for the first time this year and received 10 percent of votes. This is similar to outcomes at AGMs within the USA and Europe this year.
Similar results were seen in the AGM of Mitsubishi Corporation, JPower and TEPCO. The Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility ACCR) and a US$3 trillion investor group including Man Group, HSBC Asset Management and Amundi filed three shareholder proposals for consideration at J-POWER’s ordinary general meeting of shareholders.
Economists have pointed out that climate change will likely cause the next financial crisis of a magnitude never felt before. Many people are still barely recovering from the last one and are now battling the global impacts of the current cost of living crisis. As we saw 14 years ago, financial institutions are gambling with investors’ money on doomed assets, however, this time those assets are fossil fuels. If we do not see a shift, economic security will weaken and inequity will continue to grow globally. This will come at the expense of our planet and future generations who will be forced to live through the instability and danger of climate chaos.
Investors must look past the short term vision portrayed by companies and right wing lobbyists aiming to extend the shelf life of fossil fuels by causing fear of energy scarcity. We are fast running out of time to mitigate the worst of the effects of global warming. We hope to see investors set the bar of ambition even higher in 2023 by continuing to scrutinise company climate policy, by using their votes in favour of plans aligned with climate science, and by challenging management and replacing boards where necessary.