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Are pension providers guilty of greenwashing?

Ben Pollard, CEO - Cushon

In recent years we have seen climate change rapidly climb up the political agenda, as policymakers catch-up with public opinion and consumer concern. In the face of huge upheaval, climate change feels like a massive, multi-faceted beast for any individual employee to take on alone. In fact, they – and their employers – have more power and influence than we might realise, but first we need to understand the facts.

In just 30 years, the world has embraced the interconnectivity offered by the internet and the transformation across our lives that has come with it. If I had predicted 30 years ago what the world would look like now, it would have sounded like a great upheaval then, and yet most of us have taken it in our stride.

Just as we’ve adapted to the digital revolution, the green revolution is one that individuals have the power and influence to shape. A lot will be impacted in the next 30 years to tackle climate change, from the food we eat to the way we heat our home, from the cars we drive and even to the companies our pensions are invested in.

While so many of us do our part to reduce our own personal impact on climate change, it seems that we have been ignoring one area of particular concern: the impact pensions are having on the environment.

The average UK pension pot unwittingly finances an average of 23 tonnes of CO2 emissions – each year – through the businesses the pension invests in. It’s a staggering volume, equivalent to running nine family cars each year, simply as a by-product of saving for retirement. We’d need to recycle for 19 years to offset those 23 tonnes, or plant 30 acres of new forest to counteract these effects – every year, for each and every pension.

The debate around green and ethically sound pensions has become more vocal in recent years, and providers and their clients are realising, albeit too slowly, that their environmental credentials need to be real, tangible and evidenced.

The growth of funds invested along environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles has been rapid. But while 76% of fund managers told Redington that climate-related risks are factored into their investment process, only 60% could give a concrete example of where climate concerns led it to avoid an investment or to a sale or reduction in a position.

And there is still a worrying misconception in the industry that investing in responsible funds is more expensive than the more average pension fund.

We’re happy to set the record straight. Climate-aware pensions do exist and switching to one shouldn’t mean getting lumbered with extra charges. Nor should it mean waiting another 30 years until they’re widely available.

At the start of this year, we launched Cushon’s Net Zero Now pension – the first pension of its kind in the world.

No saver should be railroaded into compromising on their values or their investment because of extra charges. It doesn’t make sense to pit climate against investment return – we should all be taking collective responsibility for the environment but that shouldn’t come at a cost to our fund members. There is little point planning for a financially secure future if the world you retire into is in catastrophic environmental chaos.

To meet the UK’s 2050 net zero targets, we will need to have halved Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 – only 8 and half years away. Paying to offset investments in greenhouse gas emitting industries is not a long-term solution. Our hope is that within five years, the pensions industry will have improved so much that we will have moved away from offsets as an option, instead directly investing solely in ethical and green funds.

Unfortunately, the idea of net zero investing is still shamefully poorly developed within the pension fund management industry. We work with three of the largest fund managers in the world, and only one of them was even able to tell us the CO2 emission levels of their funds when we first asked. That’s why we want to work with other pension providers and employers to change the industry and get to the point where all pension funds regularly report on carbon emissions, in a standard way.

The pensions industry has so far avoided the levels of scrutiny that other sectors in the economy have received – greenwashing will not be tolerated by employees. It’s only a matter of time before the words of the industry are measured against actions.

For change to happen, we need industry regulators and the Government to lead the way. While we welcome many of the regulations in the Pensions Scheme Act, the requirements around climate change impact and reporting are not universal. They only apply to large schemes over £1bn and these regulations won’t come into effect until October at the earliest, while the Government will wait until 2023 to consider whether to also include smaller schemes.

However, there is no doubt of the growing appetite – from employees to pension fund trustees – to address the issue of pensions contributing to climate change.

To do this, employers need to look at where their company pensions are being invested, and ask difficult questions of their providers, find out about what impact the pension scheme is having on the environment, and commit to making a positive change. Be in no doubt, employees will start asking those difficult questions themselves if their companies are not getting ahead of the curve.

This can all help lead to a quicker reformation of the pension industry, which needs to act quickly now, not in 2050 – by then, it will be too late.

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