The Decade We Stopped Climate Change

By Aaron Ziulkowski, Walden Asset Management

A New York Times Magazine published in August included one single article: “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.” The title contains the spoiler that we all already knew: We are not stopping climate change. But the focus of the article by Nathaniel Rich—a whopping 30,000 words—is a historical recounting of how close the U.S. and global community came to establishing a binding framework that would have set us on a path to limit warming to what scientists consider manageable. Several decades later, we have still not accomplished this feat.

While some readers likely found the article depressing, it gave me a bit of hope. Rich chronicled a time when the risks of climate change were appreciated and regulations to limit emissions were recognized as the prudent action to take. This knowledge was accepted and embraced by conservatives and liberals as well as leaders of business and advocacy groups. While this promising response eventually derailed, investors may be able to help return the U.S. to a 1980s context—poised to act to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change.

Here’s what we can do.      

Ask companies to set emissions reduction goals that align with climate science. While this may sound outlandish, it is not. Many companies recognize that climate change presents both risks and opportunities and are committed to doing something about it. Forty-eight percent of Fortune 500 companies have set public targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve energy efficiency, source more renewable energy, or some combination of the three. While some of these targets are not science-based (i.e., aggressive enough to reach carbon neutrality by the second half of the century), nearly five hundred companies from around the globe have publicly committed to set science-based targets, and over one hundred have already done so.

Ask companies to be more transparent about their political spending and lobbying, as well as lobbying done on their behalf by trade associations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The business community wields significant influence over public policy, for better and for worse. Transparency breeds accountability. As investors, we need to know how a company is lobbying, both because the reputational risk it might entail for the companies we invest in, as well as the risks that lobbying may create for the broader economy. According to AFSCME, more than 40 companies engaged by investors have strengthened their corporate lobbying policies, practices (e.g. a decision to end ties with a third party involved in controversial lobbying activities), and transparency.

Ask companies to proactively advocate for comprehensive climate legislation. While at the federal level it is unlikely there will be an opportunity in the near-term to pass comprehensive climate legislation, there is important groundwork that needs to be done to prepare for when the political moment is right. There are also numerous opportunities to influence state- and local-level policies related to climate change. We should ask companies, especially those that are setting their own goals and targets to reduce emissions, to support legislative and regulatory efforts that are consistent and indeed facilitate achieving their goals. For example, recently, in my home state of Massachusetts, the business community successfully mobilized to support strengthening climate legislation, including the sourcing of renewable energy. Groups like the Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy (BICEP), organized by Ceres, can help companies identify and participate in such efforts.

What we did not achieve in the past provides us our current goal and focus. The business community can be a supportive partner in fighting climate change, and investors have an important role in catalyzing that action.

EPA Rolls Back Auto Fuel Efficiency Standards

By Frank Sherman

Yesterday, the EPA announced a long awaited rollback of federal fuel economy standards for cars and light-duty trucks in the U.S. (Vox, Aug 2, 2018). (See a previous blog post about it here.) The proposal, released Thursday morning by the EPA and the US Department of Transportation, called the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule freezes the fuel economy standard for model years 2021-2026. The rule also revokes California’s waiver to set its own rules under the Clean Air Act, a waiver also followed by 13 other states and the District of Columbia, representing approximately 35% of the vehicle market.

The transportation sector has taken over from electric power generation as the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the United States. This short-sighted move not only undermines one of the most significant steps the U.S. has taken to address climate change, but also hurts the global competitiveness of the U.S. auto industry at a time when the world is demanding cleaner, more efficient vehicles. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimated that this rollback would add 570 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, equivalent to 140 typical coal-fired power plants for a year. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) found that the proposal would result in nearly 200 billion gallons of cumulative additional gasoline consumption by 2040. According to Margo Oge, former head of the EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality, the fuel savings alone through 2025 would add up to $1.7 trillion. Ceres estimated the proposal would result in the loss of $20 billion in sales by auto parts suppliers between 2021 and 2025.

The EPA argues that the proposed changes would save money and lives. The agency reported that the prior standards would cost $500 billion over the next 50 years. They claim that people will continue to drive older, less safe cars to avoid the cost of air pollution equipment installed in new cars. “More realistic standards can save lives while continuing to improve the environment,” said EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler in a statement.

But many question the EPA’s rational. “At first glance, this proposal completely misrepresents costs and savings. It also relies on bizarre assumptions about consumer behavior to make its case on safety,” said California Air Resources Board Chair Mary D. Nichols in a statement. The existing CAFE fuel standards would add an additional $2,340 to the overall ownership costs of a new vehicle or an additional $468 per year over five years. Given that air pollution from vehicles is responsible for 30,000 premature deaths annually, it stands to reason that the lives saved by improving efficiency and reducing air pollution outweigh the lives saved by potential car buyers on the margins upgrading to safer cars.

California plans to fight back. “The Trump Administration has launched a brazen attack, no matter how it is cloaked, on our nation’s Clean Car Standards,” wrote California Attorney General Xavier Becerra in a statement. “The California Department of Justice will use every legal tool at its disposal to defend today’s national standards and reaffirm the facts and science behind them.”

A 60-day comment period will begin once the proposal is published in the Federal Register. Ceres will be organizing investor comments during that time. Buckle your seat belts…

ICCR Climate Change Strategic Review

By Frank Sherman

The ICCR Climate Change Workgroup met in mid-June, hosted by the Nathan Cummings Foundation, an ICCR member in NYC, to evaluate the progress over the past year and chart out a path forward for the 2018-19 corporate engagement season. We took time to reflect on the social and faith trends; review the political and economic landscape; and map the growing investor actions on climate. We then evaluated our progress over the past couple years before developing a SWOT analysis, mission and vision. In the afternoon, we discussed the path forward by re-directing the existing programs and discussing some new areas to pursue.

Jake Barnett (Morgan Stanley Graystone), together with Mary Beth Gallagher (Tri-State CRI), presented the climate justice perspective by describing the disproportionate adverse impacts climate change has on vulnerable communities. These include decreased agricultural production due to drought resulting in increased migration, disproportionate impacts on women, increased disease burdens due to intensified heat and insect-borne diseases, and displacement from intensified storms due to lack of resilience (e.g. Hurricane Harvey and Maria). In addition, roughly 1.1 billion people lack access to electricity, making the provision of clean, affordable energy essential for communities trying to escape poverty. Unlike secular asset managers, the faith community can elevate climate change from a partisan political discourse to a moral issue that we are all called to address. We need to be bold and exhibit urgency by leveraging partner organizations (Human Rights Watch, Earth Justice, Sierra Club, etc.), and put a human face on the climate change impacts.

Aaron Ziulkowski (Walden Asset) provided the political and economic overview noting that, despite growing awareness, global GHG emissions continue to rise, although they have leveled off in OECD (developed) countries. The national commitments made in Paris fall short of the 2 degree scenario and get the world nowhere near the 1.5 degree ambition. Transportation has replaced electricity production as the top emitter in the U.S. due to the displacement of coal by natural gas. Despite the White House announced withdraw from Paris, several states have set targets for GHG reduction, renewable energy and CAFÉ standards (which reduce auto emissions) that exceed federal standards. Japan, the EU, China and India continue to increase CAFÉ standards while Trump’s EPA rolls back U.S. targets. The EPA is being sued for rolling back methane emissions standards in oil & gas production. Economists are confident that economics wins over politics with the cost of unsubsidized wind and solar electrical power now competitive with fossil fuels. We agreed to step up public advocacy and pressure corporations to do the same if the U.S. wants to remain competitive in a low carbon world.

Jamie Bonham (NEI) mapped the growing awareness and complexity of various investor groups to manage climate risks and opportunities. ICCR has to find its unique voice while leveraging these larger asset managers and NGO’s. Sean Wright of EDF presented some ideas for continued engagement on methane engagements (“The ICCR methane campaign is making a critical difference”). Rob Berridge of Ceres discussed the overlap of the Climate Action 100+ (CA100) with existing ICCR engagements with 40 U.S. companies. He has been identified as the Ceres contact with ICCR on the CA 100+, and will encourage CA100 teams to include ICCR members in their engagements or at least keep us connected (note that SGI members are on the CA100 teams for Exxon, Chevron and Valero). Ceres will analyze the Fortune 500 companies to identify climate laggards that have slipped through the cracks for ICCR to consider engaging.

In assessing ICCR’s progress over the past couple years, we noted advances with heavy GHG emitters by asking for long-term 2-degree scenario plans and science-based reduction targets (SBT). We’ve made more progress with utilities than the transport sectors, while O&G companies continue to hold on to their business-as-usual model, although they too, are starting to develop 2degree scenario reports. ICCR also led the methane campaign with good results (…as attested by EDF) due to our trusted corporate relationships, convening power with companies and non-ICCR investors, and ability to bring NGO expertise and investor focus. Finally, ICCR members were ahead of the investor world engaging global banks and asking for climate related disclosure consistent with TCFD guidelines.

In reviewing ICCR’s capabilities, we felt our strengths included our reputation for long-term, respectful yet challenging engagements; our moral credibility to speak for people and planet; and collaborative culture between members and partners. However, we recognize that often times we lack focus and are spread too thin; we’re not as diverse as desired, in terms of race, faith traditions, and younger generations; and we’re sometimes not clear or consistent in our objectives (“asks”). Opportunities include focusing on climate justice; engaging mid-cap companies: regional companies in communities where we have a presence (CRI’s); diversifying our membership with millennials and other faiths; and better collaboration with partners (e.g. Ceres). In addition to the current political environment, we recognize threats to our dated model such as aging/consolidation of faith members; corporate opposition to shareholder rights; and overlap with some of our partners.

We developed a draft Mission statement: “Through the lens of faith and as stewards of creation, we engage companies as investors and participate in public advocacy to accelerate the just transition to a low carbon economy consistent with the Paris Climate Accord and in preference to those most vulnerable.” We then brainstormed a Vision or what success looks like in terms of the companies we engage, the communities for which we advocate, the environment and society. Out of this came the realization that ICCR needs to stay above political partisanship while having the audacity to (continue to) speak truth to power; be pioneers in addressing emerging, cross-cutting issues; and be true to our justice mission.

Going forward, we will continue the SBT engagements by collaborating with CA100, expanding the energy utility list, adding the Fortune 500 laggards, and identifying mid-cap/small-cap companies in communities where we have members. Engagement of local companies has the potential added benefit of encouraging support for pro-climate policies more broadly. We will shift our conversation from 2 degrees (where too many people will suffer) to 1.5 degree scenarios and will seat our climate change work within a frame of “Just Transition”. Just Transition focuses on the needs of workers and communities as the energy economy transitions away from a reliance on fossil fuels. We plan to expand the methane campaign by challenging the ‘clean natural gas’ mantra – working more closely with affected communities, engaging companies across the value chain, and bringing larger asset managers to the discussion. We will establish an Amazon team where we hope coordination among investors and collaboration with select NGOs will achieve better results than the individual efforts to date. This big tent effort with Amazon will address issues across program areas, including climate change. Finally, we will broaden the effort to engage the financial sector, focusing on regional banks.

We concluded with agreement that the growing investor attention towards climate change is a welcome development that is especially needed in the current political environment. ICCR needs to stay true to its mission and focus on those activities that incorporate marginalized communities and their needs into the vision that guides our corporate engagements.

Fuel Economy Standards Under Threat

The Environmental Protection Agency faces an April 1 deadline to decide whether Obama-era corporate average fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks from 2022 to 2025 are attainable or should be revised. The earlier conclusion issued by the Obama EPA that no changes to the 2025 standards are needed has already been abandoned by Administrator Scott Pruitt. He also dismissed the possibility of setting standards beyond 2025. “Being predictive about what’s going to be taking place out in 2030 is really hard,” Pruitt said. “I think it creates problems when you do that too aggressively. That’s not something we’re terribly focused on right now.”

In the meantime, Pruitt signaled a showdown with California who has a waiver from the federal law allowing it to set its own air pollution requirements. California set more stringent CAFE targets for both 2025 and 2030. “California is not the arbiter of these issues. California regulates greenhouse gas emissions at the state level, but that shouldn’t and can’t dictate to the rest of the country what these levels are going to be.”

The transportation sector has taken over from electrical power generation as the leading emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the U.S. SGI joined many investors within the Ceres Investor Network earlier this year to send letters to the EPA and members of Congress, as well as to GM and Ford, in support of strong Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. More recently, SGI signed on to letters addressed to GM and Ford urging them to call out the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers to end its lobbying and public advocacy that questions climate science. The Alliance efforts to roll back the CAFE standards are in opposition to the auto industry’s support of actions to reduce GHG emissions. The letter also urges Ford and GM to publicly express opposition to changes to the CAFE standards that would lead to increases in GHG emissions.

SGI members continue to advocate that business and our government leaders take immediate action to avert climate change.

SGI members score progress with utilities on climate change

This year, SGI members filed resolutions with two midwestern utilities: CMS Energy and WEC Energy Group. Each resolution aimed for the public disclosure of an assessment of the long-term business impacts of limiting global warming to under 2-degrees Celsius, as adopted by the Paris Climate Agreement.

We have great news: both resolutions have been withdrawn as the companies agreed to the main components of the resolutions. Despite the Trump administration’s decision to end the Clean Power Plan, both midwestern utilities rise to meet the challenges of climate change. In fact, CMS announced last week that they reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent and no longer using coal to generate electricity by 2040.

Sr. Ruth Geraets, PBVM of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Aberdeen, SD who led the filing of the resolution at CMS Energy said, “My congregation is concerned about climate change and the critical need to reduce greenhouse emissions because our mission calls us to care for creation. As longterm shareholders in CMS, we believe having a strategy in place to meet climate challenges head-on will improve CMS’ competitive position over the long term. We were pleased to see CMS step up to this challenge with its recently announced clean energy breakthrough goals.”

With respect to the dialogue with WEC Energy Group, on behalf of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Central Pacific Province, Tim Dewane said, “Pope Francis has said, ‘Reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage and responsibility.’ We thank WEC Energy Group for its efforts in this regard so far. We believe they are not only good for the planet, but they are also in the bottom-line best interests of the company, its customers and shareholders.”

“These two utility companies are climate leaders in the Midwest,” said Frank Sherman, Executive Director of SGI. “They recognize that market forces and their customer base are pushing them to exceed federal climate regulations and state renewable portfolio standards. Although they are big companies, utilities have a very local focus and are highly dependent on the social license granted by the communities where they operate.”

Our partners at ICCR shared a press release about this win which can be found here.

Top 10 Sustainable Business Stories of 2017

Frank Sherman, Executive Director of Seventh Generation Interfaith

We experienced a record number of extreme weather events in 2017. We also witnessed a different kind of inversion. As our government reversed environmental and social regulations, companies took voluntary actions to protect people and the planet. In a Harvard Business Review profile of the Top 10 Sustainable Business Stories of 2017, business leaders took steps to reduce climate change. As the new administration pulled out of the Paris Agreement and made an all-out assault on our air, water, climate, and land, multinational corporations joined state and local governments to declare We Are Still In. Large institutional investors such as Blackrock and Vanguard woke up to the risk of climate change in voting with faith-based shareholder proposals.

China accelerated their sustainability efforts, stepping into the leadership position given up by the U.S., by committing to cut coal by 30% and cancelling 103 coal plants; making big moves in electric vehicles; and becoming the world’s largest solar producer. As the U.S. administration moved to relax fuel efficiency standards, GM, Ford and Volvo announced major investments in electric vehicles (EV). France, India, Britain, Norway, and China commitment to ban diesel and gas vehicles over the next couple of decades helped push EV sales up 63% globally last year!

Business leaders like Apple’s Tim Cook stood up stating that sustainability that isn’t about philanthropy, but rather about the core business and its role in society. Companies supported state attorney generals’ suit of the administration’s immigration ban and discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Looking ahead at 2018, author Andrew Winston predicted that “Millennials and Gen Z will continue to push for purpose and meaning in work and life”. Companies will set more aggressive sustainability goals and embrace “clean labels” (…like Walmart, Target, and Panera did in 2017). The #metoo movement against sexual harassment will move beyond media and politics to the corporate suites.

Happy New Year!

We Are Still In

Frank Sherman, Executive Director of Seventh Generation Interfaith

This month, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced the Administration’s intent to repeal the Clean Power Plan. This was President Obama’s signature policy to curb greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions from electrical power plants, the cornerstone of the US plan per the Paris Climate Accord.

Shortly after the EPA announcement, the We Are Still In coalition announced that the US will be represented by a robust delegation at the upcoming 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP23), including a US Climate Action Centre and a US Delegation of Climate Leaders as an indication of support for the UN climate talks. The We Are Still In movement is a coalition comprised of approximately 2,500 mayors, governors, state attorneys, business leaders, investors and other prominent climate actors who declared that they will continue to support climate action to meet the Paris Agreement. The coalition represents $6.2 trillion of the US economy and more than 130 million Americans, i.e. approximately 40 percent of the US population.

This Clean Power Plan (CPP) was passed by the Obama EPA to meet the requirements of the Clean Air Act. Repeal of the CPP will be fought in the courts. In the meantime, the We Are Still In coalition believes the US can still meet the GHG reduction targets in spite of the repeal of the CPP. GHG emissions in the US are down over 11 percent since 2005, with the power sector down 24 percent. Over the same period, US GDP was up 12 percent, proving that economic growth and GHG emissions can indeed be decoupled.  With natural gas prices depressed, declining renewable energy cost, aging coal plants, increased availability of electric vehicles, and growing public support for climate action (e.g.  the Yale Climate Communication Center reports that over 60 percent of Trump voters support regulating GHG and over 70 percent support renewable energy), this trend will continue.

Christiana Figueres, former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, has declared:

Paris is everyone’s deal. It belongs to cities, businesses, nongovernmental organizations, and all of global civil society as much as it belongs to nation-states. So when President Trump attempted to destabilize the process by announcing his intent to withdraw, there was no domino effect of despair. Instead, he unleashed an inspirational counter-movement in support of the Paris Agreement, which is embodied so beautifully in the We Are Still In Campaign.