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Businesses face more and more pressure from investors to act on climate change

  • By Michael Copley/NPR

Every spring, shareholders in publicly-traded companies get to weigh in on how they’re run. It’s a chance for investors to vote on proposals to shape corporate policies for things like executive pay and political spending. But as the Earth heats up, annual shareholder meetings have become a battleground for activist investors who are pressing companies for more aggressive action on climate change.

This year, shareholders filed around 540 proposals as of mid-February asking companies to address environmental, social and corporate governance issues, according to Proxy Preview. Resolutions focused on climate change accounted for about a quarter of this year’s total, with the number increasing by about 12% from the same point in 2022.

Investors want to know how companies are contributing to rising temperatures, and what they’re doing about the problem. They’re calling for executives and corporate boards to set targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and then to report on their progress. And they want to know how businesses plan to keep making money as industries are reshaped by the push to cut emissions.

The message to companies is, “set targets, issue plans, give us clear disclosure,” says Kirsten Snow Spalding, who leads investor initiatives at Ceres, a nonprofit focused on sustainability. “And all of it is about, how are you addressing the risks and moving towards the opportunities?”

Are shareholder proposals working?

Most resolutions are non-binding, but just introducing them has proven to be an effective tool for activist investors. Last year, shareholders withdrew a record 110 proposals that were focused on climate change after they struck deals with companies, according to Ceres. Another 15 climate resolutions that went to a vote at various corporations won majority support from shareholders.

“The trend toward climate action is really on the rise,” Spalding says.

But the pace of corporate change is slower than activists would like — and what climate science shows is needed. Scientists working for the United Nations say the planet is on track for catastrophic warming that will cause more extreme weather. Heat waves, droughts and floods that are fueled by climate change are already inflicting severe economic damage and killing and displacing people around the world.

Some of the worst impacts could be avoided by quickly cutting emissions. Right now, though, emissions aren’t falling. Activists say a lot of companies aren’t doing enough to address the threat, despite pressure from investors.

Activist shareholders focus on emissions that are hard to measure

Chubb Ltd., a big insurance company, is one of the businesses that activist investors are targeting this year.

Chubb is already cutting its own greenhouse gas emissions. But, like other insurers, the company doesn’t directly produce a lot of emissions. However, some of its clients do. So, Chubb says it’s limited its underwriting and investing in coal and oil sands. And the company said in March that it will require clients in the oil and gas industry to cut emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

But the company’s recent methane initiative was met with a shrug from a leading shareholder advocacy group called As You Sow. It noted that a lot of oil and gas companies already have their own plans to reduce methane emissions.

“I don’t ever like to say this, but it feels a little bit like window dressing — that they are attempting to convince investors that they’re taking action,” says Danielle Fugere, president of As You Sow. “But because they aren’t measuring, they aren’t disclosing, we don’t have a way to measure the effectiveness of those actions.”

As You Sow filed a shareholder proposal last year asking Chubb to publish a report on whether and how it plans to measure and cut greenhouse gas emissions connected to its underwriting, insurance and investing activities. The group wants Chubb to make commitments that align with the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. To do that, all greenhouse gas emissions need to be eliminated or offset by 2050.

A majority of Chubb’s shareholders backed the proposal. But the company said it didn’t know how to “reasonably measure” emissions from the entities it insures. As You Sow and other activists filed a similar proposal this year that’s set for a vote at Chubb’s annual meeting in May.

“Insurers’ activities can contribute to systemic climate risk to the global economy, investor portfolios, and insurers’ profitability,” the activist investors say in the proposal.

How one company is responding to a shareholder resolution

Chubb is urging investors to vote against the resolution. The company didn’t make anyone available to NPR for an interview. It said in a recent filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that there’s still not a “well-established and widely accepted” way to measure emissions from all its customers.

Methods for measuring these so-called Scope 3 emissions aren’t perfect, but more than 3,300 companies reported theirs anyway in 2021.

“Chubb shares the proponent’s goal of achieving a net zero economy by 2050,” the company said in a recent filing to the SEC, referring to As You Sow. “We disagree that forcing Chubb to set targets related to the emissions produced by its insureds, rather than Chubb’s own emissions, would advance that goal.”

Chubb is planning more investments in “alternative energy and clean tech,” the company said in a climate report last year, and it says its underwriting practices are encouraging companies to move away from using the dirtiest fossil fuels.

It’s unclear if most Chubb shareholders will vote again this year for the company to make a plan to cut emissions from its various business activities.

Mainstream investors want climate proposals tailored to individual companies

While the number of shareholder resolutions focused on climate change has been increasing, support, on average, fell last year for those that went to a vote at annual meetings. Ceres says average support dropped to about 32% from 42% in 2021 amid a global energy crisis and rising inflation.

Paul Washington, who leads The Conference Board ESG Center, a sustainability think tank, says the decline was also driven by concerns that proposals were too prescriptive and might interfere with how companies are run. Investors were also less willing to consider shareholder resolutions when companies had their own climate strategies. He says those same factors are at play this year.

“I think there’s still a strong interest [in] climate from mainstream investors,” says Washington. “But they are taking a more case-by-case approach to what climate strategy makes sense for a particular industry and a particular company.”

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