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Brunel’s David Cox on making the Paris goals happen

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11 Mar 2022

David Cox, deputy CIO at Brunel Pension Partnership argues that investors have a key role to play in implementing the Paris goals.

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David Cox, deputy CIO at Brunel Pension Partnership argues that investors have a key role to play in implementing the Paris goals.

Asset owners and asset managers play a crucial role in helping reorient the global economy towards a low-carbon future. But whether we succeed in the fight against global warming will not be known for decades.

How can we translate a high level policy, such as the Paris Agreement goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, into the measurable investment objectives that asset managers require?

Game changer

For Brunel Pension Partnership, one of the UK’s eight national local government pension scheme pools, there is no single answer – but there is the odd game-changer.

Brunel brings together the £40bn investments of 10 like-minded pension funds. In November, during the COP26 Glasgow summit, Brunel announced it was transitioning more than £3bn to index funds run by Legal & General Investment Management, tracking new FTSE Russell Paris-aligned benchmarks (FTSE EU Climate Benchmarks Index Series | FTSE Russell) that it had helped to develop.

FTSE Russell’s Paris-aligned benchmark series meets the requirements of the EU’s Paris-aligned climate benchmarks by achieving a 50% reduction in carbon emissions over a 10-year period. It also goes a step further by integrating forward-looking metrics and governance protections from the Transition Pathway Initiative (TPI).

TPI provides assessments of how the world’s largest and most carbon-exposed companies are managing the climate transition.

Exposure to any given index constituent within the FTSE Russell Paris-aligned benchmark series rises or falls according to several exposure objectives, covering fossil fuel reserves, carbon reserves and green revenues, as well as forward-looking alignment with Paris goals.

Continuous improvement

Integrating a responsible investment policy into the pension scheme’s strategy and objectives is a process of continuous improvement. We’re fortunate that we’re in a position where our clients—the 10 local government schemes within Brunel—have a long-term outlook.

However, as we work through the outcomes we’re looking for, it’s about understanding the risks we’re taking, but also the opportunity set and how the net-zero transition will affect it.

We’ve always engaged actively with the companies we hold within our portfolios – we don’t impose blanket bans on the energy or automotive, and nor should we. We need to be active shareholders to achieve the net-zero transition. Otherwise, we may not get there.

A naïve approach to building a responsible investment portfolio could lead asset owners astray. Banks operate from offices and can buy their energy from renewable sources, so they look very green. But a bank may be a large financier of fossil fuels and it may promote carbon-intensive activity. So, we always need to return to our assumptions and to test them.

We collaborate actively with the experts at FTSE Russell who run the data behind the indices, as well as with external academic experts. This helps us continuously refine our investment processes.

To give another example, applying the same decarbonisation constraints to a portfolio of developed and emerging market equities might result in perverse outcomes. That is because, for historical reasons, different countries and different industries are likely be at different points in the net-zero transition.

Managing diversity

Asset owners must manage the resulting diversity. We have to transition in a just way. We cannot just say ‘let’s just turn off anything bad and see what happens’. In a country like the UK with relatively low gas and coal usage, that approach might work.

But if you go to Vietnam, they would not have electricity if we took that approach. You cannot approach emerging markets from a Western or developed market viewpoint.

This realisation does not mean Brunel relaxes the climate risk goals it sets its benchmark designers and asset managers. The pension plan has a stated goal of decarbonising its global listed equity portfolio by at least 7% a year.

Having the right mindset and a commitment to openness are just as important as setting numerical goals. The transparency of our strategy and underlying positions is incredibly important. We need to be clear about the outcomes we are looking to provide and how we are looking to provide them. And we integrate responsible investment across everything we do.

To assist in our self-monitoring process, Brunel publishes an annual Responsible Investment and Stewardship Outcomes report, in which it goes into detail about our performance against its stated goals.

Three pillars

Our approach is built on three pillars. These are to integrate sustainability criteria into our operations and investment activities, to collaborate with others across the industry and support effective policy making, and to be transparent in our activities. These three pillars underpin our operations, providing a bedrock for our team, our clients and our managers.

In manufacturing and technology, continuous improvement—a focus on increasing the effectiveness of an organisation to fulfil its policy and objectives—is now a standard business approach.

The Paris-aligned climate benchmarks underlying Brunel’s new £3bn portfolio are designed in a similar way. As new data on climate change becomes available and as the scientific evidence deepens and improves, the benchmarks’ in-built flexibility will allow them to be upgraded as well.

This blog post was first published by FTSE Russell.

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