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Responsible Resolutions: This is the latest article in a series from sustainable finance practitioners about their hopes for the New Year.
Not long ago, it was tempting to wait for an epiphany of an oil company CEO to accelerate the energy transition to renewables.
Our work with Follow This, a campaign of responsible shareholders in oil and gas companies, has ended that illusion. No industry leader, rising to the top job after a successful career drilling for hydrocarbons, can imagine the future beyond oil and gas.
That responsibility lies with investors.
Follow This was founded in 2015 from the conviction that only the biggest industry incumbents have the technical know-how, financial muscle and market-making opportunities to rapidly scale an energy transition to renewables.
"In the capital markets, no-one is waiting for epiphanies."
Our shareholder resolution compelled Shell to become the first oil major to accept responsibility for so-called ‘Scope 3’ emissions from its products in November 2017, thanks to the votes of responsible investors. Among these visionary investors were Actiam, MN (for PME and PMT), Van Lanschot Kempen, Church of England and Aviva. Last year Follow This extended this proven approach by filing resolutions at the AGMs of oil majors BP and Equinor.
Ours is a simple, specific, demanding formula. Each of these resolutions asks investors to support Big Oil companies to set Paris-aligned targets for all emissions (Scope 1, 2, and 3).
In the capital markets, no-one is waiting for epiphanies. Climate science and clean technologies agree: the future of energy is renewable. The economic and environmental case against hydrocarbons has been settled. The big question is not If the energy transition will happen, but When?
Investors who back this vision are the real agents of change, but time is against us. As things stand, the capital investment plans of Big Oil spell catastrophe. Action to curb global warming to less than two degrees is urgently overdue.
Only investors – the owners – can compel management to deliver systemic change to our energy system. Year by year, more institutions are united in this belief, following the leadership of Church of England, Aviva, and M&G.
In the Netherlands the votes for our resolutions came from six of the ten largest domestic institutional investors: Actiam, Achmea, Aegon, MN (for PME and PMT), NN-IP, and Van Lanschot Kempen, now called the Supporting Six. “With great power comes great responsibility,” says one, explaining his rationale to defy the boards of Shell, BP, and Equinor.
Under the umbrella of Climate Action 100+, a coalition of investors in the world’s most polluting companies launched in December 2017, shareholders are doing good work across a wide range of industries.
"Big Oil has found abundant room to hide behind worthy joint statements and a worthy resolution as fig leaf for inaction."
Follow This and CA100+ share the same goal: limit global warming to 1.5-2°C as specified in the Paris Climate Agreement. We have made it a rule not to criticize the tactics of organizations with the same goal – not of Greenpeace, not of Extinction Rebellion, and not of responsible investors. However, CA100+’s alternatives to our climate targets resolutions warrant an exception.
In 2017, Follow This has shown that a small minority of visionary shareholders – say, 5-10% of voters – can drive change. Afterwards, CA100+ has shown that unintended consequences are a real – and probably inherent – risk of negotiating consensus with the board of an oil major. In two years since the formation of CA100+, Big Oil has found abundant room to hide behind worthy joint statements and a worthy resolution as fig leaf for inaction.
The difference between Follow This and CA100+ lies in the specificity of our shareholder resolutions. Our resolutions support what is needed (Paris-aligned targets for all emissions). CA100+ statements are the results of negotiations of a few of its members with boards of oil companies.
The Follow This approach has worked with Shell, so far. At its May 2017 AGM, the Anglo-Dutch oil major called the Follow This resolution a “fundamental misunderstanding of the necessary solutions to achieving the Paris goals” (directors’ response). Most of its investors supported this stance.
Six months later, in November 2017, Shell announced a U-turn, becoming the first oil major to declare an “ambition” – though still not a target and not in line with Paris – for emissions reductions in all categories. This was thanks to the votes of a small minority of visionary shareholders.
In the next month, CA100+ was launched. A year later, on December 3, 2018, the first visible result CA100+ 's engagement with oil majors was published: a joint statement with Shell.
This statement repeated Shell’s announcement from a year earlier and added two things: Shell would translate their insufficient long-term ambition into an insufficient short-term target. Moreover, Shell could postpone sufficient Paris-alignment until after 2022. So instead of supporting Shell to take the next steps, the negotiators on behalf of CA100+ legitimized Shell’s insufficient ambition.
Since then Shell has frequently brandished this joint statement as an excuse not to review its long-term ambition – which is not in line with Paris – stating they are backed by investors with $35 trillion in assets.
BP and Equinor
A similar unintended effect was created by CA100+ after Follow This filed the same resolutions for BP and Equinor in 2019.
As an alternative to the Follow This climate targets resolutions, CA100+ formulated an alternative resolution with BP and a joint statement with Equinor. Both steered clear of Scope 3 targets.
At its 2019 AGM, Follow This’ founder, Mark van Baal, asked CEO Bob Dudley if he really believed that Scope 3 was not BP’s problem. No, Mr Dudley replied, Scope 3 was not his problem. Moreover, BP claimed that its position on this issue was shared by CA100+ members with $35 trillion worth of assets under management.
BP then went on to advise their shareholders to vote for the CA100+ resolution and against the Follow This resolution with the same argument as Shell in 2017: “it calls for targets for Scope 3 (end user) emissions that BP does not control” (directors’ response).
"CA100+’s approach builds consensus at the cost of lost transparency and urgency."
During its AGM in Stavanger, Equinor took the same line, claiming to have the support of $ 35 trillion asset managers to refuse responsibility for Scope 3 (approximately 90% of the emissions of an oil major).
Once again, a small group of visionary shareholders (8% in Aberdeen and 12% of the non- government votes in Stavanger) were aware of the financial risks of not having targets for Scope 3, and voted for our climate targets resolutions. If BP or Equinor, like Shell in 2017, get the message and announce Scope 3 targets, this move would be thanks to a small group of responsible shareholders.
Same goal, different tactics
The CA100+ has the exact same goal as Follow This, but a different tactical approach. We believe that only binding, specific and measurable targets for all emissions will lead to the necessary shift in investments from fossil fuels to renewables. CA100+’s approach builds consensus at the cost of lost transparency and urgency.
In the oil industry, directors of publicly traded oil companies have waved joint statements and a resolution with CA100+ to claim the endorsement of their largest investors.
Meanwhile, the capital investment plans of Big Oil tell the real, terrifying story. Oil majors remain determined to invest overwhelmingly in hydrocarbons: BP is chasing 20% growth in this decade, while Shell’s target is 38% (according to Rystad Energy).
The risk of good intentions
To this unacceptable picture, CA100+ has introduced new complexity, albeit unintended.
Big Oil executives seize every opportunity to cite joint statements with CA100+ as a fig leaf to disguise inaction on emissions. This is a betrayal of the best investors and a dereliction of moral responsibility, including fiduciary responsibility, to future generations.
We are entering the last decade in which humankind can take meaningful action to curb global warming. Our recent hopes that a tormented CEO would emerge to lead the way, perhaps after a sleepless night prompted by an intense debate with one of his environmentally-minded children, are unlikely to materialise.
We, shareholders, will have to answer to our children and grandchildren for what we did — or failed to do. We, shareholders, are the best prospect to compel management to make bold, specific, necessary choices.
Big Oil needs your support.
Mark van Baal is founder of Follow This, a group of green shareholders that supports oil and gas companies to set Paris-aligned targets for all emissions and invest accordingly.
Mark Ashurst is an Ambassador for Follow This, a former speechwriter for Nelson Mandela, and partner in Leaders Bureau, specialists in enterprise content management for the circular economy.