Members of the largest investor coalition focused on convincing the corporate world to act on climate change rarely flex their muscles to pressure the worst polluters, an analysis of shareholder voting records and interviews with members show.
Climate Action 100+ (CA100+), set up in 2017, comprises more than 700 investment firms representing $68 trillion in assets.
It set goals in its first phase to get the world's 166 largest corporate emitters of greenhouse gases to commit to net-zero targets, introduce governance and oversight of climate risks and disclose progress. In phase two, launched last week, it wants to get the biggest polluters to implement cuts to their emissions by 2030, so they can show they are on track to meet pledges to bring emissions down to zero on a net basis by 2050.
Shareholder voting data reviewed by Reuters, however, shows that investors in the group refrain from using the biggest weapon in their arsenal - the ability to vote against board directors - even when the polluting companies refuse to act.
Shareholder votes in favour of re-electing directors at 15 companies out of about 40 that CA100+ deems climate laggards, because they have not set 2050 net-zero targets, comprised on average more than 95% of the shareholder votes cast this year, in line with 2022 and 2021 levels, the data shows.
"There are lots of asset managers not even aligned with CA100+ objectives," said Xander Urbach, responsible investment advisor at Dutch fund manager MN, which leads CA100+'s engagement with oil and gas giant Shell. He declined to identify the managers.
CA100+ said in a statement it was a voluntary initiative and cannot tell signatories what to do.
At stake is whether CA100+ members use all the tools at their disposal to pressure climate laggards. Critics argue that the reluctance to challenge companies' boards is responsible for just 10% of companies having committed to align their spending plans with either their own emissions targets or the Paris climate agreement.
Most CA100+ members seek to persuade companies to do more on climate through "engagement", which involves lobbying corporate executives and directors, rather than voting to oust them, several members told Reuters.
Advocates of this approach say it has yielded results, with 75% of the 166 companies engaged having set a 2050 net-zero emissions target, up from less than 5% when the group launched in late 2017. Its non-prescriptive approach has also allowed CA100+ to recruit members who would not have joined a club with strict rules, supporters say.
"In phase two the overarching goal is to go from words to action," Francois Humbert, chair of CA100+'s Steering Committee and engagement manager at Generali Investments, told Reuters.
Phase two will require "10 times more effort" and need people with "lots of engagement experience and a bit more grey hair", he added.
Critics of CA100+'s approach say board challenges are needed. They point to examples such as activist investor Engine No. 1's success in winning board seats at Exxon Mobil Corp in 2021 after it criticised the oil major for not doing enough to address climate risk.
The critics also say the absence of board challenges bodes poorly for CA100+'s goal to get polluters to cut emissions by 2030.
Eli Kasargod-Staub, co-founder of shareholder advocacy group MajorityAction, said CA100+ investors were abdicating their responsibility to hold directors accountable, given they have now been engaging with companies for five years.
FLAGGING CLIMATE LAGGARDS
CA100+ posts on its website upcoming shareholder resolutions and board re-election votes but it doesn't recommend voting against directors at climate laggards. CA100+ says it flags proposals that are aligned with its goals.
In a sign that this stance is having little impact, average support for directors at Chevron, Valero Energy and Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway held above 90% of votes cast this year, even as CA100+ flagged resolutions that called for investors to vote against some of their directors.
The companies did not respond to requests for comment.
When a CA100+ member does decide to mount a board challenge, it often struggles to win others to its cause.
Wespath Benefits and Investments, a pension fund for The United Methodist Church and which leads CA100+ engagement with Chevron, filed a resolution at the energy giant calling on investors to vote against two of its directors because its lobbying activities are misaligned with the Paris agreement.
Yet support at last month's annual shareholder meeting for one director remained steady at more than 92% of votes cast, while dipping for another slightly to 94.9% from 97.9%. Across directors, support averaged 94.7%, almost identical to 2022 and 2021 levels.
Wespath's sustainability director, Jake Barnett, said that challenging board directors over their climate policies was not being used widely enough "as a method of accountability".
Chevron did not respond to requests seeking comment.
RECOMMENDING VERSUS REQUIRING
Under its second phase, CA100+ expects lead investors to publish their voting and rationale on flagged votes, but this is a recommendation, not a requirement.
In at least one area there is compulsion; CA100+ members not responding to a survey asking for their engagement interests within a year could be delisted.
MN's Urbach said that he had participated in meetings with Shell alongside fellow CA+100 investors to convince it to do more on emissions, only to be told by Shell later that some CA100+ members had privately told it to carry on as it was.
Asked to comment, Shell referred to a statement after its annual general meeting last month, in which CEO Wael Sawan said he was pleased the vast majority of shareholders backed its strategy to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
"Some signatories join the initiative just to say they are a part of it," said Vincent Kaufmann, CEO of Ethos Foundation, a Swiss proxy advisor and CA100+ member.
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