AN UNPUBLISHED GOVERNMENT report, obtained for the first time by Noteworthy, shows that ambition for tighter scrutiny regarding the investment of pension funds in fossil fuels was rolled back only months after the target was set.
One goal in the 2019 Climate Action Plan was to consider how a new requirement could be placed on pension providers to give savers more information on whether their money was invested in fossil fuels and options for alternatives.
Months later, a cross-department working group tasked with examining the action concluded it should be considered in “broader terms” than a “strict requirement” on pension providers.
Before the working group had ever met, internal preliminary considerations in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection (DEASP) had effectively dismissed the action as it was envisioned by the plan, an investigation by Noteworthy has found.
The 2019 Climate Action Plan assigned responsibility to the DEASP for considering “how a new requirement could be placed on pension providers to disclose what portion of any fund is made up of fossil fuel assets, and to provide an option to pension-holders to opt for a fund which does not include fossil fuel”.
A working group with representatives from the DEASP, the Department of Finance and the Pensions Authority was created to examine the measure, which formed Action 12 of the 2019 plan.
At least several weeks before the working group convened for the first time, internal communication shows the DEASP had already deemed a new requirement “not prudent”, citing that market standards look more generally at greenhouse gas emissions rather than specifically at fossil fuels.
In response to this, a DEASP spokesperson told Noteworthy that “the department does not agree with the assertion that a position had been reached on Action 12… prior to the first meeting of the Working Group”.
By submitting multiple Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) requests as well as speaking to key experts as part our FUELLING RETIREMENT investigation, Noteworthy, in collaboration with The Journal, has found:
- The DEASP developed a position on Action 12 before the working group tasked with considering it had convened, though the department “does not agree” with this “assertion”
- A report sent by the working group to the Minister for Social Protection said the action should be considered in ‘broader terms’ than a strict requirement on pension providers
- Action 12 was marked as complete and in 2021 the DEASP and the Pensions Authority agreed no new additional actions on the matter were needed
- Several matters recommended by the report have not come to fruition
- Experts say pensions are a powerful tool to reign in fossil fuel companies and help to lower greenhouse gas emissions and environmental destruction
Not a ‘prudent’ policy
Records released to Noteworthy under AIE indicate that the DEASP began to formulate its stance on this pension action in July 2019 when civil servants compiled a briefing note for the department’s Secretary General, John McKeon.
McKeon had been asked to attend the inaugural meeting of the Climate Action Delivery Board, a group of secretaries general across the government who were to meet quarterly to provide updates on their department’s progress on climate issues.
This board was slow to gain traction; it would meet three times in 2019 before failing to convene again until the end of 2021, which it attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The 2019 Climate Action Plan had designated the DEASP lead responsibility for only two of its 183 actions: Action 171, which involved providing career advice for workers impacted by technological changes, and Action 12 on pensions.
Approaching the first meeting of the Climate Action Delivery Board in July 2019, civil servants furnished the Secretary General with a briefing note on Action 12 detailing some of the context to the action and how the DEASP would deliver it.
The note included a list of nine broad points such as engaging with the Pensions Authority and Department of Finance to review relevant existing and upcoming legislation but also how a new requirement could be placed on pension providers to allow pension savers to opt for a fund that did not include fossil fuel assets.
It said it would consider how a new requirement could be placed on pension providers to disclose what portion of any fund was made up of fossil fuel assets and examine how fossil fuels could be defined in guidance and/or legislation, how a ‘portion’ could be defined, and what timeframe it could be measured over.
It is timely that the review as required by Action 12 is undertaken as many pension funds globally grapple with the role climate action considerations should play in their investment process.
The briefing note continued: “Not least because the concepts of ESG, sustainable investment, socially responsible investing and impact investing are still ill defined.” ESG stands for environmental, social and governance and is a corporate term used broadly to refer to sustainability measures.
In the background, officials were being chosen to sit on the working group, but it would not meet until several months later in October 2019. The working group met twice before the report was sent to then-Minister Regina Doherty: once in mid-October and again at the end of November.
Somewhere between the preparation for the Climate Action Delivery Board and the first meeting of the working group, the approach to the action in the department shifted.
A list of preliminary considerations obtained by Noteworthy that was developed by at least 10 October, prior to the working group’s first meeting, show a different stance on the action compared to the summer.
While the briefing note in July said the department would consider how a new requirement could be placed on pension providers to allow savers to opt for a fossil-free fund, the considerations circulated in the autumn offered no similar explicit plans.
The content in the briefing note also continued to be circulated, but separately, the preliminary considerations suggest the development of a response within the department, before the working group sat, that moved away from implementing Action 12 as it was first proposed.
Instead, the considerations said that a policy pursuing the disclosure of fossil fuel assets alone was “not prudent” given a market standard that looked more generally at greenhouse gas emissions.
They included seeking guidance from the Pensions Authority on how sustainability measures in pension funds could be a ‘financial risk’ to the performance of the funds.
The considerations noted that the disclosure of a monetary amount rather than a percentage portion of a fund could be more effective in disclosing assets and said that options for a Green or Ethical Fund would be considered under a new Master Trust regime – a type of pension scheme for workers that involves multiple employers.
Ireland could consider introducing a ‘Green’ label for funds that meet specific criteria, similar to a French model, the list outlined.
In a statement to Noteworthy, a DEASP spokesperson said that “the department does not agree with the assertion that a position had been reached on Action 12 positioning fossil fuel disclosure alone as ‘not prudent’ prior to the first meeting of the Working Group”.
“The briefing note of July 2019 prepared for the Secretary General was a high-level and relatively short overview. That briefing note sets out the background to Action 12 of the Climate Action Plan and the potential steps necessary to deliver on that Action.
“It was prepared in advance of engaging with other Government Departments, such as the Department of Finance, as well as external entities, such as the Pensions Authority and Pensions Council,” the spokesperson said.
“The internally prepared preliminary considerations referred to in the query were drafted subsequent to the July 2019 briefing note and in advance of the first meeting of the Action 12 Working Group.”
‘Number of issues’ raised
Before the working group’s first meeting, a note was shared within the DEASP on 18 October 2019 with information about pensions in Ireland, national and international regulations, and policies in other countries.
The note said that “a policy that pursues disclosure of ‘fossil fuel assets’ alone raises a number of issues”.
“The Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol – an initiative of the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), is the market standard for disclosing carbon emissions. This is referenced in the Technical Expert Group Report on Benchmarking published in advance of regulation amending Regulation (EU) 2016/2011.
“A focus on fossil fuel assets alone adds a layer of complexity to reporting arrangements (when the GHG is more widely used) and is a less effective measure of factors which contribute to climate breakdown,” it suggested.
The meeting note was only distributed to DEASP officials and a separate handout was prepared for the wider working group, which included representatives from the Department of Finance and the Pensions Authority.
The handout did not include the quoted text but subsequent documents arising from the working group did reiterate it.
In fact, after the group’s first meeting, which was scheduled to last just two hours, it became a headline theme of the work on Action 12 – that the kind of disclosure the Climate Action Plan called for was impractical and could be addressed by legislation due to come from the EU or through broader developments in Irish pensions.
Speaking to Noteworthy Dr Jane O’Hara of One Future, a climate activism organisation, said that fossil fuel divestment “could form an important part” of cutting emissions by “targeting a portion of where greenhouse gases are coming from”.
Additionally, Dr O’Hara said that an actionable measure like moving away from investing pensions in fossil fuels would offer the public a tangible means through which to have an impact on climate action.
“It hits a broad section of society and it gives people a clear focus on something that they can do to contribute to mitigating climate change.”
A document shared in an internal email on 14 November 2019 between the first and second meeting detailed the DEASP’s planned action items.
Outlining the task of the working group, it said that the DEASP’s view was that it was “asked to consider options with regard to disclosure of environmental factors and choice of product, which may go some way towards meeting Ireland’s climate goals, and which align with the sustainable finance goals of the EU”.
The options on the table “may range from a ‘wait and see’ approach (especially given forthcoming EU Regulations) to a consideration of the greatest viable extent to which Ireland could provide for disclosure and member options in our pensions system in the future”.
It repeated that a “policy that pursues disclosure of ‘fossil fuel assets’ alone raises a number of issues”.
On 20 November 2019, the Assistant Principal Officer in the DEASP preparing the report for the Minister emailed a Principal Officer with a document for discussion at the working group’s next meeting on 28 November.
The email stated the document contained 12 proposals, “some of which have already been agreed, e.g. considering Action 12 in broader terms than fossil fuel disclosure”.
In emails, it is evident that there was some feeling of pressure within the department regarding the timeframe that the action was allocated under the Climate Action Plan, which called for it to be completed by the end of 2019.
The timeline for the action was described as “very aggressive” by a DEASP Principal Officer in an email to the Pensions Authority on 14 November 2019, while the Assistant Principal Officer writing the report pointed to the looming deadline on multiple occasions in communication with other officials.
Public disclosure deletion
A draft version of the working group’s proposals as of 12 December 2019 shows edits suggested by the Pensions Authority.
Among its desired changes was the omission of a line that called for pension providers’ responses on whether they offered sustainable options to be publicly shared.
The proposal said: “As part of the development of a comprehensive authorisation programme for pension schemes in Ireland, consideration should be given as to asking pension providers, at the point of authorisation, whether they offer a fund option for environmentally conscious investors. These responses could be disclosed publicly.”
The Pensions Authority wanted to delete everything after the words “fund option” and add “an ESG” before them.
An Administrative Officer in the DEASP who also reviewed the draft report said it was an “excellent paper” and that they agreed with the proposals, but that “there may be some opposition to considering Action 12 in broader terms than simple fossil fuel disclosure and fossil fuel free funds”.
“Your paper shows that, given the huge amount of activity in the area, increased ESG requirements (beyond the Action 12 proposal) are inevitable. However as you note additional Irish-only requirements should not be introduced until new EU regulations are finalised,” the Administrative Officer said.
Ultimately, the report sent to then-Minister Doherty the day before Christmas Eve in 2019 contained 12 proposals.
The government never released the report to the public but Noteworthy has made it available online:
The first proposal stated that “Action 12 should be considered in broader terms than simply a strict requirement on pension providers to disclose what portion of any fund is made up of fossil fuel assets and a requirement for pension providers to provide an option to pension holders to opt for a fund which does not include fossil fuel”.
“Action 12 should instead be considered in terms of facilitating meaningful environmental disclosure in the Irish pension market and facilitating market participants to provide sustainable investment fund options.”
Climate not mentioned in automatic enrollment scheme
The working group report dedicated three proposals to incorporating sustainability into the automatic enrolment Programme:
- That in the development of the Automatic Enrolment Programme, the Central Processing Authority should consider including sustainable investment principles in the design of the default and other funds in the procurement specification for Registered Providers;
- Disclosure requirements for ESG Integration in investment and risk management processes should be considered for all funds who will participate in the Automatic Enrolment Programme;
- And options to include environmentally conscious funds should be considered as part of the evolving design of the Automatic Enrolment Programme, and in the context of evolving EU legislative requirements.
However, in March 2022, when the department published the Design Principles for the automatic enrolment system, it contained no mention of either the climate or fossil fuels.
The 50-page document made only one reference to ESG in a short bullet point about the role of registered providers to say they would “offer investment products in compliance with CPA standards which will include specific ethical/ESG criteria”.
Responding to a query from Noteworthy, the DEASP said that “work on the implementation of the Auto Enrolment (AE) retirement savings system is underway, with a project team in the Department of Social Protection progressing a range of elements in the overall plan”.
ESG will be a factor considered by the Central Processing Authority in the procurement of investment managers to support the default fund and other funds to be offered within AE.
“That the investment managers ‘will offer investment products in compliance with CPA standards which will include specific ethical/ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) criteria’ is referenced in the ‘Design Principles for Ireland’s Automatic Enrolment Retirement Savings System’ paper that was published online in March 2022.
“That sentiment has been carried over into the General Scheme for the AE Bill that is currently being considered by the relevant Joint Oireachtas Committee charged with conducting the pre-legislative scrutiny process for the Bill.”
Also included in the working group report’s proposals was that advice from the Pensions Authority indicated that “supervising environmental disclosure requirements for all participants is not feasible in the current Irish pension market”.
Instead, the “greatest opportunity to achieve meaningful environmental disclosure” would be in the future through larger schemes such as Master Trusts.
It said any sustainable disclosure measures would be “ancillary to those to be prescribed in forthcoming EU Regulations on Taxonomy, Sustainable Financial Disclosures and Sustainable Finance Benchmarks” that were due in the following 18 months but that the adoption of additional disclosure requirements should be reviewed once key milestones on EU regulations were reached.
“Thereafter the provision of additional Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) disclosure requirements should be reviewed on a periodic basis, in line with evolving best practice.”
Additionally, the Pension Authority should consider a public consultation on ESG integration and disclosure within a timeframe that would allow for consideration of the potential impact of the then-forthcoming EU Regulation.
‘No further action’ and no consultation
On the proposed consultation by the Pensions Authority, an earlier document had said the consultation on Action 12 would be “achievable in a relatively short time frame” and would represent a “quick win” for the government.
Providing a requested update to the DEASP in February 2021, a civil servant in the Pensions Authority’s Policy Unit said that guidance would “possibly” be produced in 2022 following relevant legislation and that a public consultation would be considered ahead of creating the guidance.
However, this consultation has not taken place and there are no imminent plans for its commencement.
In a statement to Noteworthy, a spokesperson for the Pensions Authority said: “The 2019 report of the working group on Action 12 of the 2019 Climate Action Plan set out a number of proposals, including one for the Pensions Authority to consider a public consultation on ESG integration and disclosure.”
“Since then, the Authority has been monitoring incorporation by pension schemes of new ESG requirements under the IORP II Directive, Sustainability-related Financial Disclosures Regulation and the Taxonomy Regulation.”
The spokesperson said that this “included engagement with representative bodies, providers and educational bodies to understand how pension scheme trustees are developing their approach to ESG integration and disclosure”. They added:
“The Authority’s view is that, given the significant ongoing changes to the pensions landscape following the transposition of IORP II, and continued developments in Europe and globally in relation to ESG, it will be more appropriate to consider the possibility of a public consultation and/or guidance on ESG in the future.”
In a progress report on the Climate Action Plan 2019, Action 12 was ticked off as complete.
Two years later, approaching the Climate Action Plan 2021, the DEASP and the Pensions Authority agreed that “no further action” needed to be raised.
Switching to sustainable investments
Fossils fuels are key to Action 12. It is widely known that burning them is a major driver of the greenhouse gases emissions that are produced by humans and threaten the stability of the earth’s climate.
Fossil fuel combustion releases carbon that was stored in the ground for thousands of years and sends it to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. As a result, instead of heat being able to escape out to space, significant amounts are trapped close to the earth, warming the planet.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a leading scientific body on climate issues, has stated that if global temperatures are allowed to rise by 1.5 degrees, the world “faces unavoidable multiple climate hazards” in the next 20 years.
Exceeding a 1.5 degree rise, even temporarily, would lead to “additional severe impacts, some of which will be irreversible”.
The IPCC has outlined numerous measures to combat the climate crisis, many of which ultimately come down to moving away from fossil fuels, such as expanding wind and solar power and improving energy efficiency.
In 2018, the Irish government passed legislation on fossil fuel divestment that instructed the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, which invests commercially to support economic activity in Ireland, to divest its assets in fossil fuel companies within five years. Companies placed on an exclusion list include Exxon Mobil, Gazprom, and BP.
Dr Jane O’Hara is leading a campaign by One Future to push employers to divest company pension funds from fossil fuel companies.
Speaking to Noteworthy, Dr O’Hara said that pension savers deserve more transparency about where funds are invested.
“It is hard to get that sort of information, even when you go and look into these funds, to find out what they’re doing with the money or what they mean by ‘this is responsible; or ‘this is sustainable’,” Dr O’Hara said.
She said the issue deserves to be followed up further by the government.
“People can try to push for this themselves but the options need to be there for people to make those choices.
For the government to show leadership on how important this is would be huge.
O’Hara said people should be enabled to consider “a portfolio of companies that they believe in and are able to be a lot more active about investing in”.
“Green tech and technology companies that are doing good for the environment would make it a net positive, so not just a neutral that they’re not investing in fossil fuels, but also a positive that you’re actually making your money work for the climate as opposed to against it.”
The One Future campaign is targeting employee pensions “because we think that they have the power to ask questions of their employers as to what their money is being invested in”.
“The reason why we think this will be a campaign that will resonate with people is that it is directed at system change, not just individual action.
“This is important because when we ask people to take action on climate it can feel as though we are all making small individual changes and that without the big fossil fuel companies changing their ways there is little point,” Dr O’Hara said.
“In this case, many individuals agitating to move their pensions away from fossil fuel funds will have a measurable impact on emissions and the climate and will send a strong message to these companies that they cannot get away with what they’re doing any longer.
“So in a way it’s both individual people-powered and aimed at the system.”
Similarly, Ciarán Hughes, a Senior Financial Advisor at Ethico, said that in company pension schemes, a significant amount of power to effect change is held by a small number of people.
“There are about three or four people who might make a decision on a company pension scheme, be it a trustee or an administrator or chief financial officer,” Hughes outlined.
“It’s enormously difficult for people [to switch out of a company pension scheme]. It is possible to do a pension outside of that if they wish, but they’d lose the employer contribution.
“So whether the company is big or small, it’s the decision maker who holds the balance of power there. A big part of this for me is getting to those people and saying: ‘Look, you have an enormous reach here to effect change, because you’re the decision maker for all these other people’.”
Hughes characterised fossil fuels as being in “pretty much every pension fund bar the ones that actively exclude them”.
On efforts to transition to more sustainable investments, he said: “The pushback you get on this is that it’s not possible – it is entirely possible. The other pushback you get is that the returns won’t be the same, but the data just doesn’t support that.”
Active engagement as an option
There are various strategies that can be employed to try to move away from investing in fossil fuels. Divestment from fossil companies is one, while another is purposely buying shares in those companies and using them as leverage to try to change their practices.
“In order to sell the shares [to divest], somebody else has to buy those shares… The carbon doesn’t evaporate just because you sell it. What you actually have to do is try and take control of that company to transition them,” Hughes suggested.
If we look at the investment industry through the 70s and the 80s and 90s, all we said as customers was make me profit, regardless, and I don’t really care what else you do.
Back then the sentiment was: “I don’t care if you pollute the river, I don’t care if you have bad work practices, or health and safety, or I don’t care if you have diversity on your board or not – just make me money.
“Now, what we really have to do is change the mandate that we give our money managers and say, still make me the same amount of money but I want you to do it in a better way where you don’t destroy the planet or the people on it in your pursuit of profit.”
He said that kind of active engagement “has to be genuine, it has to be transparent and it has to have real consequences”.
Discussing the role of governance, Hughes said that European legislation on investments, because it must operate across a wide spectrum of financial systems, often winds up “bland”.
“I think with a lot of the European regulation, it means well but it can be enormously difficult to achieve your goals when you’re across 27 member states.
“They all have different financial systems so it has to be kind of bland enough to sit across every member state.”
In Ireland, he said that “fundamentally with climate in general and other societal problems, we haven’t seen government being strong enough in the past… So I suppose relying on government to do anything in this space is not going to be a full part of the picture.”
“It may be one of the building blocks. But fundamentally, I think it’s going to boil back down to individual choice and decision making on where do I want [to invest].
“Money talks and the more money that moves into these sustainable funds, the more each company looks over their shoulder and goes, maybe we should make more available so on and so forth.
“And then it becomes a bit of a tidal wave, and then it will become socially unacceptable to invest unsustainably. But we haven’t got there yet.”
When Ireland passed its divestment legislation in 2018, the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund created a list of 148 fossil fuel companies that it would not invest in, including 38 that were in its portfolio that it divested from. The number of companies on the list has grown in recent years to 260.
Noteworthy furnished several pension providers in Ireland with the ISIF’s list and asked whether their pension portfolios included any of the named companies.
Noteworthy also asked providers about the sustainability of their pension options and whether it was possible for their customers to choose a pension plan that does not invest in fossil fuel companies.
A spokesperson for New Ireland Assurance said it is a signatory to the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) network and that it “actively monitors our appointed investment managers” on relevant matters.
We offer our customers choice and flexibility…These include both passive portfolios, which are designed to passively replicate a market index or active portfolios, where a fund manager makes active decisions about what stocks to buy or sell.
“Some of those funds include holdings in companies with fossil fuel operations. As a business we are on a path to reducing our overall portfolio emissions – we discuss this with our external fund managers and work with them to push for carbon emission reduction across their funds ranges but we recognise that is a multi-year process.”
A spokesperson for Aviva said that it “offers a range of sustainable/ESG investment funds to our new and existing customers”.
“These include our flagship Multi-Asset ESG ranges that are classified as Article 8 Funds under the Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulations,” the spokesperson said.
“This regulation came into effect in Ireland in 2021 and mandates that all fund providers clearly disclose how sustainability has been integrated into the investment process for their ESG funds. This means ESG considerations are included into how Aviva’s ESG funds are managed including the selection of investment assets and companies.
“By the end of 2022, Aviva have committed to commence divesting from all companies which generate more than 5% of their revenue from coal unless they have signed up to Net Zero Carbon Commitments and Science Based Targets which support the 2015 Paris Commitment to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees by 2050.
In 2021 Aviva was the first financial services company to commit to being Net Zero in Carbon emissions by 2040, 10 years ahead of the Paris commitment. This commitment include[s] all our investments including our ESG funds.
Irish Life, Zurich, and Invesco did not provide an answer to our queries, with a spokesperson for Irish Life stating that “the information requested isn’t publicly available”.
Looking to the future, Ciarán Hughes of Ethico said that “if you boil it down to basics for someone starting their pension now at 25 or 30, what’s the point of paying into a pension if it’s going to pay out onto a dead planet?
“It doesn’t make any sense. You could have 2 million quid in it but you’re not going to be able to enjoy it with the grandkids if the planet is in bits.
“Or you can treat your pension as a time machine that can create the future world that you want.”
Have a listen to The Explainer x Noteworthy podcast on our findings
By Lauren Boland for Noteworthy
This investigation was proposed and funded by readers of Noteworthy, the crowdfunded investigative journalism platform from The Journal. It was conducted in collaboration with The Journal.