The Smith Institute supported the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Local Authority Pension Funds inquiry into ‘Responsible investment for a just transition’
This report is based on evidence sessions and written submissions to that inquiry from investors, industry, academics, community groups, trade unions, and other non-government organisations.
The inquiry report seeks to inform politicians, policymakers, stakeholders and the public on the roles and responsibilities that investors can play, with the support of their members and government, in enabling a just transition to net zero carbon emissions.
The following sets out the main findings of the inquiry:
What is a just transition?
A just transition is broadly interpreted as a policy approach to climate action which seeks to ensure that the benefits of a shift to net zero are shared, while supporting those most impacted by the change.
The following components of a just transition to a net zero carbon economy were described to the inquiry:
- It is about moving to a net zero carbon economy in a just way for society – and thus combines environmental and social considerations.
- It is about the fair distribution of climate ‘goods’ (such as new jobs and cleaner air) and climate ‘bads’ (such as higher costs associated with decarbonisation and job losses in certain sectors and places).
- It is about both maximising the opportunities of a green economy and mitigating the risks.
- The social dimension is about workers, consumers, supply chains and communities.
- It is about both the process and the outcome: engaging and involving stakeholders to ensure that all social groups have support and opportunities in transitioning to a net zero carbon economy.
- It involves a planned and orderly transition.
- It is a global issue, affecting UK and international communities and supply chains.
The financial materiality of a just transition
The inquiry concluded that not fully considering a just transition poses a material risk to investors. It also considered that the implementation of binding carbon reduction targets at all levels and by all actors requires a clear recognition and effective policy response to the social costs and consequences of such a transition.
Without action, climate change is set to be an environmental and human catastrophe. It is widely accepted by economic policymakers, investors and companies as posing significant material risks.
However, it was also clear from the inquiry that the costs and benefits of climate action will inevitably be uneven for countries, workers, communities, consumers and supply chains. The social and economic impacts will also be spatially different and affect the vulnerable and least protected the most.
There was also a clear view in the inquiry from investors, including from Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) funds, that responding to climate change did not – and could not – mean ignoring their fiduciary duty. This response did not preclude green investment and efforts to secure a just transition, but stressed that any steps taken “had to make financial sense”. However, as discussed later in the report, a common view stated in both the oral and written evidence was that part of a pension fund’s fiduciary duty meant considering the financial implications of climate change and with it the need for a just transition.
As such, taking a long-term view, the risks to investors from unanticipated or sudden acceleration in climate deterioration needs to be assumed and nobody can be sure when the worst effects will bite. Therefore, there are risk reduction reasons to ensure that all long-term investors are including the move to a just transition in their portfolio construction and investment selection decisions. Just focussing on performance over the next year, may mean sub-optimal long-term outcomes.
What can investors do?
Many investors are actively supporting the shift to net zero and keen to decrease their exposure to carbon risk. However, investors alone cannot meet national carbon reduction targets and ensure a just transition.
Nevertheless, there was consensus in the evidence to the inquiry that investors have an important role in supporting a just transition to net zero, and, because of the financial implications, an obligation to consider just transition issues.
To mitigate the financially material risks of an unjust transition, the following action points were recommended to the inquiry:
- Recognise the just transition challenge: Investors should include reference to a just transition in their policy statements. Part of recognising the challenge should include setting aside adequate resources to manage these risks (alongside broader environmental, social and governance – ESG – issues), including scrutinising external investment managers on their approach.
- Understand the risks and opportunities: Funds should understand the material risks. This includes risks around climate change and the social implications of reaching net zero. An appropriate analysis could include which sectors are most likely to experience change (and the associated spatial dimensions) with implications for consumers, communities, workers, and supply chains. Understanding these risks and opportunities involves developing metrics around the scale of change and fully understanding the views and concerns of stakeholders.
- Set expectations: Funds should set clear expectations of companies and how they can address just transition concerns. There are several international legal frameworks (such as international human rights law and international labour law) which set out legal obligations for states as well as voluntary frameworks that provide investor guides on expectations for specific sectors. Expectations are likely to include having a strategy to effectively manage the risks and opportunities, approaches to engaging and supporting the main affected stakeholders (workers, supply chains, consumers and communities), their engagement with policymakers, and reporting their current position and progress against targets.
- Engage companies: Funds and/or their managers should engage companies on just transition risks. This engagement is likely to be focused on those companies identified when funds seek to understand where material risks are greatest, and engagement based on the fund’s set of expectations. Where external managers and ESG engagement advisers are used, funds should hold these external parties to account for progress against expectations. Similarly, funds should ensure that collaborative engagements on climate change include a just transition as a central theme for discussion.
- Capital allocation: Funds need to give due weight to just transition risks in their capital allocation. Policy statements should be used to guide investment decisions, including those of fund managers. There are also opportunities for investing in a just transition. Membership organisations should seek to establish a knowledge hub to support funds in doing so, and funds and pools could consider establishing specific just transition funds to overcome issues around scale.
- Reporting impact: Funds should report on the just transition risks and outline to beneficiaries where and why they matter. Funds should have measurable just transition objectives and report against them. Funds (and collaborative initiatives and organisations) should consider how Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) reporting can be extended to include reporting on just transition risks.
- Engaging policymakers: Investors have a role in engaging policymakers to ensure measures to secure the transition to net zero consider the social dimension. This engagement includes pushing for reforms which will support investors’ ability to consider a just transition (company disclosures for example) and create incentives to invest in a just transition.
What can government do?
The inquiry found that investors are willing to support a just transition to net zero but want a much clearer position from government on just transition plans. Pension funds are seeking government support to ensure social considerations are factored into an energy transition. It was generally felt that government had yet to embrace the idea of a just transition and had failed to embed concrete actions to deliver it in national policies and plans.
The main findings of the inquiry for government are:
- Need for a clear and comprehensive just transition commitment: Government should explicitly recognise and articulate a high-level commitment to a just transition.
- A just transition plan: A clear strategy and plan for reaching net zero carbon emissions in a just way (shaped by the views of stakeholders and integrated with existing climate change policies) would help support investment in a just transition and enable investors to engage companies on their just transition plans.
- Company disclosure regulations: Government should consider what disclosures on social risks should be mandatory for companies. Such mandatory disclosures would help ensure just transition risks are acknowledged and better understood by companies and investors and just transition plans can be formulated with stakeholders. As part of this exercise government should consider widening TCFD requirements to include just transition factors.
- Identifying investment opportunities: To support investment which may often be too small for institutional investors, central and local government should consider identifying opportunities for investors that will support a just transition and maximise the social benefits. Government should use its Green Sovereign Bond programme to support the just transition by reporting on the social co-benefits of investments.
- Crowding in private finance: The investment needed to achieve a transition will require gap funding, incentives, and guarantees from government. Such support should be contingent on meeting just transition objectives.
- Just Transition Commission: Government should establish a national (UK-wide) just transition commission, which seeks to outline how the just transition can be delivered and roles of different stakeholders, including investors. This could be complemented by sub-national and sector bodies.
The evidence to the inquiry made plain that if the transition to a net zero carbon economy is viewed as unfair and unjust – as imposed and ill-considered – there will be public resistance and a lack of co-operation, which is likely to impede the implementation of many of the practical measures (and life-style changes) necessary to reduce carbon emissions.
Throughout the inquiry, witnesses stressed the need for capacity building, co-operation, shared learning and social dialogue between all those impacted by a just transition. It was said that pension funds – and the investment community as a whole – should be part of the COP26 mission to: “accelerate action to tackle the climate crisis through collaboration between governments, businesses and civil society.”