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Opinion: Canada Pension Plan fuels climate-change crisis


“Financial experts say millennials will have to save an entire planet to retire,” says the satirical Beaverton.

This is funny because it’s true. Less humorously, many pensions designed for retirement security are contributing to the climate emergency with their investments. Such is the case with the Canada Pension Plan (CPP), one of our country’s largest pools of investment capital at about $400 billion.

Last year, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that the world only has 11 years to avoid 1.5ºC warming and its devastating impacts. As one of Canada’s largest investors — and a public institution — the CPP’s decisions are critical for the urgent and sustained emission reductions that the 1.5-degree limit demands.

Our just-released report, Fossil Futures: The Canada Pension Plan’s Failure to Respect the 1.5-Degree Celsius Limit, asks: Is the CPP invested in ways that align with the Paris Agreement?

Unfortunately, the answer is no.

The CPP has invested billions in fossil-fuel companies whose financial worth depends on overshooting our collective carbon budget. For example, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB), which manages the fund on behalf of Canadian beneficiaries, has over $4 billion invested in the top 200 publicly traded fossil-fuel companies — firms with the largest reserves of coal, oil and gas.

To stay within 1.5 degrees, these top companies can produce only 71.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, yet the companies the CPPIB is invested in have 281 billion tonnes in reserve, meaning they have almost four times the carbon reserves that can be sold and ultimately burned to stay within 1.5 degrees.

This is a moral and ecological failure. It’s also a financial risk. As energy generation shifts away from fossil fuels, investors who don’t respond could be left with “stranded assets” — investments that are no longer profitable.

In its 2019 Financial System Review, the Bank of Canada included climate risk in its analysis for the first time.

Canadian fossil-fuel companies and their investors are especially exposed to stranded-asset risks since the majority of oil produced in Canada is high-cost, carbon-intensive bitumen from the oilsands. Yet, the CPPIB remains exposed to the biggest oilsands companies.

The CPPIB’s duty is to act in the best financial interests of retired or retiring Canadians. But by continuing to invest billions in fossil-fuel companies, it may be breaching its responsibilities. Its commitment isn’t only to those retiring soon, but to Canadians retiring in 10, 20, 50 years, including students across the country that gathered in huge numbers in September to protest governmental inaction on climate change.

Why has the CPPIB been slow to act on the financial risks posed by climate change even when its legal mandate dictates that the fund avoid “undue risks”?

In Canada, the fossil-fuel sector has been successful getting a seat at government decision-making tables, both provincially and federally. The same is true for the CPPIB whose board of directors and staff are entangled with the fossil-fuel industry.

Formal relationships that CPPIB officials have with fossil-fuel companies potentially bring the interests and perspectives of those companies into CPPIB decision-making regarding climate risks. This is dangerous since the self-interest of fossil-fuel companies contradicts the changes that governments and investors need to make in order to avoid global warming more than 1.5 degrees.

By failing to invest with the 1.5-degree limit in mind, the CPPIB may be vulnerable to a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of young Canadians just like the one launched in Vancouver against the federal government in October. Instead of enhancing retirement security for young Canadians, the CPPIB is eating away at their futures.

James Rowe is a University of Victoria environmental studies professor and a co-investigator with the Corporate Mapping Project. Jessica Dempsey is a University of B.C. geography professor and a collaborator with the Corporate Mapping Project. Zoë Yunker is a UBC graduate school of journalism student and a research assistant with the Corporate Mapping Project. Steph Glanzmann recently graduated from the UBC faculty of forestry and is a research assistant with the Corporate Mapping Project.