Major asset owners around the world have recently made headlines with their decisions to divest fossil fuel assets from their portfolios. Institutional investors are increasingly considering environmental and social risks when making financial assessments, with more choosing to move away from fossil fuel companies. At the same time, other institutional investors have been engaging with fossil fuel companies to help them become more sustainable.

Read: Pension funds need to consider climate change risks: Study

While both approaches help address the environmental impact of investing, divestment or engagement alone is not enough. Rather, investors need to look for companies whose services provide solutions to sustainability issues.

The Divestment Campaign

Global figures from Arabella Advisors show that in the nine months ending September 2014, the number of divestment commitments by universities, churches, cities, states, pension funds and other institutions more than doubled, from 74 to 181. In total, more than US$50 billion was divested from fossil fuels during that period.

Although the divestment campaign has been remarkably successful in a short period of time, it’s unlikely most investors will completely divest their fossil fuel exposure. When oil, gas and coal prices are strong, for most investors, the resulting cash flows are simply too attractive to ignore. With a US$4.5-trillion market capitalization, the global fossil fuel industry isn’t likely to be capital-constrained apart from periodic price collapses.

What About Engagement?

While many investment industry professionals argue engaging with companies to improve their environmental impact is a more prudent approach, we believe that, while helpful, this approach isn’t enough on its own either.

Read: United Church votes to drop fossil fuels from investment portfolios

This is largely due to the inclusion of fossil fuel and energy companies in investment benchmarks, such as those produced by MSCI or Standard & Poor’s, and their prominence in measuring investment performance. Straying too far from these benchmarks causes greater volatility— which, in turn, increases the risk measures of the investment strategy.

For this reason, even responsible investment portfolios will have close to market-weight exposure in fossil fuel companies. The need to align investment strategies with conventional benchmarks limits the extent to which institutional investors can help tackle complex problems such as climate change.

Make an Impact

Where to look

To help tackle climate change, institutional investors can consider allocations to companies working in areas such as smart lighting, energy management and sustainable foods. Here are some examples.

Acuity Brands: a Georgia-based company providing energy-efficient lighting services

Kingspan Group: an Irish company offering building insulation services that help with energy efficiency

Whitewave Foods: a Colorado-based company that manufactures plant-based foods by using less water and producing fewer greenhouse gases

So what’s the solution? Instead of being too concerned about where a company falls within a particular Global Industry Classification Standard sector (per MSCI and Standard & Poor’s), institutional investors should focus on whether it provides products or services that have a positive environmental or social impact and offers a financial return on investment.

When investors consider companies based on their ability to contribute to and benefit from key sustainability themes—for example, environmental safety or energy efficiency—the investment process becomes futurefocused and long term, unlike benchmark-based investing, which provides a snapshot of today’s economy.

Read: Responsible investing can lead to better returns

An investment strategy based on this approach is holistic because it tracks multiple environmental objectives. The investment team can then focus on allocating to and engaging with the businesses offering sustainability solutions.

Martin Grosskopf is vice-president and portfolio manager with AGF Investments Inc.

Get a PDF of this article.

Copyright © 2018 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in Benefits Canada.

Join us on Twitter

See all comments Recent Comments


The main cause for climate climate change at 51% is actually agriculture. If we were to actually fight climate change we would need to start with farms that are ruining our environment.

Thursday, October 01 at 12:11 pm | Reply

Add a comment

Have your say on this topic! Comments that are thought to be disrespectful or offensive may be removed by our Benefits Canada admins. Thanks!

* These fields are required.
Field required
Field required
Field required