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Comic Relief’s reading of ethical investment law is no laughing matter

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George Latham, managing partner of WHEB Asset Management, writes how Comic Relief could have avoided the recent criticism of its investment strategy with a more informed reading of the law.

Public interest in the investment portfolios of charities and other ethically minded groups has intensified this year. The furore that surrounded the Church of England’s investment in money lender Wonga has been followed in relatively quick succession by the recent Panorama investigation into Comic Relief’s investment portfolio and its exposure to tobacco, alcohol and arms companies.

I was particularly interested to note the response of Peter Bennett-Jones, former chair of the Comic Relief trustee board, in a Guardian article in which he writes, “The Charity Commission guidance is quite clear that trustees must invest for the best possible financial return, while taking a level of risk appropriate for money in their care. They should only adopt an ethical investment approach with specific justification and not on the grounds of individual moral views. This sounds counterintuitive, but it is the law. The broader the issues a charity supports the more difficult it is to justify ethically screened investment – as the range of industries that might need to be excluded would seriously impact on the fundamental requirement to maximise returns.”

It is coincidental that the Law Commission is currently undertaking a review of the nature of fiduciary duty for pension fund trustees in the wake of the Kay review of UK equity markets last year. Kay had remarked that there are “widespread concerns about how these standards are interpreted”. In my view, such concern is heavily underlined by the very narrow interpretation and outdated interpretation of both the law and the nature of ‘ethical investment’ that Bennett-Jones’ article and response suggests.

The Law Commission’s review is focused on pension schemes rather that the wider application of fiduciary duty. However, I would argue that the issues are basically the same when considering the fiduciary responsibilities of charitable trustees.

In relation to ethical concerns, the Law Commission consultation paper states that pension schemes set up by charities “should not be required to make investments which conflict with the aims of the charity”. The paper also states ESG (environmental, social and governance) issues can have an impact on financial performance, and as such, trustees are “clearly” permitted to take them into account: “there can be no objection to using ESG factors as a way of increasing long-term performance”.

Indeed, given the evidence of financial impact, “trustees should consider, in general terms, whether their policy will be to take account of ESG factors”. It would be quite possible for Comic Relief to invest ‘more ethically’ within the terms of this guidance, and without damaging financial returns.

One of the principal concerns surrounding the initial views put forward by the Law Commission is the ‘tentative’ suggestion that there is no need to clarify the law through legislation or guidance. Bennett-Jones’ confusion on this issue is consistent with the experience of many pension trustees who have been advised by lawyers that they are legally barred from taking non-financial issues into account and that doing so could be a breach of their fiduciary duty. This point is reinforced by ShareAction’s research and would suggest that the law is not quite as clearly understood on these issues as Law Commission suggests.

It has become clear that Comic Relief has risked significant reputational damage that could harm its ability to raise future funds to support very important causes. Perhaps a more informed reading of the law could have avoided this, and allowed Comic Relief to invest more responsibly and in ways that are aligned with its mission whilst at the same time improving, rather than damaging, its financial returns.

George Latham is managing partner of WHEB Asset Management. This article originally appeared on WHEB’s blog.

Further reading:

Ethical investment a ‘practical’ option for charities after Comic Relief revelations

Comic Relief shoots itself in the foot – possibly with a gun it’s invested in

We need to put ethics at the core financial heart of charities

Comic Relief has ‘nothing to hide’ ahead of BBC unethical investment investigation

The Guide to Philanthropy & Giving 2013

Articles, features and comment from WHEB Group, an independent investment management firm specialising in opportunities created by the global transition to more sustainable, resource efficient economies. Posts are either original or previously featured on WHEB’s blog or in its magazine, WHEB Quarterly.

Economy

Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?

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self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Zapp2Photo | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/zapp2photo

Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?

But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?

The Big Picture

The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.

That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.

Driver Reduction?

One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.

There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.

As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.

Deadheading

Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.

Make and Model of Car

Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.

On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.

The Bottom Line

Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?

Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.

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Economy

New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035

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renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart / https://www.shutterstock.com/g/adrian825

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.

Sources: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-11-06/green-dream-risks-energy-security-as-kiwis-aim-for-zero-carbon

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-france-hydrocarbons/france-plans-to-end-oil-and-gas-production-by-2040-idUSKCN1BH1AQ

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