The Church of England is going up against ExxonMobil on climate change. Can it win?

April 24, 2020, 12:38 PM UTC
St Dunstans in the East on the 20th September 2019 in London in the United Kingdom. St Dunstans in the East was a Church of England parish church on St Dunstan's Hill. The church was largely destroyed in the Second World War and the ruins are now a public garden. (photo by Sam Mellish / In Pictures via Getty Images)
Sam Mellish—In Pictures via Getty Images)

By the time Edward Mason stepped up to the lectern in front of a crowd of oil and gas executives on a Tuesday morning in February, the presence of the slight, gap-toothed head of responsible investment at the Church Commissioners for England—the main investment vehicle of the Church of England—should not have come as a surprise.

Mason and his colleague Adam Matthews, director of ethics and engagement at the Church’s pension board, have become a regular presence at events like this one—the annual International Petroleum Week in London—and everywhere else climate change and the world’s largest oil and gas companies are discussed. On this winter morning, Mason was using his time on stage to provide an update on the Church’s investment policies—and to deliver a warning. 

“You’ll all be aware of the divestment movement,” he said, referring to the push among some large investors to withdraw funds backing oil companies, and other sectors seen as major contributors to climate change. The Church wants “to see change”, said Mason, but does not believe that ending their investment is the best way to meet that goal. Instead, he told executives, “we will strain every sinew to help you become part of the solution to climate change.” At the same time, there’s a limit to the Church’s patience, says Mason. If companies do not get on board with dramatically reducing emissions, his organization will have no choice but to reverse its policy.

At first glance, Mason’s statement appears to be something of an empty threat. The Church admits its holdings in the oil and gas sector are relatively minor, so the possible loss of its financial backing does not exactly have the industry running scared. But the Church of England does have something that gets the attention of energy CEOs: influence.

Mason and Matthews lead engagement on climate change with the world’s biggest energy companies on behalf of a group of institutional investors representing over $40 trillion. As a result, the Church commands attention and has been credited with driving a wave of public and institutional pressure on the industry to cut emissions.

The pair have had some wins: shortly before Mason’s appearance at IP Week, British energy giant BP announced it would aim for ‘net zero’—meaning it would reduce emissions as much as possible, then offset the remainder—by 2050. On April 16, Royal Dutch Shell, based in the Netherlands, announced it had made the same commitment, becoming the largest energy company in the world to do so—and quoted Matthews in its press release. 

That accomplishment was overshadowed by a crisis more immediate than climate change—the COVID-19 pandemic. But despite their concerns about the virus, Mason and Matthews are staying focused on another longterm challenge, one that lies on the other side of the ocean, and has so far proved more resistant to change than its European counterparts: ExxonMobil.

This week, the Church’s repeated, if not overly successful, efforts to bring that U.S.-based giant to heel ratcheted up a level when it announced on Friday that it, along with other powerful climate-focused investors, would issue a protest vote against Exxon’s entire board at it’s upcoming general meeting. It’s the latest blow in the battle between the two institutions—but almost certainly not the last.

‘Destruction of God’s world’ 

The Church of England—a 486-year-old institution with a former oil executive for an Archbishop and Queen Elizabeth II at its head—might seem like an unlikely candidate to play the climate change heavy. After all, the movement to act on climate change has become all but synonymous with youth activists like Greta Thunberg, while the Church struggles to even coax young people through its doors. 

And not only does the Church seem, at least at first glance, to be a relic from another age, but its financial firepower is also limited. With a total of roughly GBP 14 billion (or about $17.73 billion) under management across all of its funds, it’s one of the world’s largest religious investors—but remains a relative minnow compared to large institutional pension funds and asset managers. By comparison, a frequent collaborator—the national Swedish pension fund, AP7—had about $54.6 billion assets under management between its equity and fixed income funds as of March 31. 

Adam Matthews, director of ethics and engagement at the Church’s pension board. Credit: Church of England

What’s more, its oil and gas holdings are also relatively modest. The Church’s pension fund holds GBP 16.2 million ($19.9 million) in common stock across the oil and gas sector as a whole, while its Church Commissioners fund doesn’t disclose exact figures for the sector; both BP and Shell are listed as among its top twenty most valuable equity holdings.

Given those limitations, the Church’s ability to command the attention of the oil and gas sector is all the more surprising. One of the ways it’s managed to hold sway is by committing to make climate change a focus in a way other large investors, juggling multiple stakeholders and priorities, do not. From 2014 onwards, the Church Commissioners’ annual reports listed climate change as a major responsible investing priority, and in 2017, the Church co-founded the Transition Pathway Initiative, a centre at the London School of Economics to help asset managers track companies’ climate change policies. In February, the Church expanded that strategy to its own operations, committing to make hundreds of thousands of drafty, ancient churches and cathedrals carbon neutral by 2030.

It’s also bolstered its clout by leading efforts not just on behalf of its own funds, but for other investors with far deeper pockets. The Church co-leads engagement efforts with other investors on BP, Shell, and ExxonMobil on behalf of Climate Action 100+, an institutional investor group that covers $40 trillion worth of assets, including BlackRock, and explicitly works to shift companies’ climate policies.

Climate investment groups credit the Church as a pioneer of this cooperative approach, particularly when it comes to engaging directly with oil companies on emissions reductions targets, and on their lobbying practices. A Church-led effort with AP7 to call out European companies’ behind-the-scenes lobbying against climate change policies, in 2018, provided the inspiration for a similar effort in the U.S., says Timothy Smith, director of ESG shareowner engagement at Boston Trust Walden, an ESG-specialized asset manager, and former executive director at the U.S.-based Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility. “They did this when nobody else was doing it,” he says. And more broadly, the Church’s approach has provided a model for a growing number of investors that are beginning to put climate change at the center of their portfolios.

“They very much punch above their weight,” says Fiona Reynolds, CEO of the UN-backed Principles for Responsible Investing, which is also a member of Climate Action 100+.

Beyond tactics, Mason and Matthews attribute the Church’s outsized role in climate change investment to having something secular investors do not: a moral imperative. While companies like BlackRock must carefully justify their climate policies in terms of financial risk and reward, the Church has a council of investment advisors and religious leaders to provide both the financial and theological backing to its approach.

As Smith puts it: “To use religious terms: they’re worried about the deep destruction of God’s world, that will occur—and is occurring.”

‘The gap was large, and now it’s even larger.’ 

But while major European energy companies appear to finally be shifting their climate-related policies, across the Atlantic, America’s largest publicly traded oil and gas company, ExxonMobil, has been—and remains—the Church’s white whale.

The company is often treated as a bellwether for the U.S. oil and gas sector as a whole, but its sheer scale gives it influence far beyond its headquarters in Irving, Texas. After Shell and BP, it is the third largest publicly traded oil and gas company in the world, operating in 45 countries on six continents, and pulling in nearly $265 billion in revenue and other income in 2019. Any shifts in Exxon’s policies wouldn’t just represent a major pivot in the future of U.S. energy—but could be a tipping point that would force other major companies to follow the same path.

head of responsible investing at the Church Commissioners for England. Credit: Church of England

In 2017, a shareholder proposal brought by the Church to Exxon’s annual general meeting to force the company to disclose the impact of climate change on its business passed with 62% of the shareholder vote. Since 2018, Exxon has released annual “Energy and Carbon Summary” reports on how rising temperatures will impact its business.

The Church followed that win with engagement directly with Exxon, when Mason began speaking directly to the company in 2018 on behalf of Climate Action 100+, working with the New York State Common Retirement Fund. With little sign of progress from its private conversations, the Church has also continued to use the public route, attempting to introduce shareholder proposals on climate policy at the company’s Annual General Meetings.

But since 2017, the approach has only gained limited ground, with further shareholder proposals either failing to pass, or being struck off the proxy ballot with the backing of the SEC. This year, a Church of England proposal asking the company to set emissions reduction targets consistent with the Paris Climate Agreement was struck from the ballot for the second consecutive year. Other climate-related proposals on climate policies and lobbying disclosures brought by other investors have made it to the ballot, but have so far failed to gain a majority vote. In February, Mason said Climate Action 100+ is still engaging with Exxon, “but we’re not happy with what we’re hearing.”

By April, that relationship appeared increasingly tense. On Friday, the Church and the New York Common State Retirement Fund announced they would vote against Exxon’s full board at its Annual General Meeting in May—in protest over the company’s climate policies—and urged other shareholders to do the same.

Exxon, for its part, denies being a climate change holdout. In a response to the Church’s description of a company that refuses to budge on the subject, Exxon provided a summary of its policies on climate change; it did not address the Church of England or other critics directly, and did not confirm that it engages with Climate Action 100+. The company says it is committed to and aligned with the Paris Agreement, and is transparent about political donations. In March, the company said it had reduced its methane emissions—a potent greenhouse gas that the International Energy Agency says is equal to 6% of global energy-related emissions—by 20% between 2017 and 2020. 

Exxon also says it had good reasons for striking down shareholder proposals brought by the Church and other investors on its climate policies. In its statement to the SEC this year on the Church’s proposal on emissions targets, the company said the proposal was dropped because it was “false and misleading”, sought to micromanage the company, and was ultimately unnecessary, since the company had already “substantially implemented” the proposal to cut emissions. 

The question of why the Church, so effective when engaging with European giants like BP and Shell, has failed to find traction with Exxon largely comes down to politics, say ESG experts—and specifically the gaping divide between the U.S. and Europe on the subject of climate change.

Investors’ stance on the issue tends to “mirror the politics of that place,” says Gayle Peterson, an associate fellow at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, and co-director of its social finance and impact investing programs. For major corporations in the U.S. versus Europe, “there’s a very different mindset,” says Fiona Reynolds, of PRI, adding that European governments are much further ahead on climate change policy.

Environmental Activists In Chicago Protest Paris Climate Accord Decision
A protester in Chicago held a sign in June encouraging a stop to climate change a year after President Trump’s decision for the U.S. to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.
Scott Olson—Getty Images

In late 2019, the Trump Administration gave official notice it would pull out of the Paris Agreement, after first promising to leave the accord in 2017. Meanwhile, the governments of the U.K. and EU have been far more willing to engage with the issue; both are targeting net zero emissions by 2050. And with Shell’s April commitment to do the same, the U.S. and Europe have drifted even further apart, says Matthews: “The gap was large, and now it’s even larger.” 

Now, there’s yet another factor complicating the efforts to pressure Exxon and other companies flagged as climate laggards: the coronavirus pandemic. The International Energy Agency says demand for oil due to global lockdowns is likely to drop by 9.3 million barrels per day this year—and that’s assuming demand starts to recover in the second half of 2020. 

While anemic demand is likely to curb emissions in the short term, it also threatens the financial health of energy companies, with even the largest pledging production cuts and announcing furloughs and layoffs. The broad economic fallout—not to mention the distraction, as the world pivots to focus on combating the virus—risks reducing the capital and urgency driving the movement to reduce emissions, former Bank of England governor Mark Carney warned in March. Indeed, this crisis represents a test of whether companies worldwide will even stick to the climate commitments they’ve already made, said the IEA’s executive director, Fatih Birol.

But in February, even before the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic or the announcement of Shell’s new net zero target, Mason warned when it comes to climate change and business, the world is changing very fast.

“Exxon has its fingers in its ears, and is saying, you know, ‘la, la, la, things are going to be the same as they’ve always been’,” he said. “And they’re not.” 

More must-read energy sector coverage from Fortune:

—Why the coronavirus crisis could make Big Oil greener
—How Global 500 companies are responding to the coronavirus
—IEA warns of “staggering” demand drop in global oil markets
—Crude math: Why $10 oil could be worth less than nothing—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEO
—WATCH: PSEG CEO on climate change action: “It should have been done yesterday”

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