When it comes to addressing climate change, companies are seeing increasing demand for action from their shareholders. The Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance reports that in the United States, average investor support for environmental shareholder resolutions rose to 41% in the first half of 2021, up from 32% in 2020.1 Support for environmental resolutions may remain a minority position, but it is one that looks to be rapidly growing.
One way for asset managers to approach the climate change risks and opportunities faced by their investee companies is through thoughtful proxy voting on climate-related shareholder proposals. Historically, RBC Global Asset Management (RBC GAM) has generally seen climate-related shareholder proposals requesting that companies report on their sustainability initiatives. Although we continue to see these shareholder proposals, we have also seen proposals asking that companies consider climate change more holistically throughout the company’s overall strategy.
RBC GAM supports the principles of the Paris Agreement and the international goal of holding global warming to “well below 2°C.”2 Scientists agree that in order to meet this goal, GHG emissions must decline by at least 7.6% annually between 2020 and 2050, and achieve net-zero by mid-century.3 RBC GAM also recognizes and supports the need to achieve a just transition to a low-carbon economy that boosts economic prosperity while simultaneously safeguarding equality. Getting there will require substantial commitments from the private sector.
Investors have continued to request that companies enhance their disclosure and policies on climate change-related risks and opportunities. Over the past year, we saw a rise in government and corporate commitments to net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emission targets. Consistent with this trend, this proxy voting season, we saw a number of shareholder proposals requesting companies specifically adopt net-zero GHG emission targets or report on how their current policies align with a net-zero ambition.
Many companies already have plans, or are actively developing plans, to reduce their GHG emissions. However, in cases where a company may be lagging in this area, one way for shareholders to direct attention to this topic is through a shareholder proposal. This year we saw Imperial Oil – a large oil and gas producer in Canada – receive a Climate Action 100+ flagged shareholder proposal requesting that the company adopt a company-wide goal to achieve net-zero GHG emissions by or before 2050. Although the company has a short-term target to reduce its GHG emissions by 2023, it was falling behind peers on adopting long-term targets. In addition, with Canada’s commitment to having net-zero GHG emissions by 2050, there was increased regulatory risk that the company might not be ready to adapt in the event of new regulation for the energy sector. RBC GAM generally supports shareholder proposals requesting that companies adopt or implement initiatives to reduce GHG emissions where the company has not already made commitments, and was supportive of this shareholder proposal.
As investee companies create their strategic plans to reduce GHG emissions, it can be challenging for investors to determine which companies’ plans are feasible and how they are progressing on their stated goals. This is why Climate Action 100+ created a list of disclosure assessment indicators to gauge how focus companies compare against this benchmark. The indicators include ten key assessments, which include whether the companies have set net-zero carbon emissions targets by 2050, and whether they report in line with the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD).4 This season, we saw a number of Climate Action 100+ focus companies receive shareholder proposals requesting disclosure on meeting the criteria of the net-zero GHG emissions indicator.5
For example, the world’s largest construction equipment manufacturer, Caterpillar, received such a shareholder proposal. The company made significant progress on reducing its GHG emissions through 2019 but did not have a GHG reduction target past 2020. Further, it was concluded that, as of January 2021, the company did not meet any of the Climate Action 100+ net-zero benchmark indicators. RBC GAM generally supports shareholder proposals requesting enhanced disclosure on climate-related risks and opportunities, and therefore felt that a supporting vote for this shareholder proposal was warranted.