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Superannuation funds under fire for pouring funds into fossil fuel projects

For every dollar invested in clean energy companies, superannuation funds have five dollars invested in the expansion of fossil fuels, an index has found.

May 28, 2024, updated May 28, 2024

Australia’s top 30 super funds have more than $39 billion invested in the global expansion of gas, coal and oil, according to a report released on Tuesday by shareholder organisation Market Forces.

Retirement savings allocated across the Climate Wreckers Index – a group of 190 coal, oil and gas companies – have more than doubled in the two years to December 2023 in the largest or default investment options, based on the latest available disclosures.

Simultaneously, the amount allocated to listed clean energy companies has declined by half a billion dollars to a mere $7.7 billion despite the funds’ climate pledges.

Even as the market watchdog warns it is on the lookout for false green credentials, almost all of these super funds have signed up for net zero emissions by 2050 or acknowledge that climate change poses significant risks.

Yet the index showed no major trend of these super funds actively selling down stakes in “climate wrecker” companies.

Those most exposed to the expansion of fossil fuels were savers in UniSuper – Balanced, Commonwealth Super Corp – PSS Default, and MLC – MySuper Growth, according to the index.

Market Forces called for the super funds to do better if they are to avoid scrutiny from regulators or face legal action for greenwashing.

For the first time, researchers identified each fund’s share of emissions from the fossil fuel expansion plans of index members and fingered three companies as the biggest polluters.

Woodside Energy, gas giant Santos and Whitehaven Coal were found to be responsible for more than half (59 per cent) of index companies’ projected emissions attributable to expansion plans.

Woodside and Santos can no longer obtain project finance for new oil and gas field developments from Australia’s big four banks, according to Market Forces.

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Now Australian super funds are being urged to clean up their members’ retirement accounts.

“Thousands of members are furious that large funds including AustralianSuper, Australian Retirement Trust and HESTA are failing to rein in the climate-wrecking business plans of companies like Woodside,” Market Forces spokesman Brett Morgan said.

The combined emissions from these expansion projects, totalling more than 129 gigatonnes, would eat up about half of the remaining global carbon budget for keeping global warming to 1.5C, according to the research.

Resources heavyweight BHP was called out as a “significant problem”, with the five biggest funds collectively owning nearly eight per cent of it across their dozens of investment options.

However, Vision Super’s chief investment officer Michael Wyrsch said there could be favourable outcomes for climate risk if BHP was successful in its attempted takeover of South African mining behemoth Anglo American.

BHP may close down some coal mines earlier than would be the case if Anglo American remained a stand-alone company, which would be good thing, he said.

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