Rio Tinto’s climate change resolution marks a significant shift in investor culture


Anita Foerster, University of Melbourne and Jacqueline Peel, University of Melbourne

What does the advocacy group the Australian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR) have in common with the Local Government Super fund, the Church of England Pensions Board, and the Seventh Swedish National Pension Fund?

Quite a lot, it seems. These three institutional investors joined with the ACCR to co-file a shareholder resolution on climate change at mining giant Rio Tinto’s Australian annual general meeting in Melbourne yesterday. While Rio’s board advised shareholders to vote against the resolution, there was a very healthy showing of 18.3% shareholders voting in support (over 20% including abstentions).

The resolution called on Rio to review and comprehensively report on its membership of industry associations such as the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA). The MCA’s pro-coal political lobbying has been distinctly at odds with the position of companies such as Rio, which publicly support measures to reduce carbon emissions in line with the Paris climate agreement.




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This alliance between civil society and institutional investors is significant for several reasons.

Institutional investors (large investors such as superannuation funds which pool money to buy shares and other assets) are increasingly concerned about the long-term resilience of their investments to the business risks posed by climate change.

For an energy-hungry miner such as Rio, these risks include changing energy prices and markets, as well as operational disruptions caused by climate impacts such as storms, floods, and droughts.

Investors want companies to disclose these risks fully and to outline how they will manage them to maintain company value over the long term. As the Rio resolution suggests, they also want companies to be transparent and consistent in their approach to climate change. Paying multimillion-dollar memberships for industry associations that lobby against climate action is inconsistent with the long-term investment goals of such shareholders.

New phenomenon

Shareholder resolutions on climate change are a relatively new phenomenon in Australia. In the United States, however, there is a long history of using resolutions to pressure companies to address human rights abuses and change their approach to issues like climate change.

In Australia, advocacy groups such as ACCR (and its counterpart Market Forces) have taken up this tool more recently and lodged resolutions to Australian banks, utilities, oil and gas companies, insurers, and now the big miners, asking for improved disclosure and better management of climate risks.

What’s more, institutional investors are increasingly backing these requests. This latest resolution to Rio Tinto is also reportedly supported by key voting advisors ACSI and Regnan, as well as other major Australian super funds.

As a result, it marks a significant shift in investor culture in Australia, signalling an increased willingness to engage proactively and publicly on environmental, social and governance issues.

Compared with the US and UK, shareholders in Australia have more limited rights to bring resolutions to an AGM expressing their views or requesting that certain actions be undertaken by company management. Australian court decisions have upheld a strict division of powers between company management and shareholders. Nonbinding advisory resolutions on matters that interfere with company management are not permitted. This means shareholders must lodge a special resolution to change the company constitution to allow them to put forward an advisory resolution on a substantive matter such as climate change.

This is not only clunky and inefficient, but also acts as a significant deterrent for investors to support a substantive resolution with which they would otherwise concur. There are renewed calls for law reform, widely supported by institutional investors and also, increasingly, by some of the companies facing these resolutions, to change the law to allow for a more consistent and orderly approach in Australia.

Do these resolutions actually change behaviour?

From their brief history in Australia so far, it appears that shareholder resolutions on climate change, together with a range of other influences, do have the potential to drive change. Many Australian companies that have faced these resolutions so far have responded with significant improvements in climate risk disclosure and management.

Santos recently released its first Climate Change Report; AGL has developed a long term energy transition strategy; and BHP Billiton (which faced a similar resolution to Rio Tinto on its membership of industry associations in 2017) has announced its withdrawal from the World Coal Association and reviewed its other industry association memberships, including the MCA.

While these developments are undoubtedly the result of many factors – including technology and market developments, behind-the-scenes engagement with investors on climate risks, and increased pressure from financial institutions and regulators – it seems that shareholder resolutions can help to focus a company’s attention on ensuring its climate stance is defensible to shareholders. The impact of these resolutions in Australia may also be a function of their relative novelty compared with other jurisdictions such as the United States.




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This week’s resolution at Rio Tinto signals a coming of age for investor engagement on climate change in Australia. Shareholder resolutions have clearly become an important part of the toolbox for civil society in Australia seeking to influence corporate decision making on climate change.

As mainstream investors come on board with these resolutions, their potential impact is heightened considerably. For their part, Australian institutional investors seem to be increasingly willing to stand behind calls for better disclosure and management of climate risks by the companies in which they invest, including by forming new alliances and supporting the use of these more activist tools.

The ConversationIn a country with a relatively conservative approach to investor engagement, these are important cultural shifts. They offer promising signs that Australian businesses and investors are taking a more considered and proactive approach on climate risks.

Anita Foerster, Senior Research Fellow, University of Melbourne and Jacqueline Peel, Professor of Environmental and Climate Law, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The new international whaling resolution will do little to stop Japan killing whales


Indi Hodgson-Johnston, University of Tasmania

Australia and New Zealand were claiming a conservation success this week, when their resolution against lethal “scientific” whaling was adopted at the International Whaling Commission’s biennial meeting in Slovenia. But in reality the non-binding decision will do little to stop Japan’s whaling program.

This resolution aims to tighten the loophole that allows nations to catch whales under the guise of scientific whaling. It provides for greater oversight of the currently self-assessed special permits for lethal scientific whale research.

After the disappointment of failing to establish a South Atlantic whale sanctuary, the anti-whaling bloc of nations at the IWC meeting have hailed the latest resolution, with Australia’s environment minister Josh Frydenberg describing the decision as “a big win”.

Where next for Japanese whaling?

Japan conducts its whaling under a self-issued permit, under Article VIII of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. This article allows a country to grant its nationals special licence “to kill, take and treat whales for purposes of scientific research subject to such restrictions as to number and subject to such other conditions as the Contracting Government thinks fit”.

In 2014 the International Court of Justice ruled Japan’s JARPA II whaling program illegal on the basis that it was “not for the purposes of scientific research” and therefore in breach of Article VIII. But crucially it did not ban all future scientific whaling activities by Japan.

After the decision, Japan created a new research programme called NEWREP-A (New Scientific Whale Research Program in the Antarctic Ocean), which purported to have different scientific methods to its predecessor.

As Japan no longer recognises the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice regarding “living resources of the sea”, arguments on adherence to the broader principle laid down in the decision would possibly be in vain.

A new tack

This brings us back to the new resolution, which was brought to the IWC by Australia, New Zealand and other anti-whaling nations in a bid to make it harder for nations such as Japan to issue themselves with special permits for scientific whaling.

The underlying principle is Australia’s repeated assertion that “lethal scientific research is simply not necessary”.

Japan’s new NEWREP-A program included the killing of 333 minke whales in the 2015-16 season, and the IWC’s Scientific Committee was powerless to prevent Japan from proceeding, given that the conditions of special permits are currently self-assessed and can proceed without scientific endorsement from the committee.

The new resolution establishes a Working Group under the Convention, which will consider the Scientific Committee’s recommendations in relation to all special permits. It also gives a greater role to the Commission in the process of issuing special permits.

The aim is to apply much greater scrutiny to the granting of special permits, rather than allowing nations simply to award them to themselves. Plans for special permits are requested to be submitted to the new working group at least six months in advance of the Scientific Committee’s meeting, alongside the data used to back up a country’s claims to be running a scientific whaling program. These data will be evaluated both during the program’s development, and during ongoing and final reviews.

These inquiries into the special permit will then be presented to the IWC itself, which will form its own official view on the proposed whaling program and publish its findings.

Overall, the resolution gives the Commission a much greater role in deciding whether a given nation should be allowed to kill whales. But resolutions are not legally binding, and there is no function to penalise those who do not follow them.

Non-binding resolutions

In response to the new resolution, Japan’s Commissioner to the IWC said that Japan “will abide by the Convention itself”. This implies that Japan will continue to apply its own interpretation of the Convention, and will not follow the extra steps outlined in the new resolution.

So despite the new emphasis on applying scientific scrutiny to whaling permits, at a higher level than before within the IWC’s structure, this actually doesn’t mean much in practical terms for Japan. The reality is that Japan will continue to act independently of IWC advice due to its view on what Article VIII means.

As a result, Japan is unlikely to stop killing whales any time soon, despite the efforts of Australia, New Zealand and other anti-whaling nations to shut the program down.

The Conversation

Indi Hodgson-Johnston, Antarctic Law and Policy Researcher, PhD Candidate, University of Tasmania

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.