Just 10 financial actors – a gang of super-powerful investment advisors, governments, and sovereign wealth funds – hold the key to climate change through their overwhelming influence on the fossil fuel industry, according to a new study.
As reported in the journal Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada found that just 200 companies (known as the Carbon Underground 200 or CU200) own 98 percent of the potential emissions from the world's remaining oil, gas, and coal reserves – the vast majority of which must remain in the ground if we are to avert a full-blown climate catastrophe
CU200 fossil fuel reserves have the potential to produce 674 gigatons of carbon emissions, more than enough to push global average temperatures beyond 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
Within the CU200 group, just 10 shareholders own 49.5 percent of the potential emissions from the world's largest energy firms and have a gargantuan influence over the fossil fuel market.
These actors included: Blackrock, Vanguard, the Government of India, State Street, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Dimensional Fund Advisors, Life insurance Corporation, Norges Bank, Fidelity Investments, and Capital Group. It's these actors, the researchers argue, who are key to solving the climate crisis and ending the era of fossil fuels.
"Individually, reducing the demand for fossil fuels by driving and flying less and turning off the air-conditioner are great. We should keep doing that. But we also need to reduce our production of fossil fuels, which these 10 actors can lead,” Truzaar Dordi, lead researcher from the University of Waterloo, said in a statement.
“Without them, we simply won't have what it takes to meet our emissions targets and avoid catastrophe."
"If they're serious, capital markets can enable a low-carbon transition within the top coal, oil and gas reserve owners in the world," said Dordi. "Recent pledges to reduce carbon exposure in investment portfolios and engagement with the fossil fuel industry indicate we may already be moving in that direction."
The researchers used a scoring mechanism that assessed the financial actor's fossil fuel holdings and their investment in the world's 200 largest fossil fuel firms.
The plus side of the extreme concentration of ownership of the world’s fossil fuel reserves means that just a small number of entities need to act to overhaul the fossil fuel industry and avert a deepening of the climate crisis.
"This shows us that both investors and governments can be at the forefront of change if citizens and clients urge them to de-carbonize," explained Dordi. "A concentrated number of investors with the potential to influence the trajectory of the fossil fuel industry is either a problem, or an opportunity, depending on how you see things."
However, there's no certainty that this necessary change will occur without hard action being taken.
“These actors have the potential to influence major fossil fuel companies by constraining access to financial capital or by influencing corporate strategy through active ownership. However, the financial system may be unlikely to sustain the transformative changes that are necessary to respond to the climate crisis unless it is disciplined to do so,” the study authors write in their conclusion.