EU “green” funds invest millions in expanding coal giants in China, India

08 07 2024 | 16:08 Matteo Civillini

EU-regulated “green” funds are investing in some of the world’s biggest coal companies that are expanding their operations in contrast to a 2021 UN agreement for countries to reduce their use of the dirty fossil fuel.

European investors hold shares worth at least $65 million in major coal firms across China, India, the United States, Indonesia and South Africa within funds designated as “promoting environmental and social” goals under EU rules, an analysis by Climate Home and media partners found.

Taken together, these companies emit around 1,393 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere every year, putting them among the world’s top five polluters if they were a country.

The investments are owned by major financial firms including BlackRock, Goldman Sachs and Fideuram, a subsidiary of Italy’s largest bank Intesa Sanpaolo. Most firms analysed are signatories of the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ), whose members pledge to align their portfolios with climate-friendly investment.

The asset managers told Climate Home their coal holdings do not contradict EU green policies or the 2015 Paris Agreement to tackle climate change.

At the COP26 UN climate summit in Glasgow in 2021, countries agreed for the first time to accelerate efforts “towards the phase-down of unabated coal power”. “Unabated” means power produced using coal without any technology to capture, store or use the planet-heating CO2 emitted during the process.

But rather than shrinking, global coal capacity has grown since the signing of the Glasgow Climate Pact with a fleet of new coal plants firing up their boilers, primarily in China, India and Indonesia. Coal miners in those countries have also boosted their operations to keep up with the increasing demand.

European leaders have heavily opposed this, with EU president Ursula von der Leyen saying the bloc is “very worried” about coal expansion in China.

“Light green” funds

The investments analysed by Climate Home have been made by funds classified under Article 8 of the EU’s Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation (SFDR), which the European Commission hoped would discourage greenwashing and promote sustainable investments when it was introduced in 2021.

Article 8 – known as ‘light green’ – refers broadly to a fund that has “environmental and social characteristics”, while the ‘dark green’ Article 9 refers more directly to sustainability.

The rules were also intended to offer members of the public more clarity on where asset managers invest their money and enable them to make an informed decision on whether they want their savings or pension pots to prop up climate-harming activities.

But a group of European financial market watchdogs warned this month the rules are having the opposite effect and called for an overhaul of the system.

“Status as ‘Article 8’ or ‘Article 9’ products have been used since the outset in marketing material as ‘quality labels’ for sustainability, consequently posing greenwashing and mis-selling risks,” they said in a joint opinion to the European Commission.

“The general public is still being misled when it comes to sustainable funds,” Lara Cuvelier, a sustainable investments campaigner at Reclaim Finance, told Climate Home. “The regulations are very weak and there is no clear criteria as to what can or cannot be included. It’s still in the hands of investors to decide that for themselves.”

Funding coal expansion

Climate Home identified investments in the biggest-polluting companies in the coal sector as part of a wider investigation led by Voxeurope, which tracked holdings by funds that disclose information under the EU’s sustainable finance directive.

These “green” funds include investments in mining companies like Coal India and China Shenhua – the respective countries’ top coal producers – and Indonesia’s Adaro Energy, as well as in giant coal power producers such as NTPC in India and China Resources Power Holdings.

All of these companies are planning large-scale expansions of their coal output, according to the influential Global Coal Exit List compiled by German NGO Urgewald.

No new coal mines, mine extensions or new unabated coal plants are needed if the world is to reach net zero emissions in the energy sector by 2050 and keep the 1.5C warming limit of the Paris Agreement “within reach”, according to projections by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

State-owned Coal India is the world’s largest coal producer, with fast-growing output topping 773 million tonnes in the latest financial year. It is targeting 1 billion tonnes of annual coal production by 2025-26 by opening new mines and expanding dozens of existing ones.

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In its latest annual report, Coal India cited “pressure of international bodies like [the] UN to comply with [the] Paris Agreement” as one of the main threats to its business. Coal India’s share value has more than doubled over the last 12 months on the back of stronger coal demand in the country, as extreme heatwaves have fuelled the use of air-conditioning among other factors.

State-run mining and energy giant China Shenhua plans to invest over $1 billion in 2024 to expand its fleet of coal power stations and build new coal mines. “We will keep a close eye on climate change to improve the clean and efficient use of coal,” its latest annual report said.

Big investors

The funds with stakes in those coal-heavy companies are managed by Fideuram, an arm of Italy’s largest bank Intesa Sanpaolo, US-based AllianceBernstein and Mercer, a subsidiary of the world’s largest insurance broker Marsh McLennan.

Coal investments in Fideuram’s Article 8 funds – worth at least $16 million – also appear to breach the company’s own coal exclusion policy, designed to rule out holding shares in certain coal firms.

Two of its flagship “emerging markets” funds claim to promote environmental and social characteristics including “climate change prevention” and the “reduction of carbon emissions”, according to information disclosed under EU rules. To achieve their ‘green’ objectives, the funds claim to exclude any investment in companies “deriving at least 25% of their revenues” from the extraction, production and distribution of electricity connected with coal.

But Climate Home found the funds include investments in at least six major coal companies exclusively or primarily involved in coal mining or power generation.

Fideuram did not answer Climate Home’s questions about the funds’ apparent breach of their own policy. But a company spokesperson said in a written statement that “investments in sectors with high-carbon emissions do not conflict with the objectives of the SFDR, which concern the transparency of sustainability investments, nor with the Paris Agreement, which promotes a transition to a low-carbon economy”.

A spokesperson for Mercer said its Article 8 fund, which holds shares in NTPC and China Resources Power Holdings. has an exclusion policy to avoid investing in companies that generate more than 1% of their revenue from thermal coal extraction. “Based on the data provided by ISS [a provider of environmental ratings], no groups involved breach the 1% threshold, and therefore, the fund is not in violation of its SFDR commitments,” they added.

AllianceBernstein did not respond to a request for comment.

Coal-hungry steelmaking

While excluding investments in so-called thermal coal used for electricity generation, several ‘green’ funds put their money in companies producing coking coal – or metallurgical (met) coal – which is used to make steel.

Goldman Sachs’ Article 8 funds hold shares worth several million dollars in Jastrzebska Spolka Weglowa, Europe’s largest coking coal producer, and Shanxi Meijin in China. BlackRock offers exchange-traded funds (ETFs) tracking indexes that include investments in SunCoke, a leading met coal producer in the US and Brazil, Alabama-based Warrior Met and Shanxi Meijin.

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Reclaim Finance’s Cuvelier said that, up until recently, the focus has been on pushing thermal coal out of investor portfolios because the alternatives to met coal in steel production were “less developed”.

“There are now increasing calls on financial institutions to cover met coal as well in their exclusion policies as alternatives exist,” she added. “It’s becoming very important because there are new projects under development that should be avoided”.

A spokesperson for BlackRock said: “As a fiduciary, we are focused on providing our clients with choice to meet their investment objectives. Our fund prospectuses and supporting material provide transparency as to the methodology and investment objectives of each fund”.

Goldman Sachs did not reply to a request for comment.

Reforms on the horizon

At the end of 2022, the European Commission began a review of the SFDR’s application with a view to updating its sustainable finance rules.

Future reforms may include changes to the ways funds are categorised. “There are persistent concerns that the current market use of the SFDR as a labelling scheme might lead to risks of greenwashing… partly because the existing concepts and definitions in the regulation were not conceived for that purpose,” the Commission said in a consultation paper released last year.

It also indicated that the existing categories under Articles 8 and 9 could either be better defined or scrapped entirely and replaced with a different system. The new Commission, yet to be formed following last month’s elections, will decide if and how to move forward with the reform process.

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Separately, the EU’s market supervisory authority, ESMA, has recently issued guidelines to prevent funds from misusing words like “sustainability”, “ESG” – environmental, social and governance – or “Paris-aligned” in their names. A handful of the funds with coal investments analysed by Climate Home have used those labels.

Under the new guidelines, asset managers wanting to slap climate-friendly labels on their funds will have to exclude companies that derive more than a certain percentage of revenues from fossil fuels.

Climate Home produced this article with data analysis contributions from Stefano Valentino (Bertha Fellow 2024) and Giorgio Michalopoulos. This article is part of an investigation coordinated by Voxeurop and European Investigative Collaborations with the support of the Bertha Challenge fellowship.

(Reporting by Matteo Civillini; additional reporting by Sebastián Rodríguez; editing by Sebastián Rodríguez, Megan Rowling and Joe Lo)