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Climate change worse than pandemic: UK regulator

The chief executive of the UK's Pensions Regulator believes climate change will be more catastrophic to populations' way of life than the COVID-19 pandemic if no action is taken.

The comments came as The Pensions Regulator chief executive Charles Counsell introduced the regulator's new climate strategy, providing pension funds with a framework for disclosing climate information and achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

Counsell said: "In recent times we've faced a crisis caused by a pandemic. We've all taken urgent action to protect ourselves, our loved ones, our friends and our colleagues. We've looked after each other. We need to treat climate change in the same way, and it is the planet this time that we also need to look after."

"Climate change could be - no, it will be - more catastrophic to our way of life than the pandemic if left unchecked. There is no vaccine, it is much more complex than that. It is equally urgent."

The regulator warned that those trustees that fail to comply with the required disclosures will face action which may also be publicised, with the strategy saying the disclosures represent compliance with the basics on climate change.

"As the regulator for occupational pension schemes, we are uniquely placed to help the pensions industry to change behaviours to meet the profound challenges of climate change and to advocate on its behalf within government," the strategy reads.

The regulator itself is reviewing its own carbon footprint and has set itself the challenge of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. In doing so, it will also report In line with the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD).

Large asset owners are already expected to disclose in line with the TCFD. Meanwhile, proposed new regulations for occupational pension schemes will see the TCFD guidelines adapted to be made relevant to trustee decision-making.

Further, funds with 100 or more members have been required since 2019 to include their policies for investment stewardship and ESG, including climate change, in their statement of investment principles (SIPs). These SIPs must be published online one or before October 1 this year.

"A core part of our work on climate change is to regulate on and, if necessary, enforce against, these requirements. Trustees must clearly evidence that words and intentions translate into action," the regulator said.

"This includes reporting on their stewardship activities, which in some cases may be the most effective way to follow through on intentions regarding climate change."

Some of the UK's pension funds are already making great strides with efforts to reduce carbon emissions and achieve net zero status.

In July last year NEST, the largest fund by membership, announced it would shift much of its assets to climate aware strategies as part of a wider strategy to achieve net zero status that includes divestment actions and greater investment in green infrastructure. Meanwhile, the BT Pension Scheme - the largest private sector defined benefit scheme - is aiming for net zero greenhouse emissions by 2035.

However, a report in February from Platform, Friends of the Earth (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) and Friends of the Earth Scotland revealed UK local government pensions held $14 billion in fossil fuel investments last financial year. This equates to about $2500 invested in fossil fuels for every person relying on a local government pension in the UK.

Read more: TCFDCharles CounsellESGThe Pensions Regulator