Insurers Flexing Muscle on Climate, Coal – As Liability Grows

October 27, 2021

This has taken altogether too long, but we’ll take it.

Washington Post:

The campaign to stop the proliferation of coal plants may come down to a bit of financial engineering: pulling the plug on insurance coverage.

More than 30 insurance companies have announced restrictions on underwriting coal projects, making it difficult for major coal operators to line up bank financing and investment for mines, transportation and power plants. Without insurance, those investments could seen too risky.

Thomas Buberl, chief executive of Axa, the giant French underwriting firm, is leading a coalition of eight major insurers called the Net Zero Insurance Alliance. The goal, he said in an interview, is to have “all the insurers applying a methodology to only underwrite companies directed toward climate transition and not to the dark ages of burning coal.”

If that sounds like corporate activism, it’s because many corporate executives are trying to use their financial clout to achieve what other activists have had trouble achieving through regulation or negotiation at events such as next week’s climate summit, COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland. And many activists who have had trouble rallying governments are looking to the private sector for reinforcements.

“Insurers are also major investors,” activist group Insure Our Future said on its website. “US insurers have $582 billion invested in fossil fuels, with almost $90 billion invested in coal.”

While most European insurers have ended or limited the coverage they provide to coal projects, many of the biggest names in the U.S. insurance business — including AIG, Berkshire Hathaway and Travelers — have not. Buberl said that another major insurer, Japan’s Tokio Marine, also continues to do business with fossil fuel companies.

“Climate change is a complex issue and the world cannot currently meet its energy needs through purely green technologies,” AIG said in a June 2021 report. “We do not feel it would be in the best interest of our stakeholders and the general public, which expects reliable access to energy, to abruptly reduce or stop insurance access to clients that are heavy users or producers of fossil fuels.”

From a powerpoint by Munich Re’s Peter Hoeppe. Munich Re publication from 1973 warning of impacts of extreme events due to climate change.

Jamie Kalliongis, a spokeswoman for the Sunrise Project, an activist climate change group applying pressure on private firms, responded that Peter Zaffino, who became AIG’s chief executive March 1, “has done absolutely nothing to course correct on climate since becoming CEO, making AIG one of the last major property and casualty insurers in the world with zero restrictions on its coal underwriting or investments.”

Only a few insurance firms are big enough to provide coverage for costly coal, oil or natural gas projects.

“Without insurance there is no financing,” Buberl said. “If you get the majority of the market together to align on principles of insuring in a climate-friendly way, it will have an even bigger effect on financing.” He said he has invited insurers who have not joined the alliance to sit in and listen at meetings.

Coal companies are already feeling the pinch.

“Increasingly, both foreign and domestic banks, insurance companies and large investors are curtailing or ending their financial relationships with fossil fuel-related companies,” Peabody Energy said in its annual report. “This has had adverse impacts on the liquidity and operations of coal producers.”

Insure Our Future estimates that coal companies face insurance rate increases of up to 40 percent.

“Insurance and financial institutions need to recognize the essential role coal continues to play in providing affordable and reliable electricity around the world, as well as in providing the metallurgical coal needed for steel,” National Mining Association spokeswoman Ashley Burke said in an email. Citing high fuel prices in Europe, she said, “you will see why fuel targeting doesn’t work and why vilifying the fuels required to keep the lights on is counterproductive.”

But insurers who haven’t joined the Net-Zero Insurance Alliance are also feeling pressure. Many experts point out that coal assets could be “stranded,” meaning they would be unable to be put to constructive use before a new era puts an end to demand for their products.

On March 24, Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) wrote to Chubb chief executive Evan Greenberg urging him to curtail coverage of coal companies. “It goes without saying that the physical risks of climate change pose a serious threat to insurers, both on your assets side and on your claims side,” they wrote.

Later, activists brought a 15-foot-high inflatable torso of Greenberg, surrounded by flames, to the U.S. Open tennis tournament, which Chubb co-sponsors. Activists held a sign saying “Stop insuring the climate crisis.”

3 Responses to “Insurers Flexing Muscle on Climate, Coal – As Liability Grows”

  1. neilrieck Says:

    Is is unfortunate that this capitalist solution is the only one that will probably work to solve the climate change problem. The better angels of our nature is off the table.


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