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NGOs warn industry risks repeating mistakes made when it identified pandemic danger

Published by , Editorial Assistant
World Coal,

International NGOs supporting the Unfriend Coal campaign have said in a letter to industry associations that insurers must champion a green and fair recovery from the COVID-19 crisis because as professional risk managers they have a unique understanding of global threats.

They stated that the industry was fully aware of the risks of a global pandemic years ago but failed to do enough to ensure governments prepared effectively, and they warn it not to make the same mistake again now that insurers recognise the climate emergency is the world’s greatest threat.

The letter, signed by 25 NGOs in 11 countries including, AVAAZ and Oil Change International, calls on insurers to address the COVID-19 and climate crises together by working to ensure economic stimulus programs are consistent with limiting climate change to 1.5°C in line with recommendations from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“International insurance associations and many of their member bodies have made numerous public commitments about the need for rapid climate action. If you are serious about these commitments you now need to speak out, vigorously and publicly, at the international and national level for green and fair recovery programs which are consistent with the IPCC’s 1.5°C pathways,” it says.

“In addition, the insurance industry has to get its own house in order with regard to the climate crisis. Insurance associations should encourage their member companies to divest from fossil fuel companies, to end cover for coal projects, coal companies and for oil and gas expansion projects, and to commit to phasing out cover for oil and gas companies in line with a 1.5°C pathway.”

Last week UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said: “We must act decisively to protect our planet from both the coronavirus and the existential threat of climate disruption.” He called for governments to use the huge sums committed to economic recovery from COVID-19 “to deliver new jobs and businesses through a clean, green transition” and for “climate risks and opportunities to be incorporated into the financial system”.

Insurers are already lining up behind his call. It was welcomed by Günther Thallinger, Chief Investment Officer of Allianz and Chair of the Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance, whose 22 members include insurers Aviva, AXA, Generali, Munich Re, Swiss Re and Zurich.

“Tomorrow’s recovery plans can and must lay the foundations for an irreversible shift to a resilient, net-zero and inclusive economy. The Alliance stands ready to work with governments, international agencies and other stakeholders to realise this goal,” he said.

In 2013, by a large margin, insurance executives identified the threat of a “new, highly infectious and fatal pandemic” as the world’s greatest threat in a Towers Watson survey. In 2019, insurance executives identified climate change as the world’s greatest threat in surveys conducted by Willis Towers Watson and several national actuarial societies.

7 years ago they recognised the threat of a global pandemic, but failed to ensure the world was prepared and simply excluded pandemic risks from their policies. Now that they acknowledge climate change is our greatest threat they must not repeat this mistake. Insurers have a duty to speak out loud and clear for strong climate action and set an example by aligning their businesses with international climate targets.”

The letter calls on a range of organisations representing insurers and reinsurers and industry professionals to respond with a public statement by May 18, including: the International Insurance Society; Insurance Europe; the American Risk and Insurance Association; and the Geneva Association.

Since 2017, 19 insurance companies have ended or restricted insurance for coal projects and some have gone further, with restrictions on tar sands and Arctic oil. Yet none have committed to only insure projects which are consistent with a 1.5°C world and several major insurers, including AIG, Lloyd’s and Tokio Marine, have taken no steps to restrict cover for fossil fuels.

Regine Richter, Energy and Finance Campaigner with the German NGO urgewald, said: “Insurers have huge power to shape the global economy. Without insurance new coal, oil and gas projects will not go ahead and existing fossil fuel projects that are inconsistent with a 1.5°C world must shut down. Invested wisely, their trillions of dollars of assets can turbo-charge a green and fair economy which will reduce risks for us all.”

A majority of EU nations, including Germany, France, Italy and Spain – home to some of the world’s biggest insurers - want to build the recovery from COVID-19 around a European Green Deal, which achieves net zero emissions by 2050. However, in the US the Trump Administration, which has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, has committed to bailing out the US oil industry.

The letter warns: “In many countries the lobbying groups of the fossil fuel, automobile and airline industries are already pushing for government subsidies and deregulation to overcome structural problems which these industries faced long before the onset of COVID-19. If governments give in to these pressures we will miss a unique chance to transform economies in ways that move the low-carbon transition forward.”

It says that government stimulus packages should:

  • Phase out fossil fuel subsidies and invest the savings in social safety nets.
  • Boost clean energy technologies.
  • Maintain environmental regulations on carbon-intensive industries.
  • Provide no support to companies which have no future in a carbon-constrained world.

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