The journey towards a net-zero future is, of course, not a new concept; but it does seem to have gained substantially more momentum in recent months. In the last week, no less an authority than the International Energy Agency has produced a number of notable recommendations, including the halting of all new fossil fuel exploration. Even more remarkably, Royal Dutch Shell has lost a major legal case in The Netherlands, with the company ordered to increase its emissions cuts – a ruling that could set a global precedent for other businesses. Additionally, major investors, including some of the most prominent names in the asset management world, have increasingly committed to achieving net-zero emissions targets by 2050.
The ExxonMobil vote particularly matters, however, as it demonstrates the substantial influence that shareholders can have in driving the transition to a net-zero future. It is an achievement made even more remarkable in the context that ExxonMobil is one of the largest oil companies in the world – a sector not necessarily in tune with the drive towards a more sustainable future – and the hedge fund that led the activist charge held only a small stake in the mega-cap company.
From the perspective of efforts to meet net-zero targets, this is of course extremely positive and sets down a marker for what major companies, whether they operate in the oil industry or other sectors, need to think about and act on moving forward.
But there is also a further question for asset managers as well – what precedent does this set for the future? Forcing ExxonMobil into such a position has reinforced the ability of shareholders to affect major change. In an era where asset owners are themselves under sizeable pressure to conform to best practice ESG principles, it is not difficult to see a scenario where clients push their asset managers to exercise their influence even more proactively and seek ESG-related improvements in the companies they invest in at a more rapid pace.
If nothing else, this week’s events reiterate the importance of asset managers proactively communicating what they are doing to engage with investee companies and make improvements in line with long-term ESG goals. The extent to which this might lead asset owners to expect more tangible results from these efforts is something of an open question. Regardless, after the events of this week, it feels as though the push towards net-zero has taken a meaningful leap forward.