Super funds’ slow, quiet progress on fossil fuel divestment not good enough

Our new analysis shows big super funds have been slowly and quietly reducing their investment exposure to some of Australia’s most destructive fossil fuel companies over the last three years.

But this shift is not happening fast enough. Super funds must pick up the pace and get members’ retirement savings out of all companies expanding the dirty coal, oil and gas sector.

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Tell your super fund to stop investing your retirement savings in climate destruction!


Across the 10 funds captured in this study, which invest more than $800 billion on behalf of over 9 million members, since 2018 all but one have reduced the proportion of funds invested (investment exposure) in Australian companies pursuing fossil fuel plans consistent with the failure of the Paris Agreement, as identified by Market Forces’ Out of Line, Out of Time research. Based on these funds’ most recently-disclosed assets under management, it’s estimated the combined reduction in exposure meant $2.5 billion less was invested in Out of Line companies than if the funds had maintained their initial exposure. Assuming this reduction in exposure is reflected across all super funds, it’s likely to mean that since 2018 the Australian super sector withheld at least $5 billion of investment from Out of Line companies.

However, this shift away from climate-wrecking companies is happening at a glacial pace, when we know rapid action is required to drastically reduce emissions from burning fossil fuels. Funds have also been reluctant to publicly announce which companies they are reducing investments in and why, failing to make the maximum impact with their divestment decisions.

The IPCC’s recent Sixth Assessment Report presented a sobering look at the dire state of the climate, making clear the scale and pace of action required to avoid the most devastating impacts of global warming. According to the report, every fraction of a degree of further warming will see increasingly severe and prolonged heatwaves, droughts and extreme rainfall events, with devastating impacts on people and ecosystems.

Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency has given us the best insight yet of the rapid energy transition required to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Latest climate science shows we need to achieve net-zero emissions even sooner if we are to limit warming to 1.5°C. The conclusion is clear: there is no room for new or expanded coal, oil and gas projects.

Yet 23 big Australian companies are still undermining climate action by expanding the scale of the fossil fuel sector and relying on scenarios consistent with the failure of the Paris Agreement to justify their business prospects. This includes oil and gas giants Woodside and Santos, and thermal coal companies Whitehaven and New Hope, all of which have expansion plans that would doom the Paris Agreement to failure. Despite the slow progress demonstrated by this analysis, almost every super fund in the country continues to invest members’ retirement savings in many of these companies.

Changes in super fund investment exposure to Out of Line companies 2018-2021

wdt_ID Fund Assets under management Member accounts Most recently disclosed exposure Disclosure of Aus equities Percentage point change in exposure Change in exposure
1 Commonwealth Super Corp $224 billion 671,912 15.23% 89% -0.82 -5.10%
2 Australian Super $191 billion 2,368,825 14.00% 100% -1.14 -7.50%
3 Aware Super $126 billion 1,077,326 10.70% 69% -2.33 -17.90%
4 REST $56 billion 1,844,858 12.20% 70% -4.52 -27.00%
5 HESTA $55 billion 890,949 10.53% 55% +1.30 +14.10%
6 CBUS $55 billion 776,575 13.42% 100% -3.17 -19.10%
7 Hostplus $50 billion 1,301,670 12.40% 85% -2.26 -15.40%
8 Catholic Super $26 billion 145,763 12.87% 86% -2.46 -16.00%
9 Active Super (formerly Local Government Super) $13 billion 86,593 8.48% 57% -1.81 -17.60%
10 MTAA Super (now Spirit Super) $13 billion 201,861 7.79% 53% -2.38 -23.40%
Methodology

This study incorporates the top 10 super funds by assets under management (as per APRA fund-level stats, 2020, Trustee level) that have disclosed the weightings of at least 50% of their Australian equities investments over at least 3 disclosure periods from 30 June 2018 to 30 June 2021, as available at 1 August 2021. 

Based on those disclosures, each fund’s combined exposure to the 23 companies identified as ‘Out of Line’ in Market Forces’ 2021 Out of Line, Out of Time study is calculated for each disclosure captured. See ‘Exposure Calculations’ on the super funds methodology page for more detail on this aspect.

The percentage point change in investment exposure to Out of Line companies is calculated by subtracting each fund’s exposure to Out of Line companies at the last reporting date from its exposure at the first reporting date. The relative change in exposure is calculated by dividing that percentage point change by the Out of Line exposure at the first reporting date.

For each super fund, the estimated value ($) of investment withheld from Out of Line companies since 2018 is the product of the estimated dollar value invested in Australian equities (based on the fund’s target asset allocation to Australian equities in the fund’s default option and the fund’s assets under management as listed in the APRA fund-level stats, 2020, Trustee level) and the percentage point change in Australian equities exposure to Out of Line companies. Applied across the 10 funds included in this study, it’s estimated these 10 funds collectively withheld $2.5 billion of investment in Out of Line companies since 2018.

All dollar values are in Australian dollars.

Take action: Use the form on this page to tell your super fund to ditch climate-wrecking companies!

Key findings

  • All but one fund, Hesta, has reduced its investment exposure to Out of Line companies since 2018.
    • Hesta’s increase in Out of Line exposure means it is now more exposed to Out of Line companies than funds with comparable disclosure, Active Super and Spirit Super (formerly MTAA).
  • Across the 10 funds, it is estimated the combined reduction in exposure meant $2.5 billion less was invested in Out of Line companies than if the funds had maintained their initial exposure.
    • These 10 funds account for approximately 45% of all assets under management captured in APRA’s 2020 superannuation statistics. Assuming the reduction in exposure is reflected across all super funds, it’s likely to mean that since 2018 the Australian super sector withheld at least $5 billion of investment from Out of Line companies.
  • Super funds have been actively selling down holdings in Woodside and Santos.
    • Woodside has seen significant divestment from Australia’s top super funds, with 6 funds cutting exposure by at least 45%, and AustralianSuper by as much as 86%. Woodside’s share price fell significantly across the three years ending June 2021, which would explain some, but not all, of the drop in super funds’ exposure. 
    • 6 super funds reduced exposure to Santos by around a third, although two funds increased: Rest and Catholic Super. 
  • 15 of the 30 largest super funds (by assets under management) have divested from, or excluded investment in, thermal coal mining companies like Whitehaven Coal and New Hope.
  • While differing levels and dates of disclosures make it impossible to directly compare funds, Rest has clearly reduced its Out of Line exposure the most, a whopping 27% relative to its 2018 exposure. However, Rest is still more heavily exposed to Out of Line companies than Aware Super, which discloses a similar proportion of its holdings.
  • Commonwealth Super Corp has the highest known exposure to Out of Line companies, and its relative exposure to these companies only fell by 5.1% over the period analysed.
  • The analysis shows AustralianSuper has not had any active investments in Australian pure play (undiversified) fossil fuel producers since 2020. Along with UniSuper, this means two of the seven biggest funds in the country have now dropped pure play coal, oil and gas producers from their active Australian investment portfolios.
  • While AustralianSuper has dropped most Out of Line companies from its active investments, it has significantly increased its stake in the few remaining (Ampol, BHP, Origin Energy, and Seven Group), leaving its overall exposure to the Out of Line group only slightly down, and higher than the other fund with 100% disclosure, Cbus.
  • Of the top 30 super funds by assets under management, only 10 have disclosed more than 50% of their Australian share investments, including investment weights, for long enough for us to be able to perform this analysis.
Click the headings below to see a brief analysis of each fund included in the study
Commonwealth Super Corporation

Holdings exposure date (as at) Exposure to Out of Line Companies
31/12/2018 16.05%
31/12/2019 17.24%
30/06/2020 15.13%
31/12/2020 15.23%
Percentage point change in exposure -0.82
Change in exposure -5.10%

Between December 2018 and December 2020, Commonwealth Super Corporation (CSC) reduced its overall exposure to Out of Line companies by 0.82 percentage points. We estimate this reduction in exposure means CSC had approximately $447 million less invested in these companies than if the fund had maintained its initial exposure. Relative to its 2018 exposure, CSC reduced exposure to Out of Line companies by 5.1%.

In March 2021, CSC confirmed it had divested from (and would exclude future investment in) companies that derive more than 70% of revenue from mining thermal coal. This policy ensures divestment of just 2 of the 23 Out of Line fossil fuel companies: Whitehaven Coal and New Hope Corporation. 

CSC has no other fossil fuel exclusions, however, so remains free to invest in the other 21 Out of Line companies, including Woodside Petroleum and Santos. CSC’s investment exposure to these two oil and gas giants has decreased slightly since 2018. Continued investment in Woodside and Santos is a vote in favour of these companies’ climate-wrecking business models, and their dirty proposed projects like Scarborough and Narrabri, which are discussed below.

AustralianSuper
Holdings exposure date (as at) Exposure to Out of Line Companies
30/06/2018 15.14%
30/06/2019 16.59%
31/12/2019 16.17%
30/06/2020 14.92%
31/12/2020 14.00%
Percentage point change in exposure -1.14%
Change in exposure -7.50%

Between June 2018 and December 2020, AustralianSuper reduced its overall exposure to Out of Line companies by 1.14 percentage points. We estimate this reduction in exposure means AustralianSuper had approximately $458 million less invested in these companies than if the fund had maintained its initial exposure. Relative to its 2018 exposure, AustralianSuper reduced exposure to Out of Line companies by 7.5%.

AustralianSuper has no fossil fuel exclusion policies, but announced in late 2020 that it had divested from Whitehaven Coal. Given that the fund discloses all of its holdings, we can see that it has also dropped New Hope from its portfolio. However, having no fossil fuel exclusion policy in place means that the fund is free to invest in Out of Line companies.

The most recent investment disclosure shows that AustralianSuper invests in 15 Out of Line companies, however the fund has not had any active investments in Australian pure play (undiversified) fossil fuel producers since 2020. While AustralianSuper has dropped most Out of Line companies from its active investments, it has significantly increased its stake in the few remaining (Ampol, BHP, Origin Energy, and Seven Group), leaving its overall exposure to the Out of Line group only slightly down.

Aware Super

Holdings exposure date (as at) Exposure to Out of Line Companies
31/12/18* 13.03%
31/12/19* 12.82%
30/06/2020 8.91%
5/11/2020 8.69%
31/03/2021 10.70%
Percentage point change in exposure -2.33
Change in exposure -17.90%

Between December 2018 and March 2021, Aware Super (formerly ‘First State Super’) reduced its overall exposure to Out of Line companies by 2.33 percentage points. We estimate this reduction in exposure means Aware Super had approximately $412 million less invested in these companies than if the fund had maintained its initial exposure. Relative to its 2018 exposure, Aware Super reduced exposure to Out of Line companies by 17.9%. However, it is worth noting Aware Super’s 31 March 2021 disclosures show a concerning jump in Out of Line exposure, bucking its otherwise declining trend.

Aware Super announced in July 2020 that it would divest from companies deriving more than 10% of their revenue from mining thermal coal, and that, as of October 2020, they would divest from any remaining thermal coal companies. This excludes investment in companies like Whitehaven Coal and New Hope, but still allows for investment in other Out of Line companies.

From what Aware Super discloses, we know that the fund invests in at least six Out of Line companies, including Woodside Petroleum and Santos. Continued investment in these two oil and gas giants is a vote in favour of these companies’ climate-wrecking business models, and their dirty proposed projects like Scarborough and Narrabri, discussed below.

*First State Super rebranded to Aware Super in July 2020, following its merger with VicSuper. As such, the first two exposure dates are taken from First State Super’s investment disclosures

REST
Holdings exposure date (as at) Exposure to Out of Line Companies
30/06/2019 16.72%
30/06/2020 14.40%
31/03/2021 12.20%
Percentage point change in exposure -4.52
Change in exposure -27.00%

Between June 2019 and March 2021, REST reduced its overall exposure to Out of Line companies by 4.52 percentage points. We estimate this reduction in exposure means REST had approximately $607 million less invested in these companies than if the fund had maintained its initial exposure. Relative to its 2019 exposure, REST reduced exposure to Out of Line companies by 27%.

REST states in its roadmap to net zero emissions by 2050 that it intends to “divest from all listed companies that derive more than 10 per cent of their revenue from thermal coal mining” by the end of 2021, “unless the company has a credible net zero by 2050 plan or science-based targets.” This will likely exclude investment in Whitehaven Coal and New Hope Corporation. However, this policy will still allow investment in the remaining 21 Out of Line companies.

Based on what REST discloses, we know that it invests in at least seven Out of Line companies, including Woodside Petroleum and Santos. The fund’s investment exposure to Santos has increased slightly since 2019, whereas exposure to Woodside has more than halved over the same timeframe. Continued investment in these two oil and gas giants is a vote in favour of these companies’ climate-wrecking business models, and their dirty proposed projects like Scarborough and Narrabri, discussed below.

HESTA
Holdings exposure date (as at) Exposure to Out of Line Companies
30/06/2018 9.23%
29/10/2019 9.43%
31/03/2020 9.66%
30/06/2020 10.87%
31/12/2020 9.70%
31/03/2021 10.53%
Percentage point change in exposure 1.3
Change in exposure 14.10%

Between June 2018 and March 2021, HESTA increased its overall exposure to Out of Line companies by 1.3 percentage points. We estimate this increase in exposure means HESTA had approximately $179 million more invested in these companies than if the fund had maintained its initial exposure. Relative to its 2018 exposure, HESTA increased exposure to Out of Line companies by 14.1%.

HESTA announced in 2014 that it would make no new investments in companies that generate more than 15% of their revenue from the exploration, production or transportation of thermal coal. Last year, the fund released its Climate Change Transition Plan, which notes a net zero by 2050 emissions reduction target, as well as an interim absolute emissions reduction target across its portfolio of 33% by 2030. Although HESTA’s thermal coal exclusion policy rules out companies like Whitehaven Coal and New Hope Corporation, this policy still allows investment in the remaining 21 Out of Line companies.

From what HESTA discloses, we know that the fund invests in at least four Out of Line companies, including Woodside Petroleum. Since 2018, the fund’s exposure to Woodside has decreased only marginally. Continued investment in this oil and gas giant is a vote in favour of its climate-wrecking business model, and its dirty proposed projects like Scarborough, discussed below.

CBUS
Holdings exposure date (as at) Exposure to Out of Line Companies
31/12/2018 16.59%
30/06/2019 15.79%
31/12/2019 15.29%
30/06/2020 12.04%
31/12/2020 13.42%
Percentage point change in exposure -3.17
Change in exposure -19.10%

Between December 2018 and December 2020, CBUS reduced its overall exposure to Out of Line companies by 3.17 percentage points. We estimate this reduction in exposure means CBUS had approximately $357 million less invested in these companies than if the fund had maintained its initial exposure. Relative to its 2018 exposure, CBUS reduced exposure to Out of Line companies by 19.1%.

CBUS has set emissions reduction targets, including a target to reduce absolute portfolio emissions by 45% by 2030, with the goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050. However, the fund has no fossil fuel exclusion policy in place, meaning it is free to invest in any of the 23 Out of Line companies.

CBUS discloses all of its Australian shareholdings. Based on the last disclosure, we know that the fund invests in all 23 Out of Line companies, including Whitehaven Coal, New Hope Corporation, Woodside Petroleum and Santos. Although CBUS has a very minimal exposure to both Whitehaven and New Hope, the fund’s exposure to New Hope has decreased since 2018, whereas exposure to Whitehaven has increased very slightly over the same timeframe. CBUS’ exposure to Santos has reduced slightly since 2018, whereas exposure to Woodside has almost halved over the same period.

Continued investment in all four of these companies is a vote in favour of their climate-wrecking business models, and their dirty proposed projects like Whitehaven’s Vickery mine extension project, New Hope’s New Acland mine extension project, Woodside’s Scarborough gas project and Santos’ Narrabri gas project.

Hostplus
Holdings exposure date (as at) Exposure to Out of Line Companies
30/06/2018 14.66%
30/06/2019 12.50%
31/03/2020 12.03%
30/09/2020 12.57%
31/12/2020 12.40%
Percentage point change in exposure -2.26
Change in exposure -15.40%

Between June 2018 and December 2020, Hostplus reduced its overall exposure to Out of Line companies by 2.26 percentage points. We estimate this reduction in exposure means Hostplus had approximately $236 million less invested in these companies than if the fund had maintained its initial exposure. Relative to its 2018 exposure, Hostplus has reduced exposure to Out of Line companies by 15.4%.

Hostplus has no fossil fuel exclusion policies in place, meaning it is free to invest in any of the 23 Out of Line companies. Based on what the fund discloses, we know that Hostplus invests in at least 12 Out of Line companies, including Santos and Woodside Petroleum. The fund’s exposure to Santos has decreased slightly since 2018, and its exposure to Woodside has more than halved over the same timeframe. Continued investment in these two oil and gas giants is a vote in favour of these companies’ climate-wrecking business models, and their dirty proposed projects like Scarborough and Narrabri, discussed below.

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Catholic Super
Holdings exposure date (as at) Exposure to Out of Line Companies
31/12/2018 15.33%
31/12/2019 15.58%
30/09/2020 13.09%
31/03/2021 12.87%
Percentage point change in exposure -2.46
Change in exposure -16.00%

Between December 2018 and March 2021, Catholic Super reduced its overall exposure to Out of Line companies by 2.46 percentage points. We estimate this reduction in exposure means Catholic Super had approximately $116 million less invested in these companies than if the fund had maintained its initial exposure. Relative to its 2018 exposure, Catholic Super has reduced exposure to Out of Line companies by 16%.

Catholic Super has no fossil fuel exclusion policies in place, meaning that it is free to invest in any of the 23 Out of Line companies. Based on what Catholic Super discloses, we know that the fund invests in at least 11 Out of Line companies, including Santos and Woodside Petroleum. The fund’s exposure to Santos has more than doubled since 2018, and its exposure to Woodside has almost halved over the same timeframe. Continued investment in these two oil and gas giants is a vote in favour of these companies’ climate-wrecking business models, and their dirty proposed projects like Scarborough and Narrabri, discussed below.

Active Super (formerly Local Government Super)
Holdings exposure date (as at) Exposure to Out of Line Companies
31/01/20* 10.29%
31/08/20* 6.76%
31/12/20* 5.74%
30/04/2021 8.52%
31/05/2021 8.48%
Percentage point chnage in exposure -1.81
Change in exposure -17.60%

Between January 2020 and May 2021, Active Super reduced its overall exposure to Out of Line companies by 1.81 percentage point. We estimate this reduction in exposure means Active Super had approximately $42 million less invested in these companies than if the fund had maintained its initial exposure. Relative to its 2020 exposure, Active Super reduced exposure to Out of Line companies by 17.6%.

Active Super does not invest in companies that generate more than a third of their revenue from ‘carbon-intensive activities,’ such as coal mining, coal-fired power generation, and tar sands oil extraction. This rules out thermal coal companies like Whitehaven Coal and New Hope Corporation. However, this policy does not exclude many other Out of Line companies, leaving the fund free to invest in oil and gas producers.

From what Active Super discloses, we know that the fund invests in at least three Out of Line companies, including Santos. Since 2020, Active Super has reduced its exposure to Santos by almost a third. Continued investment in this oil and gas giant, however, is a vote in favour of its climate-wrecking business model, and its dirty proposed projects like the Narrabri gas project, discussed below.

*Local Government Super rebranded to Active Super in May 2021. As such, the first three exposure dates are taken from Local Government Super’s investment disclosures

MTAA (now Spirit Super)

Holdings exposure date (as at)* Exposure to Out of Line Companies
30/06/2018 10.17%
30/06/2019 11.31%
30/06/2020 7.79%
Percentage point change in exposure -2.38
Change in exposure -23.40%

Between June 2018 and June 2020, MTAA Super reduced its overall exposure to Out of Line companies by 2.38 percentage points. We estimate this reduction in exposure means MTAA Super had approximately $72 million less invested in these companies than if the fund had maintained its initial exposure. Relative to its 2018 exposure, MTAA Super reduced exposure to Australian fossil fuel companies by 23.4%.

Prior to the merger with Tasplan, MTAA Super had no fossil fuel exclusions, leaving it free to invest in any of the 23 Out of Line companies. Spirit Super currently has no fossil fuel exclusions either.

Spirit Super does not disclose any of its portfolio holdings. Based on what MTAA Super previously disclosed, however, we know that the fund invested in at least two Out of Line companies, including Santos. Between 2018 and 2020, MTAA slightly reduced its exposure to Santos. Continued investment in this oil and gas giant, however, is a vote in favour of its climate-wrecking business model, and its dirty proposed projects like the Narrabri gas project, discussed below.

*MTAA Super and Tasplan Super merged in April 2021 to form Spirit Super. This analysis is based on the three most recent MTAA investment disclosures, prior to the merger

Take action: Use the form on this page to tell your super fund to ditch climate-wrecking companies!

Still investing in climate destruction

Despite the general reduction in investment in Out of Line companies, almost every super fund continues to invest in oil and gas companies with major expansion plans, including Woodside and Santos. While we’ve seen an increasing number of super funds divesting from coal mining companies like Whitehaven Coal and New Hope, some of the biggest super funds in the country are lagging their peers as they remain willing to invest in these companies, which attempt to justify their coal expansion plans with demand projections consistent with a catastrophic 3°C of global warming.

Oil and gas giants doubling down on bets against a safe climate

Two Australian fossil fuel giants have recently announced merger plans that would see them become some of the largest oil and gas producers in the world. Both companies are also pursuing massive new expansion projects that are incompatible with the Paris Agreement’s goals, amounting to multi-billion dollar bets against the world achieving its climate commitments.

Woodside has announced plans to take over BHP’s entire petroleum business, which would roughly double Woodside’s oil and gas production capacity and make it a global top 10 independent oil and gas company. At the same time, the company wants to develop one of the most polluting projects Australia has ever seen: the massive Scarborough gas field off the coast of Western Australia and its associated LNG processing facility. 

Woodside’s proposed Scarborough gas and Pluto LNG project would result in the emissions equivalent of 15 coal power stations running for 30 years, threaten to accelerate degradation of the Murujuga Rock art (proposed for World Heritage listing) due to industrial emissions, and would also cause significant impacts to the local marine environment.

Santos plans to merge with Oil Search to make one of the 20 largest companies on the ASX, which will have the single aim of producing more oil and gas. In fact, both Santos and Oil Search are pursuing major new projects that would see their production approximately double by 2030. 

Santos is pushing ahead with its toxic Narrabri gas plans, despite years of opposition from local Gomeroi Traditional Owners and farmers, as well as climate scientists, who have confirmed the project is inconsistent with the Paris climate goals. The company’s other major development project, Barossa LNG, is so dirty it has been labelled “a carbon-dioxide emissions factory, with an LNG by-product” by industry expert John Robert.

Who is left holding dirty coal companies?

Around half of Australia’s super funds (by assets under management) have divested from, or excluded investment in, thermal coal mining companies like Whitehaven Coal and New Hope

It’s not surprising super funds are dumping these dirty coal dinosaurs, which are pursuing new and expanded coal mines including Whitehaven’s Vickery and New Hope’s New Acland Stage 3. Both companies try to justify their expansion plans by referring to coal demand scenarios consistent with the abject failure of the Paris Agreement. 

Despite this, 15 of the 30 biggest funds by assets under management have failed to rule out investment in Whitehaven and New Hope. Is your super fund one of these laggards still investing in dirty coal?

  • QSuper
  • MLC
  • BTFG
  • Colonial First State
  • SunSuper
  • CBUS
  • Hostplus
  • OnePath (now owned by IOOF)
  • IOOF
  • Mercer
  • Catholic Super
  • CareSuper
  • LGIASuper
  • Commonwealth Bank Group Super
  • Spirit Super (formerly MTAA Super and Tasplan Super)

Disclosure remains woefully inadequate

Even among the largest super funds, the majority of funds have failed to provide sufficient transparency around where members’ retirement savings are being invested.

Of the top 30 super funds by assets under management, only 10 have disclosed more than 50% of their Australian share investments, including investment weights, for long enough for us to be able to perform this analysis. 

Rules requiring super funds to provide full investment disclosure every 6 months are supposed to come into effect from the end of 2021. However these laws have been delayed so many times since they were first supposed to come into effect six years ago that it’s hard to have any confidence in this new deadline being met.

Take action: Use the form on this page to tell your super fund to ditch climate-wrecking companies!

Disclaimer

The information provided by Market Forces does not constitute financial advice. The information is presented in order to inform people motivated by environmental concerns and take actions based on those concerns. Market Forces is organising data for environmental ends.

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