‘End it like Beckham’: Campaigners slam AIA, life insurer and football sponsor, for coal investments

Coal divestment campaigners have called out AIA, one of the world’s largest life insurers and shirt sponsor of Tottenham Hotspur, an English premier league football club that champions climate action, for its continued backing of the coal industry.

In a report published on Wednesday, non-profit advocacy group SumOfUs and the Insure Our Future campaign, which promotes a shift by the insurance industry away from fossil fuels, said the billions of dollars that AIA has funnelled into coal undermine its pledge to support climate action.

The AIA Kick Out Coal! campaign reveals that while at least 65 insurers worldwide have divested from the fossil fuel, AIA has placed no restrictions on its US$200 billion portfolio. The Hong Kong-based firm holds at least US$3 billion and potentially up to US$6 billion in bonds and equities of coal power utilities and loans to coal projects.

“Coal is AIA’s dirty little secret. AIA talks a good game on climate change, but its investments undermine the Paris climate targets and threaten the health and livelihoods of its customers, said Peter Bosshard, international coordinator of the Insure Our Future campaign. “Until it kicks out all coal, AIA’s logo will be a stain on the shirts of Tottenham Hotspur, a climate champion in the global football community.”

Last month, Tottenham, or Spurs, became a founding partner of Count Us In, a global initiative aiming to mobilise a billion people to take climate action. It calls on the public to choose financial institutions and funds that “invest responsibly”.

AIA has also engaged former England football captain David Beckham, who has been campaigning for the environment for years, as its global brand ambassador.

Bosshard said: “What will David Beckham and Spurs do when they find out about AIA’s ongoing support for the coal industry? Will Spurs have to call on their fans to shift their insurance policies away from their main sponsor AIA?”

AIA, which is present in 18 markets across the Asia-Pacific region, states on its website that it is committed to helping customers lead “healthier, longer, better lives”. Yet, the burning of coal—the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel—impacts the health of millions of people and is responsible for over 800,000 premature deaths each year, including 670,000 in China alone.

AIA also claims to support the Paris Agreement—a 2015 accord aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions—as a “critically important initiative” to safeguard the “well-being of people across the globe”. Coal, however, is the single-biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions, and UN secretary-general Antόnio Guterres has called for an end to new coal power development to avert climate catastrophe.

The insurer is known as a leader within the industry on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues. It has divested from tobacco and ammunition and is one of 20 insurers that have joined the Climate Action 100+ investor group, which pressures fossil fuel producers and other firms to cut emissions in line with international climate goals. But the report says that apart from two small local companies, AIA is the only group member that has not shifted away from coal or adopted restrictions on new investments in the fossil fuel.

AIA’s investments include shares worth US$125 million in Malaysian utility firm Tenaga Nasional Berhad—which operates 26,000 MW of power plants in Malaysia and other nations, more than half of it coal capacity—and a US$21 million loan for the Toledo coal power plant in the Philippines.

In response to the report, Tottenham said it took environmental concerns “extremely seriously” and would work towards improving sustainability. A spokesperson explained AIA had shared with the club the “significant strides” it had made to address the carbon intensity of its investments. AIA had stated that “more action in this area is planned to further reinforce their efforts as a result of the threat posed by climate change”, the club said.

AIA said it has ceased direct equity holdings in coal mining and coal power production, focusing on renewables and investing in green bonds. The firm is evaluating its stance on remaining coal-related investments.

In 2018, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change examined how swiftly global coal power would need to be phased out to give the world a chance of capping global heating at 1.5 degrees Celsius. It found this would require a reduction of 59 per cent to 78 per cent below 2010 levels by 2030, before declining to zero.

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