Are U.S. Insurers Breaking Up with Fossil Fuels?

Climate Momentum Builds in U.S Insurance Industry

posted by Elana Sulakshana

2019 was the second hottest year on record and marked the end of the hottest decade ever. It was 365 days of devastating climate impacts: wildfires ravaged California, Indonesia, and Australia, a heat wave blanketed icy Greenland, and torrential rains flooded South Asia. 

But it was also a year of record-breaking climate action. Millions of people – led by youth – took to the streets in the United States and globally, demanding urgent and bold action to tackle the climate crisis. In the financial sector, a record number of companies adopted policies limiting support for fossil fuels in some shape or form, and the U.S. insurance industry finally joined the trend.

In the last six months of 2019, four U.S. insurance companies took encouraging action to limit coal and tar sands insurance, directly citing the risks of climate change to the economy and society: Chubb in July, AXIS Capital in October, and Liberty Mutual and The Hartford both in December. 

A growing movement in the financial sector

  • Liberty Mutual and The Hartford mark the eighteenth and nineteenth global insurers to take action on coal insurance. The shift away from coal is accelerating, with more than half of these policies adopted in 2019. Companies with such policies now account for 47.6% of the reinsurance market, and coal divestment policies apply to more than $9 trillion of insurers’ assets.
  • Earlier this month, BlackRock announced sweeping changes to its investment practices to address the climate crisis. These include divesting its active funds from coal, making sustainable investing “the standard,” and pledging to use its shareholder rights to vote for the climate. BlackRock is pledging to play a leading role in, as CEO Larry Fink put it, “fundamentally reshaping finance to deal with climate change.” Check out the sharp analysis on what it means to truly follow through on that pledge from BlackRock’s Big Problem, the campaign that pushed BlackRock to be a climate leader.
  • In the past few months, we’ve also seen remarkable movement in the banking sector. Goldman Sachs recently updated its sustainability policy to restrict financing for coal mining, coal power, and Arctic oil drilling. Around the globe, European banks are setting even more ambitious policies that apply to fracking and even all financed emissions.

What’s ahead in 2020? 

  • With three of the largest property and casualty insurers in the U.S. taking action, the dam has officially broken. All eyes are now on AIG, a top global coal insurer and one of the few remaining companies that can take the lead arranging insurance for multi-billion dollar coal projects. Just last week, CEO Brian Duperreault confirmed that AIG will continue to offer insurance for the coal industry. That is, for now. We expect the company will change its tune as Insure Our Future ramps up pressure this year.  
  • The U.S. climate movement is increasingly seeing the connection between insurers and the fossil fuel economy. RAN has teamed up with more than 30 organizations and movements to start a new campaign under the motto Stop the Money Pipeline. The campaign will push the finance industry to “stop funding, insuring and investing in climate destruction” through a massive public mobilization in the spring during the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. 
  • And there is still work to be done to strengthen existing policies (as the next section details). In particular, the campaign on Liberty Mutual will escalate in 2020, with young people, prospective employees, climate activists, and individual and institutional customers of Liberty Mutual mobilizing and demanding action beyond coal. Liberty Mutual is a particularly important player in the tar sands sector, providing support for projects like the Trans Mountain and Keystone XL pipelines and has no policies when it comes to respecting Indigenous rights. 

Breaking down the policies

COAL

What we’ve got:  The Hartford sets out the strongest policy yet for a U.S. insurer, with restrictions on all new coal projects, as well as coal companies. Chubb and AXIS Capital also set restrictions at the project and company level, but they both include a loophole for new coal-fired power plants in regions that they claim supposedly do not have access to alternative energy. This vague exception criteria could apply to most of the new coal plants in the pipeline. Liberty Mutual’s policy only applies to coal companies that have more than 25% exposure to coal and not to new projects, even though many diversified companies fall under this threshold but continue to actively facilitate new coal projects across the globe.

What we want: We’re pushing for all companies to fully phase out coal from their insurance and investment portfolios. This includes restricting support for any company that is expanding coal infrastructure and setting out a timeline to ditch coal companies that do not have rapid decarbonization plans.  

TAR SANDS

What we’ve got: The global gold standard remains AXIS Capital’s policy, which rules out insuring mines and pipeline projects, as well as tar sands companies. By contrast, The Hartford’s policy only includes tar sands extraction companies. The Hartford’s loophole for tar sands pipelines and new mine projects still leaves Indigenous communities and the global climate at risk. Meanwhile, without tar sands policies, Chubb and Liberty Mutual continue to provide crucial backing to the entire sector. Both companies insurers recently insured covered the Trans Mountain pipeline, which is facing powerful Indigenous and grassroots resistance across North America.

What we want: We’re pushing for all companies to rule out insurance for tar sands extraction and transport projects, be that via pipelines or other means, and companies expanding such infrastructure. The tar sands sector also highlights the need for insurers to adopt policies that require the Free, Prior, and Informed Consent of impacted Indigenous Peoples globally.

For in-depth analysis, refer to the following policy explainers: Chubb, AXIS Capital, Liberty Mutual, and The Hartford

Contact Sulakshana at sulakshana@ran.org for more information or to arrange a meeting with our team.