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Insurers still have over half a trillion invested in the fossil fuel sector, with 16 carriers making up over half of that number. However, as renewable energy gains in prominence, research and funding, these investments may see a dip within the next decade.
According to Steven Rothstein, managing director of Ceres Accelerator for Sustainable Capital Markets, “there is probably no industry that is more connected to the impact from and the impact to climate than insurance.”
“The policies they write, home insurance, property insurance, life insurance, health insurance, are impacted by climate, both the risks and the opportunities,” Rothstein said.
In an interview with Insurance Business, Rothstein spoke about why there is still significant investments in fossil fuels and how the renewables sector is providing greater opportunities in the present and the future.
Across all insurers, the 16 carriers that make up over $250 billion in investments in fossil fuels include: Berkshire Hathaway ($20.9B) , State Farm ($30.9B), TIAA ($27.7B), New York Life ($26.2B), American International ($24.2B), Metropolitan ($17.5B), Northwestern Mutual ($25.8B), Prudential ($$14.1B), Mass Mutual ($10.2B), Allianz ($15.2B), Lincoln National ($18.9B), Nationwide ($10.0B), Apollo Global Management ($9.3B), USAA ($5.7B), Sammons Enterprises ($2.3B), Allstate ($7.5B).
Property and casualty carriers have the greatest ties to these traditional energy sources since the return on investment is a lot shorter for fossil fuels.
While the world has seen an uptick in climate change-related catastrophes, divesting in fossil fuel assets is not as simple as one may think.
“There’s an expression that people like progress, they just don’t like change,” Rothstein said.
While there have been significant advancements in renewable energy production and advancements, there is still not enough capacity right now that would eliminate the need for fossil fuels today.
There is also the reality that the lifespan of some of these bonds covers a vast duration, ranging from five to 20 years, which means that some of these investments may have been made within over a decade ago. 
“We're not suggesting that there should be a complete divestment today of all fossil fuel from the insurance portfolios,” Rothstein said. “But there should be a graduated decline.”
Companies that have these investments and want to make a switch, whether for social obligations or fiscal opportunities, should engage in a transition plan.
Rothstein suggested setting up a five-year goal to create a more sustainable and energy-conscious portfolio and gradually create new targets within an allotted timeframe.
“We don't think investing in a new oil well, a new field, new pipelines – that's new capacity, and then you need to get its return over 20 to 30 years – is good from a financial perspective or from a client perspective,” Rothstein said.
While the Ceres report focuses on pure fossil fuel investments, Rothstein believes that there are other broader climate-related issues in the insurance field that also need to be addressed.
With rising temperatures, “people are literally dying of heat,” he said.
And with there being very little heat insurance in the United States, there should be a greater movement to safeguarding clients from other prominent environmental threats.
The sheer amount of growth in alternatives to fossil fuels within the last two decades presents an abundance of opportunities for growth.
According to the International Energy Association, by 2026, global renewable energy capacity will be equivalent to current fossil fuel and nuclear capacity combined.
“Investments in some of those alternatives that can provide them great risk adjusted returns but also can make a positive impact,” Rothstein said.
“For example, if a company issues a corporate bond to help fund treatment plant or other sustainable business, an insurer can purchase that bond as part of its investment portfolio.”
The UN stated that the world needs to spend around four to five trillion a year of new money in new technologies, and every one of those businesses needs insurance, whether that is photovoltaic cells for solar panels, turbines for wind power or even technologies to help companies reduce its environmental impact.
At a more fundamental level, employees are becoming increasingly aware of a company’s social and environmental report card, which will prompt many to allocate resources to helping create a more habitable environment.
Rothstein noted how 41% of employees in US companies said, “if they could find the exact same job in a company that's more environmentally friendly,” they would be persuaded to go there.
“Three quarters of employees say the reputation of their company affects their attitudes about them working.”
This has caused investors to move trillions in assets to more responsible businesses because it will eventually protect them from lawsuits and increase their returns over the long term.

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