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Carbon emissions across Canada Pension Plan’s investment portfolio could climb in the initial stages of a net-zero plan that features a focus on seeking opportunities to decarbonize operations in high-emitting sectors, its chief executive officer said.

In a long-awaited move, CPP, which manages $550-billion in assets on behalf of Canadians, committed on Thursday to a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, in line with international targets set out in the Paris climate agreement. Rather than divesting holdings in carbon-intensive industries such as oil and gas – as some other pension plans have – it seeks to invest in efforts to reduce their carbon footprints, said John Graham, CEO of the plan’s manager, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board.

Doing that, and nearly doubling green investments within eight years, should provide both financial and environmental gains, Mr. Graham said in an interview.

“We are definitely very firmly on the side of [engaging with companies] with a view that we should be focusing on the carbon that is removed from the companies we invest in, not just the carbon in our portfolio,” he said. “Ultimately that has no impact. We are an engaged, active investor, and engaging in a constructive way – trying to be partner to firms.”

CPPIB said it will help companies in agriculture, chemicals, cement, conventional power, oil and gas, steel and heavy transportation cut greenhouse gases. It will also increase its green-energy and cleantech holdings to at least $130-billion by 2030 from $67-billion today.

CPPIB aims to achieve carbon neutrality in its own operations by the end of next year, but it has not set any interim targets for its vast portfolio, its largest source of emissions. Setting a series of such interim goals has become common in net-zero plans among pension funds, banks, insurers, asset managers and other financial players.

“It’s very possible that we could see the carbon portfolio increasing in the near term before it decreases,” Mr. Graham said. “But if we focus on the carbon that’s removed from the real economy, that’s really where we want to be focused.”

It’s not the first Canadian pension to shoot for net zero, but it’s the largest, and the only one whose investment activities touch all Canadians. Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board, Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System and Investment Management Corp. of Ontario have previously announced net-zero pledges.

There’s a long-running debate among institutional investors and environmentalists on whether to plow capital into high-carbon sectors or jettison them. Some pension plans and financial institutions seek to sell holdings in oil and gas, citing intentions to avoid funding any increase in fossil fuel production.

The Caisse, for instance, said in September it will sell its remaining oil-producing assets by the end of 2022. In December, Montreal-based Laurentian Bank of Canada said it will no longer directly finance the exploration, production or development of coal, oil and gas.

Mr. Graham said CPPIB’s plan is “fit-for-purpose” and is not just focused on climate risks, but also investment opportunities that come with technological solutions.

CPPIB has been criticized by climate advocates for maintaining investments in conventional energy while simultaneously talking about a green future. For example, CPPIB has been expanding its investments in companies that engage in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” to pull oil and gas from shale rock.

Shift Action for Pension Wealth and Planet Health, a Canadian environmental advocacy group, welcomed CPP’s decision to set plans to get to net zero, but criticized its strategy to remain a funder of fossil fuel operations. It said engagement can be effective in some circumstances. “However, many companies, in particular those based on the production and transportation of coal, gas and oil, do not have viable or profitable pathways to zero emissions and are exposing the retirement savings of Canadians to unacceptable levels of climate-related financial risk.”

CPPIB’s announcement came as part of its quarterly results announcement, where it reported $550.4-billion in net assets and a quarterly return of 2.4 per cent.

The latest quarterly return trailed the S&P Global LargeMidCap Index’s Canadian-dollar return of 5.6 per cent in the quarter. When CPPIB releases annual results, it uses that stock index for 85 per cent of its “reference portfolio,” a comparison to passive investing that demonstrates how much value it has added through its investing efforts. (Canadian bonds, as measured by the FTSE Canada All Government Bond Index, make up the rest.)

Mr. Graham credited “healthy gains from real assets and equity-based investments” for the quarterly performance and said the portfolio’s investments in infrastructure and real estate make it “reasonably positioned to weather inflationary pressures.”

The Canada Pension Plan, founded in 1966, is the primary national retirement program for working Canadians. The government created CPPIB in 1999 to professionally manage the plan’s money. Over time, CPPIB has embraced active management and its blend of stocks, bonds, real estate, infrastructure, private equity and other specialized investments has outperformed public markets and its reference portfolio.

While CPPIB reports quarterly, it points to its multigenerational mandate and likes to emphasize its long-term returns. The plan’s five-year net return, net of investment costs, was 11.7 per cent; the 10-year net return was 11.6 per cent.

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