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Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec announced last week that it is taking part in a US$400-million investment in Celsius Network, a New Jersey-based cryptocurrency-lending platform.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec’s first-ever investment in a cryptocurrency company is providing Canadians with a reality check on its climate commitments.

With the ink barely dry on its new climate change strategy, Canada’s second-largest pension fund manager announced last week that it is taking part in a US$400-million investment in Celsius Network, a New Jersey-based cryptocurrency-lending platform.

U.S. private-equity firm WestCap Group is the lead investor in that transaction. Nonetheless, the Caisse’s involvement is raising eyebrows. That’s because Canadian pension funds, which generally have conservative risk appetites, have largely eschewed significant investments in crypto companies. But this particular investment is also curious because it is inconsistent with the Caisse’s recent environmental evangelism.

To be clear, Celsius Network is not a cryptocurrency. Rather, the company facilitates cryptocurrency lending to retail and institutional investors.

Celsius Network, though, does earn some revenue from cryptocurrency mining. That’s the process through which computers create new digital coins by solving complex mathematical equations to verify transactions and record them on a public digital ledger.

Since cryptocurrency mining requires significant computing power, the process is energy intensive, results in greenhouse gas emissions and contributes to climate change.

Although Celsius Network is not primarily a cryptocurrency miner, digital currencies are integral to its business model. That means Celsius Network (and by extension the Caisse as one of its investors) reaps benefits from other people’s mining.

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For its part, the Caisse is defending its investment in Celsius Network.

“Celsius is a lending platform – not a cryptocurrency – that provides access to fair, rewarding, and transparent financial services, with mining operations that account for a small portion of revenue and are based exclusively in North America, where it can primarily rely on renewable energy sources,” Alexandre Synnett, executive vice-president and chief technology officer at the Caisse, said in an e-mailed statement.

“More importantly, it is also a carbon-neutral business and we expect this to continue going forward,” he added.

The devil, of course, is in the details. For instance, the Caisse can’t guarantee that all cryptocurrency deposited and lent out on Celsius Network’s platform was created using renewable energy.

To illustrate this point, one only needs to consider the environmental impact of bitcoin, which is the world’s most popular cryptocurrency.

Although some proponents have previously claimed that a majority of bitcoin miners use renewable energy, a 2020 study from the University of Cambridge concluded that renewables comprise only 39 per cent of the total energy consumption for mining.

It’s also worth noting that until recently, the vast majority of bitcoin mining took place in China, which generates much of its power from coal. (China banned cryptocurrency mining and trading in May, prompting miners to seek out other jurisdictions. The United States is now the world’s largest bitcoin mining centre.)

This year, a Bank of America report suggested that purchasing a single bitcoin was akin to owning 60 gas-powered cars. Former Caisse chief executive Michael Sabia has also taken a dig at bitcoin, previously comparing it to a lottery ticket – although he did distinguish the cryptocurrency from its underlying blockchain technology.

The Caisse declined to say how it will provide its stakeholders with climate-related disclosures for its Celsius Network investment from here on out.

Other institutional investors are paying close attention to the Caisse’s debut investment in this space. That’s precisely why the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures should provide detailed guidance on divulging the nitty-gritty of crypto-related investments.

The Caisse’s investment in Celsius Network, however, is just the latest indication that there are limits to its commitment to fight climate change.

Although the pension fund manager plans to sell off its remaining oil-producing assets and establish a $10-billion fund to decarbonize other high-emitting industrial sectors, it won’t divest its investments in oil and gas pipelines.

So, oil-producing assets are unacceptable, but pipelines and an investment in a cryptocurrency company are A-okay? It takes mental gymnastics to reconcile these exceptions with the Caisse’s public pledge to protect the environment.

The Caisse should just admit that it’s a casual climate crusader that has every intention of cherry-picking its goals. It should also come clean about any other caveats in its new climate change plan.

This issue doesn’t just concern Quebeckers. The Caisse has $390-billion in assets, which means its investment decisions matter to the country as a whole.

We get it. It’s not easy being green. But please spare us the spin.

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