AIA sells out of almost $13.7 billion of coal investments

The insurer also said it won't make new investments in businesses directly involved in coal mining or generating electricity from coal. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - AIA Group has sold off almost US$10 billion (S$13.6 billion) of investments in coal mining and coal-fired power businesses as pressure grows on financial firms to cut ties with the sector. The insurer completed the entire sale of directly managed equity and fixed income portfolios in October, seven years ahead of its original target, according to a statement.

It said it won't make new investments in businesses directly involved in coal mining or generating electricity from coal. "The area that we can make the biggest contribution and the biggest impact is really through our investments," chief executive Lee Yuan Siong said in an interview in Hong Kong.

AIA's divestments in coal was not due to pressure from environmental groups and came after the firm had been integrating environmental, social and governance metrics into its strategy for some time, he said.

The shirt sponsor of Tottenham Hotspur had come under pressure to sell its investments in coal. It joins a growing number of firms and institutions, including Harvard University and Allianz Global Investors in curtailing holdings.

According to research by the Insure Our Future campaign, 65 insurers with combined assets of US$12 trillion have so far divested from coal. Mr Lee said it was more difficult to divest the bonds and loans as such investments are usually held to maturity and less liquid. The insurer, which manages more than US$200 billion of assets, is also committing to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

AIA buys green bonds and also has an exclusion list to make sure it is not investing in industries that are big pollutants, said Mr Lee. It engages with companies it invests in to reduce their carbon footprint.

Over the last few years, the "carbon intensity" of AIA's equity holdings has declined, said Mr Lee. AIA's operational emissions will be overseen by a new Climate and Net-Zero Steering Committee that reports directly to Mr Lee.

AIA's chief investment officer will have direct oversight of the integration of the net-zero commitment into its portfolio engagement process. AIA's move was welcomed by environmental group Insure Our Future, but it also called on the insurer to clarify how it defines coal companies to avoid any risk of "greenwashing".

"Assuming AIA's announcement reflects reality, it sends a strong message from the biggest pan-Asian insurance company to other Asian institutional investors that coal needs to be phased out quickly," said Mr Peter Bosshard, global coordinator of Insure Our Future, in a statement.

Separately, AIA, which once counted on Chinese travellers for as much as half of its Hong Kong insurance sales, has seen its business hurt by travel restrictions.

"We are all looking forward to when the border can open up so that people can travel more freely," said Mr Lee. "In the meantime, what we have been doing is to encourage our agents to focus on the Hong Kong domestic business."

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