Backers of UK airport expansion are part of UN green investment scheme

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Investors funding bids to expand UK airports have been accused of hypocrisy after it emerged they are signatories to a UN green investment scheme.

Backers of UK airport expansion are part of UN green investment scheme
© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Steve Parsons/PA

Members of the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) scheme, who number more than 4,000, publicly commit to acting in “the best long-term interests of our beneficiaries”, including incorporating environmental issues into their investment analysis and decision-making.

Backers of UK airport expansion are part of UN green investment scheme
© Photograph: Steve Parsons/PA Thirteen signatories to UN green investment scheme are investors in UK airports with expansion plans including Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Bristol.

But analysis by the environmental investigation group DeSmog has found that 13 signatories to the scheme are also investors in UK airports with expansion plans, including Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Bristol.

Related: Campaigners say UK airport expansion plans must be suspended amid new climate goals

The investigation found that at least one investor in each of the seven airports seeking to expand is involved in the scheme, including four out of five of Bristol airport’s shareholders and four out of Heathrow’s seven.

The Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), the main pension provider for the British higher education sector, is a Heathrow investor at the same time as being part of PRI’s “Leaders’ Group”, which celebrates “responsible investment excellence”.

Sam Pickard, a climate and sustainability researcher at the Overseas Development Institute thinktank, said: “This analysis shows – yet again – the gulf between the finance sector’s actions and its rhetoric. Investments that unlock decades of future carbon emissions in rich countries are the complete opposite of what is required for creating shared prosperity in the face of the climate emergency.”

Charlie Kronick, a senior climate campaigner for Greenpeace, said the findings raised “really serious questions” for initiatives such as PRI. “We know airport expansion, particularly in Europe and the UK is totally incompatible with any kind of serious climate ambition.”

He added: “Basically, every week there’s a new investor alliance or coalition that says their climate credentials are amazing and they’re still ploughing money into the same old high-carbon activity from airports to coal.”

He said it was “essential” that groups such as PRI “re-evaluate their membership criteria”. Otherwise, he warned, “they risk being nothing more than a smokescreen or a meaningless badge for investors to hide behind”.

The UK government recently concluded a consultation on how to achieve a net zero aviation sector by 2050. The Climate Change Committee, an independent body advising the government, has recommended that no net increase in airport expansion should be allowed unless the industry “sufficiently outperforms” its current emissions trajectory, following previous warnings that the sector could consume as much as two-thirds of the country’s 1.5C carbon budget if left unchecked.

The PRI, which was started in 2006 under the then UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, describes itself as the “world’s leading proponent of responsible investment” and its chief executive recently called for a “sustainable and inclusive recovery from Covid-19”.

But it has been criticised for not setting strict enough membership criteria. Last year, for the first time, five investors were removed for failing to meet minimum requirements.

The scheme does not have a defined policy on aviation investment but last year released a statement with Climate Action 100+, another green investment initiative, in which it defined expectations for the sector, including setting 2050 net zero emissions targets and strategies to support the development of sustainable aviation fuels.

Fiona Reynolds, the chief executive of PRI, told the Guardian it was “committed to driving investor action to help achieve the goals of the Paris agreement to reach a net zero carbon emissions economy by 2050 or sooner”. Reaching that goal, she said, “requires near-term action and innovation across all sectors”, including aviation.

But, she added: “The PRI is not responsible for – nor can it monitor – every individual investment in its more than 4,300 signatories’ portfolios. They must be monitored by the investor, in line with their own investment beliefs, investor duties, commitments and policies.”

Reynolds said it was “continuing to strengthen our minimum requirements” and the investment reporting systems.

Karen Dee, the chief executive of the Airport Operators Association, said UK airports were “at the forefront” of global aviation decarbonisation efforts. “They were driving forces behind UK aviation’s commitment to net zero by 2050 – a world first for a national aviation sector – alongside a clear roadmap towards achieving that target. Several UK airports are committed to reaching net zero ahead of this date.”

Dee added: “To date, UK airports have made great strides in decarbonising their own operations and helped introduce operating procedures to reduce aircraft emissions. Airports also have a clear plan for the future, including by working with their investors to fund initiatives and trials for future net-zero operations.”

The USS declined to comment.

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