Initiated and coordinated by the Dutch platforms Follow the Money and Investico, eleven leading European media collected and examined the portfolios of hundreds of investment funds that label themselves as dark green (‘Article 9’). We compared our database containing over 30 thousand investments with existing resources on the fossil fuel industry. Almost half of these allegedly most sustainable funds contained investments in fossil fuel and aviation companies, for a total of more than 8 billion euros. This goes directly against the European regulations governing sustainable investing.
The resulting articles were published on the front pages of some of the leading financial newspapers across the EU, tailored to their national audience. The publications made waves in the financial sector, as well as with politicians and in the ngo sector.
In the European Parliament (oral) questions were asked by MEPs Tang (NL) and Fernandez (ES) to the European Commission about the outcome of the investigation. The research has been discussed with euro commissioner McGuiness during a plenary meeting in January.
Critical followers of the financial sector – such as NGOs, and politicians – have given attention to our investigation in various ways, including comments on social media, columns and opinion pieces.
Banks and investment funds felt compelled to actively communicate the extent to which they are rightly seen as sustainable. (e.g. one of the team members got a push message in its bank app with a statement on the extent to which they emerge negatively in this investigation). While the actual cause-and-effect cannot necessarily be hard-wired, we see a lot of movement among the investment funds we reported on. In the week since the launch, fund managers such as Blackrock, BNP Paribas and ACTIAM have indicated that they are scaling down their Article 9 to Article 8 (less sustainable). In some cases (such as ACTIAM), specific references were made to this cross-border investigation.
Various national authorities have asked about the data and methodology of our study. For instance, the Dutch research team was invited to give a presentation at the Ministry of Finance and the German team was asked by the national regulator to share insights.
This project was data driven, and started with obtaining a list containing all Article 9 funds available to European investors. We coded an autoclicker which automatically looked up each fund from this list and extracted portfolio data from a Bloomberg terminal. The terminal only allows users to look up funds one by one, and requires multiple input on multiple stages to verify the correct data is being pulled. We then used a custom written Python script to compile all these portfolios in one large database. We used Jupyter Notebooks, and the Google Colaboratory platform to execute these scripts.
To judge the sustainability of all these investments, we made use of several well respected resources in the financial sector. The Global Coal Exit List and Global Oil and Gas Exit List, both compiled by the German ngo Urgewald, helped us identify fossil fuel investments. And the British ngo Climate Bonds Initiative let us compare our data with theirs, to exclude veritable green bonds issued by fossil fuel companies. The fact that all investments are characterized by unique identifiers (so-called ‘ISIN codes’) allowed us to match all these resources with each other.
We then automatically created a specific data set for each country, listing all investments by all funds available to investors there, together with specific information on the fossil fuel companies occurring most. This allowed every partner to put its own spin on the underlying data.
In the final phase of the project, we asked a lot of financial institutions for comment, as well as national and European regulators, and experts on financial regulation.
Context about the project:
A major constraint we had to overcome is the lack of publicly available information about the actual investments that a fund makes. While the top 10 largest investments are often published on their website, the total investments are only to be found buried deep in an annual report, if at all. This lack of transparency is striking for an industry that often prides itself on taking rational decisions, based on solid data. The fact that Follow the Money owns a Bloomberg terminal allowed us to circumvent this obstacle, but only after putting significant time towards extracting all the portfolios. The cost of such software is furthermore prohibitive for many smaller media.
Another challenging aspect of this project was the nature of sustainability itself. The concept is so vaguely defined that it even becomes challenging to designate major oil companies and coal mines as unsustainable. The European regulation stipulates that investments in these dark green funds should not ‘significantly harm’ the environment, yet what constitutes significant harm is not specified in much detail. This allows fund managers to find excuses for their investments in fossil fuel and aviation companies. Experts on financial regulation were however unified in their judgment: even this vaguely formulated law does not allow for investment in fossil fuel companies.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
Cross-border collaboration becomes a lot easier when everyone starts with the same underlying data. We could approach the whole team with similar data files, which they could then find the stories in that were most relevant to their national audience. This created a solid base for the overarching story, while allowing all collaborating media to be flexible as to the contents and form of the final publication.