County Council urged to use massive pension fund to help net carbon aims

The huge multi-billion pound Essex pension fund should be directed toward more sustainable net carbon opportunities, the county council has heard as it commits to a raft of climate change recommendations.

While Essex County Council’s (ECC) cabinet has agreed to the recommendations from the Essex Climate Action Commission, the commission’s chairman Jules Pretty said the enormous pension £6.5 billion fund – one of the largest of the local government schemes – could be used more usefully in more sustainable investments.

According to a report published in February by Platform, Friends of the Earth Scotland and Friends of the Earth England Wales and Northern Ireland, the pension fund invests about £129 million in coal, oil and gas – equivalent to around 1.94 per cent of its total fund.

Speaking to the cabinet, Mr Pretty said: “If there were one area that I would ask the cabinet and leader of the council to think about that would be the investment policy for the Essex pension fund – one of the largest in the country – and a very important fund.

“And there are opportunities there to show sustainable investment policies, the green finance that was discussed also at COP, opportunities to make sure that the investments are put in the way that will help the economy as well as the environment for the future.”

Councillor Kevin Bentley, leader of ECC, said he was due to discuss the pension fund today (Thursday, November 25).

He said: “I know work has been going on in the pension fund and I’m meeting along with my cabinet colleagues and the chair of the pension fund in Essex to interrogate further what work is being done and to, if need be, accelerate that as well. I couldn’t agree more and I know my colleagues in the cabinet would agree with that too.”

His comments came ahead of a raft of recommendations being agreed by the cabinet including that solar panels be installed on every available roof on domestic, industrial and commercial buildings by 2050.

It is one of several recommendations by the climate change commission to move Essex towards net zero by 2050. That was ratified by ECC’s cabinet on Wednesday, November 24.

These also include retrofitting all buildings and homes to see domestic gas boilers replaced by carbon neutral alternatives such as heat pumps by 2040.

This alone is a mammoth task with around 85 per cent of homes are heated by gas boilers. And given that within Essex there are more than 600,000 existing homes the cost of replacing the heating system could cost significant sums in itself.

This is complicated by assessments that suggest hydrogen will only be able to heat around 11 per cent of homes, due to limited supply. The remainder could be warmed by heat pumps – but which cost as much as between £6,000 and £18,000.

The commission has stated that it is essential that travel is decarbonised if ECC is to meet the UK’s climate commitments.

By 2030 it says that city centre and town car congestion should be reduced by introducing dedicated, well-planned cycling and walking routes across all urban and rural locations and to all railway stations, while upgrading and expanding the National Cycle Network.

It also says three new subsidy-free Park & Choose (pedal, scoot, stride) sites, using park and ride as a stepping stone to more widespread public transport use, should be introduced by 2030.

Cabinet member Graham Butland said: “The point I think we all need – every elected member of this council who supports this – is to be consistent from now on when it comes to thoughts about how we spend money.

“This clearly is a top priority.

“I think there’s a lot of work to be done on how we attract resources from other organisations, other statutory organisations and the private sector.

“I’m delighted in just one small part – in terms of the Essex forest initiative – how working with statutory organisations, such as National Highways and also with the private industry that is going to help us move that forward.

“But what we cannot do is to think that this is something in addition to what we would normally like to do.

“If we are serious about converting what I think is an excellent strategy into reality, then we’ve got to will the means to do that as well.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter

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