South Korea’s Samsung has been criticised by investors and environmentalists after research suggested its insurance units financed $14bn of fossil fuel projects and investments over the past 10 years.

Samsung Fire & Marine and Samsung Life have provided more than Won16tn ($13.8bn) in backing for the coal industry through project financing, bonds and insurance underwriting since 2009, according to data provided to the Financial Times by a ruling party lawmaker and the Korea Sustainability Investing Forum, a non-governmental organisation.

The two Samsung units are South Korea’s largest property and life insurers, respectively.

The alleged extent of the conglomerate’s coal industry links has drawn the ire of foreign pension funds, including those that invest in Samsung Electronics, the group’s crown jewel. Environmental, social and governance issues are an increasing focus for institutional investors, many of which are seeking to reduce their exposure to fossil fuels.

“It is deplorable that Korean financial institutions — including Samsung — are huge investors in coal power projects,” said Karl Yang, Kosif’s executive director. “They are doing so only for making money in the short-term, regardless of public health threats and global warming.”

Samsung C&T, a construction affiliate, is currently considering whether to participate in a new coal-fired power station in Vietnam, alongside state-backed Korea Electric Power Corp (Kepco).

Those expressing concern over Samsung’s involvement in such projects include KLP, Norway’s largest pension fund; Dutch pension investor APG Asset Management; and Denmark’s MP Pension. Collectively they manage more than $700bn in retirement funds.

Critics say South Korean companies’ support of the fossil fuel industry has also undermined President Moon Jae-in’s “Green New Deal”, an economic policy viewed as crucial to the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Samsung Fire & Marine and Samsung Life have previously promised not to participate in any further direct financing of coal projects or refinance existing investments. But those pledges do not extend to financial support via bonds or insurance underwriting.

One person familiar with the insurance groups’ policies said the Won16tn figure was “exaggerated” by purchases of corporate bonds from groups including Kepco. Such notes — bought and sold as part of a company’s financial management activities — do not count as direct investments in fossil fuels and are “very hard to disentangle” given the small scale of South Korea’s capital markets, the person said.

Samsung’s ownership structure is complex with cross-shareholdings between group affiliates, subsidiaries and units but control ultimately rests with Lee Jae-yong, the vice-chairman of Samsung Electronics.

Samsung Electronics, the world’s biggest producer of smartphones and computer chips, said it was “fully aware of the seriousness of climate change and is committed to minimising the environmental impact of its business”.

The company said it was “on track” to reach a target of using only renewable energy in the US, Europe and China this year. It declined to disclose the proportion of renewable energy it used in South Korea or Vietnam, where its biggest factories are located.

Park Yoo-kyung, an adviser at APG, said global investors were increasing their scrutiny of coal financing in South Korea.

“Investors want financial institutions not only to publicly disclose climate change-related commitments but also to align business practices with the commitments,” she said. “What a disappointment Samsung C&T is.”

Wonyoung Yangyi, the South Korean lawmaker who helped conduct the research, said funding of coal was damaging the reputation of the country’s financial institutions and increasing their exposure to investment risk.

“As the entire world is moving towards stronger greenhouse gas reduction targets for 2030 and net-zero by 2050, the viability of coal power projects will decline even faster,” she said.

However, APG’s Ms Park pointed to a positive sign of change. KB Financial Group, one of South Korea’s biggest banks, last month announced it would cease financing coal projects, including via the purchase of bonds.


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