Vincent Damas: ‘We don’t pretend to be cleverer than the IEA or IPCC’
The head of corporate social responsibility at France’s CNP Assurances told NZI he looks to find a balance between scientists and investors
If Vincent Damas had been told at university that, one day, he would be in charge of CSR strategy at French insurance giant CNP Assurances, he may have had doubts.
“I studied engineering, and I am an actuary,” Damas tells Net Zero Investor in an interview.
“I began my career as an insurance supervisor and I joined CNP Assurances fifteen years ago where I have essentially been in financial or risk functions.”
But in 2019, when the time came to embrace his new role, Damas knew some interesting challenges were ahead and understood that a scientific education would help him deal with everything from biodiversity to environmental, social and governance issues.
“Climate is based on science, and you need to understand what the physics underlying the climate problem are. You manipulate physical measures like tonnes of carbon dioxide or megawatts … so it's not that different from being an actuary,” he explains. “It's physics and maths in the end.”
Shh! Scientists are speaking
At CNP Assurances, a major personal insurer with over €400bn of assets, “CSR and sustainability are the same thing,” Damas notes.
“It’s not just internal operations that I'm responsible for, but a global picture of all the positive and negative impacts we can have through our investment and insurance activities in France and in our subsidiaries in Europe or Latin America.”
A signatory to the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) since 2011, the firm has committed to a carbon-neutral investment portfolio by 2050. As such, it intends to clear its exposure to thermal coal by 2030 in the European Union and OECD countries and by 2040 in the rest of the world.
It has also pledged to divest from companies with over 20% of revenues linked to thermal coal, no longer invest directly in oil and gas sector corporations that make up more than 10% of their turnover from non-conventional fossil fuels, and cease immediately the financing of any new fossil oil or gas exploration or production project or any new direct investment in a group doing so.
“Our decision to stop investing in oil and gas companies is rather strict, but it's based on what the IEA’s net zero scenario says,” he adds. “We don't pretend to be cleverer than the IEA or IPCC scientists.”
But that’s not all. Damas highlights that CNP Assurances looks at the speech of non-profit organisations (NGOs) as well.
“Some are very vocal about the lack of enthusiasm from the financial sector in implementing the Paris Agreement,” Damas says. “There's always something to learn from their analysis."
Defining balance and border
For Damas, knowing which companies to invest in is all about balance: “the difficult balance between excluding companies, which we consider incompatible with the Paris Agreement, and accompanying others which may not be compatible now, but are willing to make efforts,” he claims.
“There are various ways to define the border between these two categories. We are conscious that we cannot exclude all companies because everyone is emitting greenhouse gases now,” the seasoned industry insider flags.
Damas explains that CNP Assurances holds at least one bilateral exchange every year with either an executive or a board member of the companies and sets out its expectations “very clearly.”
It intends to spur eight companies and two asset managers to adopt a strategy aligned with a 1.5°C scenario by the end of 2024.
“We have committed to align our portfolio to a 1.5°C pathway, so if some investee companies are not aligned with this, we will be obliged to sell the shares or bonds we have and reinvest in other companies,” Damas explains.
If discussions are fruitless or a company does not suit its portfolio, the insurer uses divestment as its “last resort.”
According to Damas, CNP Assurances may be advantaged as it does not delegate shareholder dialogue to an asset manager, unlike some asset owners.
“We do it internally,” he says. “We are not a huge team, so we cannot discuss with all the investee companies, but we focus on the ones that have the biggest carbon or biodiversity footprint in our portfolio.”
It can, however, be hard to assess dialogue efficiency.
“We never know, when a company increases the ambition of its climate targets, if it's due to us or a combination of several asset owners asking the same thing, or maybe other reasons like pressure from its customers or regulation.”
CNP Assurances also relies on ESG selection. “We try to invest in companies which are more committed to sustainability issues,” Damas explains. At the end of 2021, the French insurer had screened 89% of its assets using ESG criteria.
Although it has not set a target for Scope 3 emissions under the Net Zero Asset Owner Alliance (NZAOA), the insurer has a working group addressing this issue. “At a certain moment in time, we’ll be able to integrate Scope 3 in our climate targets, because that's the way it should be,” Damas argues.
“But for the moment, we miss consistent Scope 3 data reported by companies.”
€30bn in green investments
CNP Assurances, which has committed to disclose by the end of 2024 science-based targets as part of the Finance for Biodiversity Pledge, an initiative adopted by 126 financial institutions with more than €18.8tn of assets under management (AuM), raised its biodiversity target after beating its own expectations.
It now eyes €30bn in green investments by the end of 2025, including green bonds issued by sovereign companies, energy-efficient buildings and other green infrastructure such as renewable energy projects or public transportation.
Damas however stresses that it does not cover a substantial share of the French insurer’s portfolio. “The methodology is very early stage, so we are not yet comfortable enough to set a target to reduce our portfolio’s biodiversity footprint, but that’s our goal.”
“On the other way around, we disclose our financial risks to biodiversity loss,” he says. At the end of 2021, 26% of CNP Assurances’ directly held equity and corporate bond portfolio comprised companies that would be exposed to a significant risk if an ecosystem service were to disappear in the coming years.
For Damas, it shows that “biodiversity loss is not just a problem for environmentalists but also investors."
Global problem solved?
Elected for a three-year term as a representative of the European insurance sector at the Global Steering Committee of the United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative (UNEP FI), Damas points out that CNP Assurances’ objective is not to be “the perfect asset owner” in the net zero race, but to push peers to improve their climate standards.
He acknowledges that CNP Assurances still holds a share in French oil and gas giant TotalEnergies, for instance, which it continues to put pressure on through dialogue and stewardship.
“We have committed not to invest anymore in the likes of TotalEnergies or Shell because they continue to develop new upstream projects which are incompatible with the IEA’s 1.5°C scenario,” he notes.
Damas also hopes to see more financial players join net zero alliances.
“If, by 2050, we have a net zero portfolio, but the economy is not net zero, it's not what I would call a success,” he says. “We could claim that we did the job as an asset owner, but the climate problem would not be solved on the global level.”
“The net zero alliances want to be science-based and credible, but they also want some new members to join because we all know that if there are only 10% of the financial sector … it will have a very limited effect,” he stresses out. “It's always a balance between being strict and open to new members that may be less mature in terms of portfolio decarbonisation.”
He expressed, for example, concerns that very few sovereign wealth funds were members of the NZAOA as, in his view, they could dramatically boost the power and influence of the alliance.