It's a curious combination: celebrities and pension funds. Rarely do the two mix, but when they do, they often make the news.
A new advert, launched earlier this week, featuring Oscar-winning actress Olivia Colman, called on UK pension members to lobby their funds to cut fossil fuels investments.
“The cash from your pensions has helped us dig, drill and destroy more of the planet than ever before,” she says in the advert.
Posted on YouTube and the group’s website, among other platforms, Colman appears as ‘Oblivia Coalmine’, seated behind a desk and dressed in black latex, to thank UK pensioners on behalf of the fossil fuel industries.
The advert was produced by Make My Money Matter, which lobbies the UK financial sector over environmental and social issues, and was co-founded by film writer and director Richard Curtis, whose films including Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Investing in fossil fuels has opened up a big debate within the investment community worldwide. Pension funds, sovereign wealth funds and asset managers in Asia continue to have mixed views on investing in oil and gas and coal stocks.
Many Asian nations continue to rely on fossil fuels like coal, with some planning to scale up production in a bid to improve energy security.
China, the world's biggest coal producer, increased production modestly in 2023, while India, another big producer, said it will increase underground coal production in coming years.
Both nations have also set ambitious renewable targets.
Singapore, meanwhile, is eager to phase out coal-fired plants in Asia and is actively considering a new framework for funding such actions.
“There is a big gap in awareness when it comes to the contribution of people’s pensions to climate change. Getting celebrities talking about the issues helps bridge that,” David Hayman, campaign director, at Make My Money Matter, told AsianInvestor.
UK pension members were fully aware of the significance of funds’ Asian investments, he added, giving them a similar importance to those in the UK or their employers’ efforts to reduce their operational emissions.
“People see wherever their pension fund is investing [in fossil fuels], be that in India or Thailand, it will be having an effect. So, they consider their pension fund’s responsibility to be equal whether the investment is in the UK or in Southeast Asia or Latin America,” he said.
The advert also comes just as the world heads to the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, an international climate summit, from November 30 to December 12 in the United Arab Emirates.
The UK’s pension sector manages more than £2 trillion ($2.54 trillion) of assets for over 30 million savers, according to UK trade association The Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association.
But only £0.1 trillion of the UK pension industry's assets are invested in UK climate solutions such as offshore wind, solar and energy-efficient housing, according to recent research by UK pension fund the Phoenix Group and Make My Money Matter.
The report estimates that, with the right reforms, the UK pensions industry could invest up to £1.2 trillion in climate solutions, four times the amount that the industry will invest by 2035 if it continues at current levels.
Global institutional investors have a big role to play in reducing emissions in Asia, where limits on carbon emissions - either enforced by governments or employed voluntarily by corporates - are often looser or less rigorously enforced than in many developed countries.
Robert Noyes, an energy economist at UK sustainability lobby group Platform, and a coordinator of UK Divest, a network supporting local government fossil fuel divestment campaigns, said the situation could soon arise in which oil and gas extraction was banned in the UK, while a large proportion of the UK financial system remained heavily invested in it abroad, in regions such as Asia.
“Pension [investment] is a particularly troublesome part of that,” he said, noting the industry was generating returns for people when they retire, by which time the negative effects of climate change will be more pronounced.
The Colman film is not the first time celebrities have been recruited in the UK to spread awareness about pension responsibilities around climate change, or the issues more broadly.
In 2021, celebrities including actors Stephen Fry, Peter Capaldi and Kelly Macdonald helped Make My Money Matter launch the 21x Club at the Cop26 summit in Glasgow, inspired by research published earlier that year suggesting that greening your pension could be 21 times more effective at cutting your carbon footprint than stopping flying, going vegetarian and switching to a green energy provider combined.
In June 2023, film stars including Olivia Colman, Woody Harrelson, Glenn Close and Idris Elba appeared in a short film to launch King Charles III’s environment channel on YouTube called RE:TV.
‘The King’s Speech’ featured a cast of 19 actors and environmentalists revisiting lines from some of the inspiring speeches the King made as Prince of Wales.