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GOVERNANCE - Hot Proxy Climate

Investors are increasingly demanding that companies disclose their carbon emissions and take steps to minimize climate change risks.

As U.S. retail sales slumped last year, Harley-Davidson reported its first annual earnings decline in 14 years. But Calvert Group, a $15 billion socially responsible mutual fund manager holding 2,901 Harley shares, saw a potentially greater risk to the U.S.’s biggest motorcycle maker: climate change.

Over the past two years, Harley-Davidson declined to respond to questionnaires from the Carbon Disclosure Project, a coalition of investors, including Calvert, that aims to improve corporate disclosures about carbon emissions. So Bethesda, Maryland–based Calvert submitted a proxy resolution in November calling on the company to disclose its greenhouse emissions and to assess the risks to its business — both physical and regulatory — from climate change. After talks with Calvert, Harley agreed to issue a report by this November. Calvert withdrew its resolution in February.

“Harley-Davidson has always been a good corporate citizen,” says Tonit Calaway, the company’s general counsel. “It’s just the right thing to do.”

More and more businesses are finding themselves in a position similar to Harley’s because of pressure from increasingly active institutional investors like Calvert. In the current U.S. proxy season, investor groups have filed 54 resolutions on climate change, up from 43 a year ago. Twenty were withdrawn after companies agreed to respond to requests.

“Climate change is a scientific issue that creates risks and opportunities that have a direct impact on an investor’s financial return in the long run,” says Adam Seitchik, CIO of Trillium Asset Management, a $1 billion socially responsible investment manager. The prospect of new regulation promises to transform climate change disclosures and emissions reduction targets from topics of debate into “hard-core financial issues,” Jack Ehnes, CEO of the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, tells Institutional Investor. All three major presidential candidates support the introduction of a cap-and-trade carbon management system, which would effectively impose a tax on companies’ carbon emissions. The right to emit a ton of carbon dioxide in 2010 was trading at about $5.50 on the Chicago Climate Exchange late last month, up from $3.60 a year earlier.

Many resolutions call on companies to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions on the grounds that what is measured is more likely to be managed. But activists are increasingly demanding strategies for reducing emissions.

Staples, the office products company, has been working to reduce its carbon footprint since Portfolio 21 Investments, a Portland, Oregon–based social and environmental investment group, wrote to the company in 2002 requesting that it disclose its carbon emissions. Two years later, Staples set a target of reducing carbon emissions by 7 percent below its 2001 level by the year 2010. The company has installed rooftop solar panels at 13 stores and distribution centers, and gets 20 percent of its U.S. energy supplies from renewable sources, says Mark Buckley, head of environmental affairs at Staples.

Fifty-nine companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index have adopted reduction targets with a specific time frame, according to a 2007 survey by the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies. The discussion about climate change between investors and companies “has become less about why, and more about how and what,” observes Devin Zeller, an analyst at Calvert.

The Sisters of St. Dominic, a Caldwell, New Jersey, religious order that belongs to the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investments, an alliance of Roman Catholic investors, owns 200 shares of Exxon Mobil Corp. and filed a resolution requesting that the company adopt goals for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. “Most of the resolutions request reports on greenhouse gas emissions,” Sisters of St. Dominic executive director Pat Daly tells II. “We thought, Now you know the emissions, give us a concrete plan on reducing emissions in light of the future cost of carbon and policy initiatives.”

Spokesman Gantt Walton says Exxon Mobil is working to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, but he declines to reveal what stance management would take on the resolution. “We take the issue of climate change seriously, and the risks warrant action,” he says.