Tottenham Hotspur may be top of the Premier League for a change, but the climate credentials of its shirt sponsor AIA are among the lowest of any club in the country, according to a new report by fossil fuel divestment activists.
The logo of AIA has been emblazoned across the chests of Harry Kane, Hugo Lloris and teammates since 2013. But campaigners say it risks becoming a source of shame for the club, because the Hong Kong-based insurance company holds a stake of at least $3bn in coal projects.
The AIA Kick Out Coal campaign, which comprises several divestment groups, says this “dirty secret” stains the shirt of Tottenham, which has otherwise gone further than almost any other club in its commitment to climate action.
They say the coal investment also tarnishes the reputation of England football captain David Beckham, who is the global brand ambassador of AIA.
The targeting of football sponsorship deals represents a new front in global divestment campaigns, which have so far concentrated on persuading financial institutions, governments, universities and churches to halt investments in fossil fuel companies.
Several Premier League sponsors have dire climate records, including Chevrolet (Manchester United), Etihad (Manchester City) and Fly Emirates (Arsenal). The Champions League has partnered with Russian fossil fuel company Gazprom.
The campaigners are focusing on AIA and Tottenham because that is where they see the greatest potential for change. Both organisations publicly aspire to the highest standards of efficiency and sustainability. This, says the campaigners, does not align with a link to coal – the dirtiest of fossil fuels and the main source of the carbon dioxide that is disrupting the climate.
Last month, Tottenham became a founding member of Count Us In, a global initiative aiming to mobilise a billion people to act on climate change. One of its aims states: “Choose financial institutions and funds that invest responsibly.”
AIA also has a reputation as a leader within the insurance field on environmental, social and governance issues. It has divested from tobacco and ammunition and is part of the Climate Action 100+ investor group that pressures fossil fuel producers and other companies to cut emissions in line with the Paris climate agreement. But the report says it is the only insurer in the group that has not fully divested from coal or adopted restrictions on new coal investments. Research for Insure Our Future – one of the groups behind the campaign – indicates AIA holds at least $3bn (£2.25bn) and most likely $6bn in bonds and equities of coal power utilities and loans to coal projects. This is said to include $125m of shares in Tenaga Nasional Berhad, which operates more than 13,000MW of coal power plants in Malaysia and other countries, and a $21m loan for the Toledo coal power plant in Cebu, in the Philippines.
“We congratulate Spurs for being top of the league. They deserve a sponsor who is top of their own league and should call on AIA to drop all their toxic coal assets,” said Peter Bossard, the coordinator of the Insure Our Future campaign. “Along with Champions League sponsor Gazprom, next World Cup host Qatar and several other Premier League shirt sponsors, AIA are an example for climate villains using football to launder their image. Tottenham Hotspur is a climate champion among football clubs and could set an example by calling on their sponsor to clean up their coal business.”
Tottenham, which signed an extended shirt sponsorship deal with AIA last year reportedly worth £320m, said it took its environmental responsibilities “extremely seriously” and would work towards improving efficiency and sustainability at all levels. “AIA has shared with us the significant strides it has already made to address the carbon intensity of its investments. In addition, more action in this area is planned to further reinforce their efforts as a result of the threat posed by climate change,” a spokesman said.
AIA said it has reduced the carbon intensity of its portfolio in recent years by halting direct equity holdings in coal mining and coal power generation, focusing on renewables and investing in more green bonds. The company says it is now considering its position regarding its remaining coal-related investments. “The results of that process are currently being reviewed and finalised, and they will guide our future investment strategy in this area,” a spokesman said by email. “AIA places the highest priority on the wellbeing of our communities and we continuously work to ensure long-term sustainable outcomes through our investments.”
UN secretary-general Antόnio Guterres has called for an end to the construction of new coal projects. Divestment activists have seen considerable progress in recent years in their efforts to deprive the sector of finance. Along with the falling price of wind and solar, this has promoted hopes that coal emissions – the main source of human-caused climate disruption – may finally have peaked.
Climate campaigners say Tottenham, like other sports clubs, has a role to play. “Football could be a game changer on climate change, activating millions of fans,” said Eric Levine, a coordinator of Count Us In. “The Club (Tottenham) is a leader on climate action in football and committed to working with all its partners to encourage best practices.”