How retirement investments align with long-term environmental goals

What do retirement plan sponsors and sustainable investors have in common? A focus on the long term. We explore how different asset classes, particularly real assets, can be aligned with long-term climate-related objectives, such as reducing carbon footprints to net zero. By extension, we suggest ways for retirement plan sponsors—whether in the defined benefit or defined contribution space—to align their investments with increasingly common sustainable climate goals.

Key takeaways

  • Climate-related risks and opportunities are present in virtually all asset classes, but real assets—including infrastructure, real estate, timberland, and farmland—may offer relatively stronger profiles of climate resilience to investors.
  • As the world transitions to a low-carbon future, exposures to and within specific asset classes can be optimized to maintain alignment with climate and other environmental goals.
  • As defined benefit (DB) plan sponsors consider assigning mandates and defined contribution (DC) plan sponsors build and monitor fund lineups, these fiduciaries can also be mindful of how retirement portfolios can align with key climate goal milestones.

Taking the long-term view

A commonality between a typical portfolio for retirement and a sustainable investor is that both share a long-term horizon, seeking to achieve defined objectives over the course of many years—even multiple decades.

The World Economic Forum Global Risk Report 2023 states that 6 of the top 10 risks over the coming 10-year period are climate and environment related, and the timeframes for making fundamental changes to avoid significant economic and social damage from climate change and nature collapse are closing.

Top 10 global risks over the next decade

The top 10 risks over the next 10 years are failure to mitigate climate change, failure of climate change adaption, natural disasters and extreme weather events, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, large-scale involuntary migration, natural resource crises, erosion of social cohesion and societal polarization, widespread cybercrime and cyber insecurity, geoeconomic confrontation, large-scale environmental damage incidents. Six of them are climate and environment related.

Source: World Economic Forum, Global Risks Perception Survey 2022–2023.

Indeed, investment portfolios focused on long-term return objectives will be less likely to achieve them if climate-change mitigation and nature and biodiversity regeneration are not also achieved on a global scale. In this piece, we focus on how investment portfolios can be built to align with these important and financially material environmental themes.

Climate change risk and opportunity in retirement asset allocation

Unanimous scientific agreement tells us that humans have emitted enough greenhouse gasses (GHGs) over the last century, and mostly in the last 30 years, to warm the planet just over 1°C above preindustrial levels. If we carry on business as usual with this level of emissions, we'll cause the planet to warm about 4.5°C on average by 2100.

Sophisticated modeling of climate change reveals that it’s virtually certain to lead to dramatic results. Heavily populated coastal regions on multiple continents could be submerged by rising seas, or at least subjected to far more severe storm surges during major weather events. Other areas of the planet could be rendered uninhabitable due to extreme heat, severe freshwater stresses, or increased storm intensity.

To avoid the worst of these physical risks, nearly every government on Earth signed the Paris Agreement in 2015, where signatories agreed to reduce their GHG emissions to a level that would hold global warming to 1.5 degrees and well below 2 degrees Celcius above preindustrial levels. But to make this happen will require transformational changes to the way societies and economies work. Virtually every sector is currently dependent on fossil fuels in one way or another. Moreover, developed-market economies are commonly habituated to outsized levels of consumption relative to emerging markets, and so replacing fossil fuels with renewables to support today’s baseload energy requirements will be no small task.

To achieve their GHG reduction targets, countries are setting “net zero by 2050” goals and developing low-carbon policies and incentives to accelerate their progress. Companies’ products, services, and operations can be affected by these policies, and so companies, in turn, are setting their own net zero targets. By focusing on these company-level objectives, investors—and their plan sponsor partners—have the opportunity to assess how their portfolios can align capital with net zero targets.

Defining net zero

Put simply, the term “net zero” refers to negating the amount of GHG caused by human activity—first by reducing emissions, and then by focusing on strategies for absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The net result is a 0% increase in net emissions.

GHG emissions come from different places relative to a given company, some of which the company management can control and some of which it cannot—or can at best influence. These direct and indirect emissions are categorized into scope 1 (direct emissions), scope 2 (indirect), and scope 3 (indirect, up or downstream in the company’s value chain):

Scope 1 emissions are produced by the company directly—for example, for an automotive manufacturer, while running its machinery to build cars in its factories

Scope 2 emissions are generated by the company indirectly—for example, by purchasing electricity to power factories and heat or cool buildings

Scope 3 emissions are generated up and down the value chain of the company—for example, by customers who drive the automobiles produced by the company 

In order to set a net zero emissions target, companies must first measure their scope 1, scope 2, and scope 3 emissions and then identify how they can reduce emissions as a primary strategy and absorb any emissions that cannot be abated as a secondary strategy. Often, scope 1 and scope 2 emissions are simpler to measure and reduce by switching to renewable power or innovating industrial processes. Scope 3 emissions are typically larger than scope 1 and 2 put together for companies in a variety of industries. They’re also more complex to measure and reduce, and may require systemic changes, such as a wholesale shift from the production of combustion engines to electric vehicles powered by a clean energy grid.

Measuring the relative preparedness and resilience of different asset classes

Next, we take a look at how different asset classes are generally positioned relative to net zero by 2050 targets, as well as options for decarbonizing broader portfolios.

When investing through the lens of climate risk, the first step is to understand the impact that climate change has had or is likely to have on an asset or an issuer’s business, as well as the impact that the asset or issuer may have on the climate. Although this can be a complex assessment, two high-level metrics that are useful for measuring these dual impacts—and by extension the relative preparedness and resilience of different companies—are the presence of disclosures and targets: specifically, whether a company has:

  • Measured and reported on its scope 1, scope 2, and scope 3 emissions
  • Set a net zero by 2050 target

Using these data points as proxies for preparedness and resilience in the face of both climate change and the transition to a lower-carbon economy, we can assemble asset-class-based measures of the same using broader market indexes.

Prevalence of net zero targets among major asset classes

Asset class

Index proxy

Companies reporting GHG emissions (scope 1 and 2)

Companies with self-declared net zero targets

Global infrastructure

S&P Global Infrastructure Index



Global real estate investment trusts

MSCI World Real Estate Index



Global large-cap equity




Canadian all-cap equity

S&P/TSX Composite Index



Canadian core fixed income

FTSE Canada Universe Bond Index



Canadian long duration core fixed income

FTSE Long Term Canada Bond Index



Source: Manulife Investment Management, Bloomberg. Data is as of March 30, 2023. The S&P Global Infrastructure Index tracks the performance of companies from around the world that represent the listed infrastructure industry while maintaining liquidity and tradability. The MSCI World Real Estate Index tracks the performance of mortgage companies, property management companies, and real estate investment trusts. The MSCI All Country World Index (ACWI) tracks the performance of large- and mid-cap stocks of companies in developed and emerging markets. The S&P/TSX Composite Index is the benchmark Canadian index that tracks the performance of companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX). The FTSE Canada Universe Bond Index tracks the performance of marketable government and corporate bonds outstanding in the Canadian market. The FTSE Long Term Canada Bond Index tracks the performance of marketable long-term government and corporate bonds outstanding in the Canadian market. It is not possible to invest directly in an index.

On this view, real assets, such as global infrastructure—which includes utilities, transportation infrastructure, and energy infrastructure—and global real estate investment trusts, are ahead of other asset classes when it comes to measuring their scope 1 and scope 2 emissions, and infrastructure is leading the pack in terms of setting net zero targets. This reflects several factors, including real assets’ generally higher exposure to both physical climate risk and low-carbon transition risk (and therefore more proactive risk management and reporting), government regulation regarding emissions reporting, investor and client demand for climate risk information and action, and the growth of opportunities in these industries, such as green buildings and renewable energy. Both the global and Canadian equities asset classes follow closely behind. Large multinational companies are under scrutiny from customers, investors, and regulators on the climate front and are working to understand their climate risks and build the systems needed to manage these risks and report publicly on progress.

The high prevalence of sovereign issuers, subsovereign issuers, and other government-owned corporate issuers in Canadian fixed-income strategies may explain the lower rates of scope 1 and 2 reporting and net zero strategy setting. Although the Canadian government itself has a net zero strategy that outlines the activities it’s undertaking, the debt-issuing entities themselves don’t report on their climate risks and opportunities as commonly as public issuers do.

Aligning equities and fixed-income investments with climate-related goals

There are a number of ways equity and fixed-income investment managers can align with a net zero by 2050 target, or take advantage of risks and opportunities arising from the transition to a low-carbon economy. By extension, DB and DC plan administrators can assess different strategies’ alignment by considering whether they:

  1. Invest in climate leaders—Investors can focus on companies deemed to be leading the low-carbon transition whether in their products and services or in the way they operate. Opportunities are opening up as the cost of renewable energy declines, as advances in technology (including battery storage, electric vehicles) emerge, as regulations change, and as a result of shifting consumer expectations. Some companies are ramping up their cleantech revenue, while others are finding ways to shift off fossil fuels at scale and/or make a difference in their value chains.
  2. Invest in the low-carbon transition—Investors can seek out opportunities to help finance the low-carbon transition by finding higher emissions companies that have a credible low-carbon transition plan with short- and longer-term targets and that have made demonstrable progress. Industries that are contributing to the low-carbon transition include materials, electrification, transportation, renewable power generation, and technology.  
  3. Invest in the ESG-labeled bond market—Green, sustainable, and transition bonds make up a new and fast-growing market segment. The labeling of these bonds should correspond to international standards and/or be reviewed by a third party. Often, they’re linked to the issuer meeting environmental objectives through the use of proceeds (i.e., the issuer specifies that the funds will be used for decarbonization projects) or through terms and conditions (i.e., if prespecified sustainability targets such as emissions reductions aren’t met, the investor is compensated additional basis points).
  4. Engage with or avoid high emitters—Other options include engagement: working with high-emitting companies to help them set and begin acting on credible transition plans. When such plans are slow in coming, are insufficiently robust, or fail to materialize, a strategy of escalation may be appropriate. This can involve speaking directly to boards of directors, voting on or filing shareholder proposals related to climate risk, and, ultimately, reducing exposure to or avoiding high-emissions companies when management fails to reform its business practices.

There are several different reasons to align with a net zero by 2050 investment strategy, ranging from avoiding the risk of high carbon assets; aligning with, and accelerating, the low-carbon transition; and capitalizing on opportunities in companies that are positioning themselves to be more competitive in a low-carbon future.

Exploring capabilities in sustainably managed real assets

Investments in real assets are valued for providing diversification benefits, inflation protection, preservation of capital, and stable yield potential, but they also present asset owners with an opportunity to play a role in climate change mitigation and adaptation. Real assets such as agriculture, timberland, and real estate innately contribute to meeting basic human needs for food, materials, and shelter, while infrastructure contributes to essential water, energy, and transport services. When managed sustainably, we believe these asset classes can play a critical role in addressing climate change, nature loss, and rising inequality. 

Investment in sustainable timberland and agriculture can provide low-cost, natural climate solutions that may also act as a first line of defense for protecting and enhancing biodiversity. Moreover, natural capital, including woodland and farmland, represents 37% of the opportunity to deliver the emissions reductions needed to limit global warming to 2˚C or below. As carbon measurement practices continue to evolve and more investors and companies begin to assign explicit financial value to carbon sequestration and ecosystem services such as clean air and water, we believe that these attributes of natural capital will become more valuable.

Sustainably managed real assets can advance carbon-reduction goals. Real assets named in this graphic include timberland, agriculture, real estate, and infrastructure.

Source: Manulife Investment Management, 2023.

There’s a host of sustainable investing opportunities across the real assets spectrum. Renewable energy, a necessary component of the low-carbon transition, is central to sustainable opportunities within the infrastructure asset class. Technological advances, such as the tools and techniques of precision agriculture, are key to achieving greater efficiency in the use of scarce inputs, lowering emissions, minimizing waste, and reducing the farming sector’s carbon footprint. Meanwhile, real estate assets are vital to reducing the built environment’s carbon footprint, and we believe investors will increasingly demand building efficiency improvements, fuel switching, and renewable technology that support carbon reduction goals.

For landlords, the benefits of having so-called healthy buildings include attracting quality tenants. In addition, such properties can potentially attract tenants who are willing to pay higher rents for sustainable spaces; however, the largest driver that may attract tenants could be regulatory change. Some recently passed regulations in California and New York City are cases in point. The California code update is aimed at reducing embodied carbon emissions in the construction, renovation, or adaptive reuse of commercial buildings and schools, while New York City’s Local Law 97 will set a new, and progressively higher, bar for most buildings in the city to meet energy efficiency standards and GHG emissions limits. Both of these legislative changes are likely to gradually help set better conditions for tenants seeking to reduce their own emissions footprint by signing leases in more efficient, low-carbon properties.

Accelerating interest in sustainable real assets

Factors spurring interest in real assets include investor demand to meet net zero objectives, greater corporate transparency, and stakeholder accountability. Asset owners and managers now routinely account for the effects of climate change, biodiversity loss, and socioeconomic inequality as fundamental components of effective risk management. As regulators across the world enforce stricter sustainability directives, real asset investments have come to the fore as a viable route to a low-carbon, nature-positive, and more equitable society. Whether investing in healthy buildings, renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, or forests, these assets represent a critical route toward the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Private sector net zero commitments

The line chart shows the rise in private sector net zero commitments, ranging from 500 in 2019 to 1,541 in 2020 and 5,235 in 2021.

Source: Race To Zero campaign, UNFCCC, 2022; "Accelerating Net Zero: Exploring Cities, Regions, and Companies' Pledges to Decarbonise," New Climate Institute, July 2022;, 2022;, July 2022.

Institutional investors have long valued diversified real assets to help build portfolio resilience, and now ever-growing numbers view them as a way to aid their path to net zero, as well as to potentially benefit from putting their capital to work in a way that generates important contributions to society.

Retirement plan managers and stewardship

According to the Thinking Ahead Institute’s 2022 Global Pension Assets Study, the number one missed opportunity for pension funds over the last 20 years is stewardship. The Principles for Responsible Investment defines stewardship as “the use of influence by institutional investors to maximize overall long-term value including the value of common economic, social and environmental assets, on which returns and clients’ and beneficiaries’ interests depend.” For retirement plan administrators, this includes fundamental activities of plan and risk management, including controlling strategy selection and oversight and overall asset allocation. Understanding how sustainability issues can affect economic development and how that may translate into capital market outcomes is an essential part of this process.

As a multi-asset manager, we know that sustainability factors play a meaningful role in today’s macroeconomic conditions, including in how climate change affects growth forecasts, how central bankers seek to account for environmental and social issues when setting monetary policy, and what a low-carbon transition may mean for inflation trends. Moreover, we know that regular engagement with investment managers is central to the project of assessing the rigor of their approach to sustainability and a key step in determining how well individual investment strategies fit into a broader multi-asset strategy.

Retirement plan administrators have no small stake in understanding sustainability imperatives and related investment strategies. Without this capacity, we think asset owners and their beneficiaries could be subject to significant downside risks in their long-term portfolio outcomes. But with it, DB and DC plan sponsors are better prepared as stewards of capital. Developing a broad understanding of sustainability practices across a variety of asset classes is an important step in weighing all the relevant risks and opportunities confronting a retirement plan’s underlying investments—and, in our view, an indispensable part of investing for the long term.

Investing involves risks, including the potential loss of principal. Financial markets are volatile and can fluctuate significantly in response to company, industry, political, regulatory, market, or economic developments.  These risks are magnified for investments made in emerging markets. Currency risk is the risk that fluctuations in exchange rates may adversely affect the value of a portfolio’s investments.

Any ESG-related case studies shown here are for illustrative purposes only, do not represent all of the investments made, sold, or recommended for client accounts, and should not be considered an indication of the ESG integration, performance, or characteristics of any current or future Manulife Investment Management product or investment strategy.   

Manulife Investment Management conducts ESG engagements with issuers but does not engage on all issues, or with all issuers, in our portfolios. We also frequently conduct collaborative engagements in which we do not set the terms of engagement but lend our support in order to achieve a desired outcome. Where we own and operate physical assets, we seek to weave sustainability into our operational strategies and execution. The relevant case studies shown are illustrative of different types of engagements across our in-house investment teams, asset classes and geographies in which we operate. While we conduct outcome-based engagements to enhance long term-financial value for our clients, we recognize that our engagements may not necessarily result in outcomes which are significant or quantifiable.  In addition, we acknowledge that any observed outcomes may be attributable to factors and influences independent of our engagement activities.   

We consider that the integration of sustainability risks in the decision-making process is an important element in determining long-term performance outcomes and is an effective risk mitigation technique. Our approach to sustainability provides a flexible framework that supports implementation across different asset classes and investment teams. While we believe that sustainable investing will lead to better long-term investment outcomes, there is no guarantee that sustainable investing will ensure better returns in the longer term. In particular, by limiting the range of investable assets through the exclusionary framework, positive screening and thematic investment, we may forego the opportunity to invest in an investment which we otherwise believe likely to outperform over time. Please see our ESG policies for details.

The information provided does not take into account the suitability, investment objectives, financial situation, or particular needs of any specific person. You should consider the suitability of any type of investment for your circumstances and, if necessary, seek professional advice.

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Emilie Paquet, FSA

Emilie Paquet, FSA, 

Head of Strategic Initiatives and Innovation, Multi-Asset Solutions Team

Manulife Investment Management

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Vishal Mansukhani, CFA

Vishal Mansukhani, CFA, 

Global Multi-Asset Client Portfolio Manager, Multi-Asset Solutions Team

Manulife Investment Management

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