Banks massively financing fossil fuels unclear about future of ... fossil fuels
Claire Hamlett, Climate campaigner email@example.com
Claire Hamlett, Climate campaigner firstname.lastname@example.org
Three months ago, as part of the the Fossil Banks, No Thanks! campaign, 120 civil society groups asked 38 private sector banks, all of whom are major fossil fuel financiers, a simple question: Can you publicly clarify how you see the relationship between climate change and the ongoing extraction and burning of fossil fuels?
We also told them we wanted to know before this month’s COP24 in Poland, where the world would be once again trying to hammer out a way forward on preventing climate breakdown.
We thought this a very legitimate question to ask banks which, between 2015 and 2017, collectively provided $US 345 billion to the fossil fuel industry, seemingly with little or no intention to stop doing so any time soon. Given that the rest of the world knows that the fossil fuel industry is the major cause of climate change, the very minimum which banks owe the public, whose money they use for their investments, is an explanation as to why they believe such persistently high levels of financing still make sense.
Such clarity on fossil fuels, both in terms of causing climate change and their future role as the world attempts to transition to a low-carbon economy, is necessary to understand bank intentions regarding fossil fuels for the coming decades. This lack of clarity allows banks to continue to do little – or nothing – about their support for fossil fuels, while telling the world that they are earnestly doing their bit to tackle climate change.
After repeatedly pressing the banks for responses to our simple question, and with COP24 now over, we are faced with a sobering picture.
The vast majority of the 38 ‘Fossil Banks’ appear content to maintain a veil of secrecy (or, at best, a veil of disappointing vagueness) on how they view the connection between the fossil fuel industry and climate change. Based on our trawl through their websites and fossil fuel-related policies, only eight out of 38 banks are sufficiently clear on their views, while 30 are too vague, avoid mentioning fossil fuels at all, or have no public statement relating to climate change.
These banks prefer to talk about ‘emissions reduction’, ‘decarbonisation’, ‘low-carbon transition’, or other topical yet still vague terms so as not to single out their plans on specific industry sectors, while at the same time drawing attention to their financing for renewable energy at every opportunity.
Therefore, we’re left with the alarming reality of so many banks refusing to even mention the main cause of climate change, let alone taking a public position on the future of this climate-wrecking industry, or saying anything about their own responsibility in financing it. Here, though, is what we have managed to unearth.
Fossil Banks’ statements on fossil fuels – an overview
The 38 banks we checked fall into one of three categories when it comes to the clarity of their statements on climate change and fossil fuels: they are either ‘clear enough’, ‘unclear’, or they have made no statement at all.
The statements that are ‘clear enough’ still fall short of being appropriate to the level of ambition we need to see from these banks. Indeed, not a single bank publicly recognises that fossil fuel use must end well within the next three decades if we are to bring emissions down to net zero by 2050, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has now confirmed we must do.
Clear (enough) statements
Only eight banks have what we would consider to be clear enough statements available somewhere on their websites. These banks – HSBC, Crédit Agricole, ING, Société Générale, Standard Chartered, Natixis, Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and BNP Paribas – acknowledge that burning fossil fuels causes climate change and provide views on the future role of fossil fuels as a whole. Together these same banks poured US$42 billion of financing into the dirtiest fossil fuels between 2015 and 2017.
Why do we describe these statements as clear enough? Well, with the exception of ING’s coal phase-out policy, none of them provide timeframes regarding the future of fossil fuels.
HSBC, BNP Paribas and Standard Chartered all single out the burning of coal as needing to be swiftly reduced, but do not say by when. Similarly, HSBC, RBS, Crédit Agricole, Standard Chartered and Natixis all assert that oil and gas will be around for some time to come in order, they reckon, to help with the low-carbon energy transition, but again they are shy about giving timeframes. In addition, in most cases we were required to dig through heaps of official climate change statements and a variety of policy documents to ascertain the positions of these banks.
Let’s look more closely at some of these statements.
HSBC for one, in its Climate Change Statement, acknowledges that the burning of fossil fuels causes global warming, but its view on the future of fossil fuels is to be found in its Energy Policy, where we learn:
“The transition to a low-carbon economy is a multi-year transition. It is generally acknowledged that there has to be a significant and immediate reduction in the use of coal to generate electricity. Oil and gas have a longer-term role to play in the transition...”.
If HSBC is at least being straight about its ongoing support for oil and gas, which is far from comforting, these sentiments on coal are rather blown apart by its actual coal financing activities. Earlier this month, new research by BankTrack, urgewald and partners revealed HSBC to be the number one European bank financier of companies which are still intent on developing new coal plants around the world – the bank has pumped US$7.4 billion in loans and underwriting into these companies since the Paris Agreement was signed.
This level of finance is completely out of whack with the need to significantly and immediately reduce the burning of coal for electricity. Yes, there is general acknowledgement, as HSBC states, that we need to get off coal quickly, yet the bank seems generally very prepared to keep on financing the industry, as has been scandalously borne out by its decision this year to keep the door open to directly funding new coal plants in Bangladesh, Indonesia and Vietnam up to 2023.
French bank BNP Paribas, meanwhile, has been going further than other Fossil Banks in excluding finance for fossil fuels, and appears particularly keen on communicating publicly about its approach to climate change – climate commitments are given top billing on the bank’s website. However, as with HSBC, BNP Paribas is still managing to funnel an awful lot of money to companies developing new coal plants (over US$ 4.5 billion since the Paris Agreement was signed).
While France’s biggest bank gives one of the clearer statements on climate change and fossil fuels, its coal-friendly finance shows why more clarity – backed by more ambitious policy commitments – is needed. BNP Paribas says that “fossil fuel consumption must be significantly reduced” yet fails to provide a timeframe or percentage for this reduction. It’s no wonder that its doors remain very much open for continuing fossil fuel finance.
Two other banks – KBC and BBVA – nearly made it into the ‘clear enough’ category, as they both exclude providing finance to specific parts of all three sectors (coal, oil and gas) of the fossil fuel industry on climate grounds and give some indication of their future involvement in parts of the industry. But their statements and investment policies don’t manage to clearly convey where they stand on the future of fossil fuels overall or whether they will continue to scale back their fossil fuel finance.
While eight banks are at least ‘clear enough’ on how they see the role and future of fossil fuels, the positions of no less than 26 of our 38 banks remain unclear. This means that they remain unclear both on the relation between fossil fuels and climate change and on their view on the future of fossil fuels. Several of these banks also fail to give clarity on their view of the fossil fuel industry as a whole, for example when they only mention coal in the context of climate change but not touch on the role of oil and gas.
Given the amount of information available on the emissions intensity of oil and gas, we find it alarming – if not ridiculous – for banks to treat them as though they are not also a threat to the climate. Some banks also have absurdly out-of-date statements, such as JPMorgan Chase and Credit Suisse with statements that pre-date the Paris Agreement.
Staggeringly, Bank of America and UBS both give a rosy view about the future of fossil fuels, but fail to acknowledge that burning them causes climate change. JPMorgan Chase, BBVA, and RBC, meanwhile, are clear on this link to varying degrees, but not particularly clear on the future of fossil fuels.
Spanish bank BBVA reckons it’s a good look to be wanting to “strike a balance between sustainable energy and fossil fuel investment”, while JPMorgan Chase is waiting for “sensible policies” from governments to guide its response to climate change. With this regrettable passing of the buck, the bank may be waiting for quite a while, allowing it to carry on occupying its position as one of the world’s biggest fossil fuel financiers.
Some banks, including Santander, Barclays and Westpac, acknowledge or imply a relation between climate change and the burning of coal, and some also give a view on coal’s future, but are vague or silent on oil and gas. As the only bank among these to recognise that emissions must reach net zero, Westpac is oddly vague on the future of coal, saying only that thermal coal will “decrease” as part of the energy mix. Nonetheless, the bank seems hopeful that this will suffice to bring the emissions of Australia – a country notorious for its promotion of coal – down to zero by 2050.
That leaves 9 banks which do have public statements on climate change and/or environmental or energy policies of some kind but, despite providing a combined total of US$76 billion in finance for the dirtiest fuels from 2015 to 2017, make no mention of any fossil fuels whatsoever.
Yet, many of these banks think they are doing their bit for the climate. Wells Fargo insists that it is “a leader in financing environmentally beneficial opportunities” while it remains open to financing everything from coal mines and Arctic oil to the company behind the deeply controversial Keystone XL pipeline in the US. Bank of Montreal pipes up that it “actively seek out and support clients who will have a direct impact on our future – for example, those that develop renewable energy projects such as wind, hydro-electric and biomass”, but somehow manages to omit from this list its fossil fuel clients, who benefitted from more than US$8 billion in financing from the bank between 2015 and 2017.
Finally there are the the four Chinese banks in our target list (ICBC, Bank of China, Agricultural Bank of China and China Construction Bank) that at least on their English language webpages, give no indication whatsoever as to their perspective on climate change, let alone on how it relates to the fossil fuel industry. It is not surprising to find these banks silent on this issue, as they generally do not publicly communicate about their policies and positions, nor engage directly with NGOs.
A sobering outcome indeed. If most of the world’s biggest banks can’t even state clearly how they see the future of the fossil fuel industry, given the climate emergency that’s upon us, how can we expect them to do what is truly necessary to prevent climate breakdown and sever ties with this industry?
Banks need to bring some vital clarity and reality to their businesses, if we’re to see them delivering on the two other demands of the Fossil Banks, No Thanks! campaign by the 25th UN Climate Summit (COP25) in 2019. Namely, to:
publicly commit to immediately end support for all new fossil fuel projects, including exploration, extraction, transportation and power
publish a robust plan for phasing out support for all existing fossil fuel projects and companies on a timetable consistent with what is necessary to meet the Paris targets.
That’s why, between now and COP25, Fossil Banks, No Thanks! will continue to pile the pressure on banks to change their ways.
Assessment per bank
BNP Paribas recognises that fossil fuels cause climate change, and states that fossil fuel consumption must be significantly reduced, “starting with energies with the most negative environmental impact and highest greenhouse gas emissions.” These include coal, shale oil and gas, Arctic oil and gas, and oil from tar sands, for which the bank has excluded some financing over the last few years. In its ‘unconventional’ oil and gas policy, BNP Paribas also states that “Fossil fuels, especially natural gas, could play an important part in the global energy transition”, while in its coal policy it acknowledges that “coal-fired power generation is a large emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2) and a key contributor to climate change.”
On its page on Climate Finance, Crédit Agricole acknowledges the relationship between climate change and “the least efficient hydrocarbons”, noting that these are “incompatible with the goal of combating climate change and they represent an economic risk for investors.” The “least efficient hydrocarbons” covers tar sands oil, Arctic oil, shale oil and gas, and presumably coal, for which Crédit Agricole already excludes some finance. In its oil and gas policy, the bank notes that oil will continue to be a big part of the energy mix, while the share of gas will grow. Its coal policy states that new coal power must be reduced as much as possible and existing coal plants must become as efficient as possible.
HSBC’s Climate Change Statement acknowledges that burning fossil fuels causes climate change, while its Energy Policy gives its view of the future of fossil fuels: the use of coal for energy must be immediately and significantly reduced, but oil and gas “have a longer-term role to play in the transition and represent an important part in the energy mix of many markets.”
Source: Climate stance (webpage)
ING states on its Climate stance page that “climate change is largely human induced, primarily by burning fossil fuels emitting carbon dioxide. Still, the fact is that the economy (and a number of countries in particular) can’t yet do without fossil fuels. There is still too little renewable energy and experts haven’t yet been able to develop an efficient and affordable means of storing sustainable energy.” This is rather vague and, given the rapid developments in renewable energy storage capabilities, is in danger of becoming out of date very soon. But it does indicate that the bank sees an ongoing role for fossil fuels in supplying energy. ING is more concrete on coal, stating that it has “decided to accelerate the reduction of our financing to coal power generation, reducing our exposure to close to zero by 2025.”
Source: Environmental and Social Risk Policy - Oil and Gas (2018); Coal Policy (2016)
Natixis acknowledges the major contribution of fossil fuels to climate change in its coal policy and notes that a “gradual shift” away from them will be necessary. In its oil and gas policy, it states that these fuels will continue to have a role to play during the energy transition, and that Natixis will support oil and gas clients in this regard.
Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS)
In its Approach to Climate Change, RBS acknowledges the carbon intensity of coal, oil and gas. It does not state its view on the future of coal, though it does note the reductions in its own financing in this sector. In its oil and gas policy, the bank states that “Oil & Gas will continue to play an important role in the overall global energy mix”.
Société Générale states that it will gradually reduce its financing of “carbon energies activities” and that it has a commitment to reduce activities involving fossil fuels. It also makes clear that it sees gas as “an energy compatible with the world energy transition”.
In its oil and gas policy it also notes that “Fossil fuels are still playing a key role in the world economy and will continue to be part of the energy mix in the foreseeable future” and says the same about coal in its coal policy.
Standard Chartered acknowledges the contribution of fossil fuels to climate change.
In a letter Standard Chartered sent to us in response to the letter we sent them as part of the Fossil Banks, No Thanks! campaign launch and which the banks published on its website, it states that while there is “need for additional energy to support economic growth and well-being across our markets … an undeniable shift is needed in how this energy needs to be produced in order to achieve the Paris Agreement.” It states there are substitutes in the coal sector but that “There is yet to be a similar emergence of substitutes for the oil and gas sector, including the associated petrochemicals sector. We note the sector is investing heavily to address this – and want to play the most meaningful role we can in supporting this, as a commercial lender.”
Source: Climate Change Statement (2015)
ANZ has a particularly odd climate change statement. The document has a section on ‘Financing Fossil Fuel Industries’ in which the bank notes that stakeholders might find that its fossil fuel finance conflicts with its stated position on the need to reduce emissions, but then only partially and vaguely addresses this concern by pointing out coal’s current prevalence and cheapness as an energy source. The bank concludes with something of a non-sequitur: “We therefore consider that decarbonisation of the economy must be managed responsibly and over time.”
Bank of America
Bank of America’s ESR Policy has a section on its climate change position which does not mention fossil fuels. In its coal policy it mentions climate change in its preamble. The policy gives the bank’s approach to its fossil fuel finance, saying that the policy “will ensure that Bank of America plays a continued role in promoting the responsible use of coal and other energy sources”. It also sort of gives its view on the future of fossil fuels, stating that “at the present time, fossil fuels – including coal – will continue to supply a significant amount of the energy needed to power our society.” Yet this is a hopelessly out of touch sentiment, in dire need of a rethink and an overhaul at Bank of America.
Bank of Montreal
Source: Climate Change Statement (2016)
BMO’s climate change statement does not mention fossil fuels.
Source: Coal Policy (2018)
The only fossil fuel Barclays mentions in relation to climate change is coal. It indicates its view on coal’s future, stating that global coal demand will continue to decline over the next several decades, but that in its view “thermal coal will represent a component of the overall power generation mix for the foreseeable future.” It is far behind its UK peers in this insufficient position on climate change and fossil fuels.
BBVA’s ‘Pledge 2025’ webpage aims to communicate the bank’s climate commitments. While it does indicate that the bank sees fossil fuels as a cause of climate change, in stating that Pledge 2025 will help it “strike a balance between sustainable energy and fossil fuel investments”, the bank is extremely vague in its position on the future of the industry. In the energy section of its Sector Norms, BBVA states it is “committed to supporting power utilities in their transition towards more sustainable energy sources and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Clients must have set out an energy transition strategy defining Greenhouse Gas Emissions goals … and a commitment to refrain from increasing coal generating capacity.” While it is good to see BBVA making such requirements of its energy clients, this statement falls short of giving the bank’s view of the future of fossil fuels overall.
Source: Environmental Performance (2017)
CIBC has a page on its website that outlines the bank’s reporting on its environmental performance and has a short section on climate change, which makes no mention of fossil fuels.
Source: Environmental and Social Policy Framework (2018)
Citi mentions that it is committed to an ongoing reduction of exposure to coal mining on climate grounds in its difficult-to-find ESR policy.
Source: Climate Change Policy Position Statement (2017)
Commonwealth Bank is one of the few banks to have committed to make its “lending policies support a responsible transition to a net zero emissions economy by 2050” Yet it doesn’t indicate what this means for its future lending to the fossil fuel industry. It doesn’t even give a general statement on fossil fuels, and only mentions the “downward trend” in its “exposure to the coal sector” and that it sees gas as a “transition fuel” under the climate section deep in its 2018 Annual Report. This isn’t accessible enough to count as a public statement.
Credit Suisse’s climate change statement does not mention fossil fuels. In its summary of its policies and guidelines, it states that “Coal-fired power will be in use for the foreseeable future despite the fact that coal is widely seen as having the greatest environmental impacts across its value chain as compared to other energy choices.”
Source: Environmental and Social Policy Framework (2018)
In its ESR Policy, Deutsche Bank mentions climate change and notes the carbon intensity of coal only. It does not give the bank’s view of the future of coal or other fossil fuels.
Source: Environmental Policy Framework (2015)
In its environmental policy, Goldman Sachs has a section on climate change that does not mention fossil fuels. Elsewhere in the policy it notes that coal-fired power generation is a large source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Source: Environmental and Social Risk Policy Framework (2017)
JPMorgan Chase notes that, according to the IPCC, burning fossil fuels is a major contributor to climate change, and that according to the International Energy Agency (IEA) :the world will need to reduce its reliance on the most carbon-intensive fossil fuels”. However, JPMorgan Chase does not make clear that it agrees with the IEA’s assessment, and in the next section entitled ‘Perspective on Climate Policy’ states that “JPMorgan Chase recognizes that climate change poses global challenges and risks. An effective approach to climate change requires broad leadership and cooperation from governments to implement sensible policies that balance the need to reduce GHG emissions with the importance of promoting economic growth and social development.”
Considered in light of the fact that JPMorgan Chase was the third biggest bank financier of the dirtiest fossil fuels in the 2015-2017 period, this suggests it acknowledges the IEA’s statement but will wait and see what governments do about it before committing itself to a particular view on the future of fossil fuels.
KBC’s Sustainability Policy mentions climate change but not fossil fuels. Its energy policy outlines exclusions for financing in coal, oil, and gas sectors on climate grounds, and states it will continue financing some oil and gas activities, and some coal. It provides deadlines for its exit from coal finance in the Czech Republic.
Source: Addressing climate change (webpage)
Mizuho’s statement does not mention fossil fuels.
Morgan Stanley has some pages on its website dedicated to climate change, but these are home to news and blogs rather than a statement of the bank’s position, and at any rate do not appear to mention fossil fuels. Climate change is mentioned only generally in the coal section of its Coal and Oil & Gas Policy.
Source: Environmental Policy Statement (2018)
The section on climate change in MUFG’s policy does not mention fossil fuels.
NAB’s climate change statement only has one mention of fossil fuels in the quite specific context of “purchased offsets” in four countries. In its update on its coal finance, the bank gives its position of its own relation to the coal industry in light of its carbon intensity: “While we will continue to support our existing customers across the mining and energy sectors, including those with existing coal assets, NAB will no longer finance new thermal coal mining projects.”
In its 2017 Sustainability Report it is stated that the banks anticipates “fossil fuel-based energy use materially declining over time”. We do not see this as a clear public statement since a past Sustainability Report is not an intuitive source of information on the bank’s position and is buried deep in the report.
RBC’s Climate change statement notes the relation burning fossil fuels as a major cause of climate change, but does not state the bank’s view of the future of fossil fuels. In correspondence with BankTrack, RBC referred to a speech its CEO David McKay gave to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce in October 2018, in which he states the bank’s position on the future of fossil fuels (it is alarming). But a speech like this doesn’t count as a clear public statement, given that it was only delivered to a very limited audience, and the transcript is stored in a separate place on RBC’s website from its written climate statement.
Source: Climate Change and Environmental Management Policy (2018); Energy Sector Policy (2018)
Santander’s climate change policy does not mention fossil fuels. Its recently revised energy policy does, but only explicitly links coal to climate change by saying the bank is helping clients to reduce their coal dependency as part of the low-carbon transition.
Source: Climate Change statement (webpage)
Scotiabank’s climate change statement does not mention fossil fuels.
Source: Response to climate change (webpage)
SMFG’s climate change statement does not mention fossil fuels.
TD Bank’s statement on its sustainable finance commitments does not mention fossil fuels. Its Energy and Environment Position does give its view on the future of oil and gas in the context of climate change, stating that "Independent analyses show that traditional energy sources will continue to be an important component of domestic and global energy demand for two to three decades" and that the bank believes "that it is important to balance these economic realities with the need to build a lower carbon economy..." Though TD Bank does finance the coal sector, this statement makes no mention of coal, and is very difficult to find on the bank's website.
UBS’s Climate Change Strategy does not refer to fossil fuels. Its ESR Policy mentions fossil fuels in the context of climate change, stating that they “will be the dominant energy source for some time to come.” This gives a vague idea of the bank’s view of the future of the industry, but it is not explicit about what UBS sees as the relationship between climate change and fossil fuels.
Source: Commitment to Climate Change (2018)
UniCredit’s statement on its climate commitments does not mention fossil fuels.
Source: Climate Change Statement (2015)
Wells Fargo’s climate change statement does not mention fossil fuels.
Source: Climate Change Position Statement and 2020 Action Plan (2017)
Westpac acknowledges that emissions need to reach net zero as soon as possible – by 2050 for the Australian economy. However, it only mentions coal in relation to climate change, noting the “significant contribution to emissions” of coal power and coal mining. The bank gives its view of the future of coal, anticipating that “the share of thermal coal in the energy mix will decrease and power generation technology will continue to advance and improve.”
Bank of China
Agricultural Bank of China
China Construction Bank
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