The Early Adopters

It has taken 12 turbulent years of uncertainty in the financial industry to get the sell-side to align with the buy-side which has embraced the UN PRIs. It now appears the balance could indeed shift IF the UN PRBs actually work, given their alignment with the SDGs and the Paris Agreement unlike the former which takes a softer dated ESG position. A strong signal will be if we have a few champion banks announce bold targets at the formal launch of the UN PRBs in May 2019. This is very likely given that many banks involved in the drafting of the UN PRBs have been actively implementing new standards of practice that align with the principles already.

Take SocGen for instance. Just four years ago (2015) SocGen was actively increasing its exposure to coal-based projects e.g. 770 MW coal fired power station project that would increase capacity by 80,000 tonnes in the Dominican Republic. Only a year later it announced that it would phase out its outstanding loans to the coal industry to less than 20% of its power production portfolio by 2020. BNP Paribas has taken similar measures and stepped it up with restrictions on some parts of O&G financing in addition to coal.

There are a myriad of banks in the founding group that are at very different points of their sustainability journey. This is very promising to see, as it reflects some level of initiative not seen before by an industry that has an inertia to positive change until regulation dictates otherwise. Take the case of Barclays, which continues to witness great friction with stakeholders. From activist investors (Ed Bramson’s Sherborne) and a CEO fined by the FCA for lack of diligence to protests by People&Planet at its AGM against the financing of the Kinder Morgan Pipeline in Canada. All of this happened last year. As a founding member of the UN PRBs, what can we expect from Barclays this year?

We could go through the list with a fine-tooth comb, but the point here is not to shine a torch on negative impact but to highlight a joint initiative that could lead to a lot more positive impact from an industry that continues to struggle with its past. The UN PRBs could catalyze systemic change that is long overdue. It is the first set of principles launched that takes a deep and holistic approach to sustainability integration into a major industry that has impact on all the rest of them. This could have a positive ripple effect on the entire economy, especially if the majority of global banks that continue to finance projects in laggard sectors that drag their heals towards sustainable practices sign up and deliver.

One such mass are the North American banks. Neither a Canadian nor a US Bank has participated in developing the UN PRBs. Just look into one arena as a litmus test: the financing of extreme fossil fuel power at “top companies” by banks over the three years from 2015 to 2017. The top 10 that made the league table (Banking on Climate Change 2018) are primarily Chinese and North American institutions: CCB, RBC, JPMChase, ICBC, Bank of China, TD, HSBC, ABC, Citigroup, and BoA. It is hopeful on the other hand to see a Chinese bank, namely ICBC that ranks forth on the league table, participate in the UN PRB initiative.

The UN PRBs not only link deliverables to the global goals but also to “other relevant national, regional or international frameworks”. Without a relevant national framework in every country around the world, the scope is limited. Brazil, for example, champions this notion. In 2014, the Central Bank of Brazil (BCB) published a mandatory Resolution 4,327 for financial institutions to have social and environmental responsibility policies. Lobbying with local governments and policymakers around the world will be essential to see more countries do the same. Rabobank is another strong role model, actively voicing its views of the role of government in sustainable finance. In its June 2018 position paper, for example, it talks about coordinating policies at the EU level and suggests “targeted – and temporary/ evolving – subsidies, such as for green loans, for green deposits”. Financial incentives will most certainly help Banks generate more positive impact.

Therefore to maximise the impact of the UN PRBs, the world will need a lot more than 28 signatures. It will need dedication, courage, and resources from all early adopters, crafters, and endorsers to summon the masses into the UN PRBs and pressure national and local government bodies to issue and revise policies, incentives and legislations to augment it.