America’s most powerful bankers don’t want to lead the way in tackling the climate crisis.
While professing deep concern about global warming, top executives at the World Economic Forum this week expressed reluctance to act as referees in financial markets to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases.
That, they said, is not their role, despite calls from activists to stop funding carbon-intensive industries.
“What I say to our clients is: I don’t want to be the sharp end of the spear, meaning I don’t want to have to be the [one] telling you, or enforcing standards in your industry or in your business,” Citigroup (C) CEO Michael Corbat told a panel at WEF’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. “You should set those.”
Corbat said companies and governments were “on a journey” towards greater sustainability that the banking system should help facilitate. But he emphasized that Citi should not be the one picking “winners and losers.”
“A bank’s job is to support the communities in which it operates,” he said. “It’s not to dictate outcomes.”
Goldman Sachs (GS) CEO David Solomon, speaking on a separate panel, also pushed back on the idea that the investment bank should decline to work on deals with certain companies because of their lack of green credentials.
“Should we draw a line and say we will not raise money for a company that is a carbon company, a fossil fuel company? And the answer to that is, we’re not going to do that, we’re not going to draw a line,” he said. “However, we are trying to allocate capital to businesses that help the transition to a more carbon-neutral world.”
Wall Street is coming around to the idea that the climate crisis is not just a moral concern but also a huge financial risk. But there’s still dissent over when that risk will materialize, and how far financial institutions should go in the meantime.
BlackRock (BLK), after facing considerable pressure over its position on climate, last week tried to get in front of the issue. In a letter to other chief executives, CEO Larry Fink said the massive firm will ditch investments that it considers a risk to sustainability, including thermal coal producers.
It’s part of an effort to put sustainability at the center of its approach to managing the $7 trillion in assets it oversees.
“Awareness is rapidly changing, and I believe we are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance,” Fink said.
Fink predicted that significant changes to how capital is allocated globally are coming, and “sooner than most anticipate.”
Wall Street leaders in Davos voiced support for Fink, but didn’t speak with the same urgency. “My view is, this is going to be a multi-decade transition,” Solomon said.
Ceres, a nonprofit that lobbies for companies to take action on climate change, applauded BlackRock’s decision, particularly its intention to direct clients towards sustainable investment funds by default.
CEO Mindy Lubber told CNN Business that BlackRock’s announcement should encourage others on Wall Street to make bigger commitments. “The bottom line is small actions don’t matter anymore,” she said.
Banks have said they’ll put hundreds of billions of dollars toward addressing the issue — promising to fund positive action, even if they’re hesitant to withhold services from polluters.
Citi has committed $100 billion in financing for environmental projects by 2023, and issued the bank’s first green bond one year ago. Bank of America (BAC) said last year it will provide $300 billion in finance for low-carbon business activities by 2030, adding to a previous $145 billion commitment. It says it has reduced its exposure to coal mining companies since 2011.
In December, Goldman Sachs followed with a pledge to invest $750 billion in projects that focus on the climate transition over the next decade. The firm also became the first US bank to say it won’t finance new oil projects in the Arctic. JPMorgan Chase (JPM), which Greenpeace labeled this week as the “world’s worst funder of fossil fuels and fossil fuel expansion,” has previously said it will commit $200 billion in clean financing through 2025.
These are “substantial commitments” and a sign that banks are moving in the right direction, according to Lubber.
But at Davos, Wall Street indicated an unwillingness to spearhead the transition they acknowledged is coming.
“One place that each of these banks [has] not moved to … is to not finance high fossil fuel or high carbon projects or firms,” Lubber said.