HSBC and other banks set climate goals on lending and investment

Global financial institutions move closer to reducing their contributions to greenhouse-gas emissions

A sign sits on the HSBC Holdings Plc headquarters office building in the Canary Wharf business, financial and shopping district of London, U.K., on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. After a pause during lockdown, lenders from Citigroup Inc. to HSBC Holdings Plc have restarted cuts, taking gross losses announced this year to a combined 63,785 jobs, according to a Bloomberg analysis of filings. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

HSBC, Societe Generale, BNP Paribas and other banks, insurance companies and financial firms around the world moved a step closer to reducing their contributions to greenhouse-gas emissions.

Fifty-five firms have committed to a framework released on Thursday for setting climate goals specific to mortgages, bonds and other asset classes in their portfolios, said the Science Based Targets initiative, a consortium that developed the framework.

The SBTi has been helping companies determine how they should change their operations, such as energy usage in factories and offices, to align with the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which asks countries to aim to limit Earth’s temperature increase to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). The consortium is now defining how financial firms should change their lending and investing activities.

Under the SBTi framework, firms would set goals such as adjusting their mortgage financing to reduce emissions per square meter or changing electricity-generation project financing to cut emissions per kilowatt-hour. Firms have two years once they commit to have their targets validated by SBTi, which would assess whether the targets are aligned with the Paris climate agreement.

“There are a number of high-level commitments out there that financial institutions are making,” said Cynthia Cummis, head of private-sector climate work at World Resources Institute, one of the research groups behind SBTi.

Morgan Stanley, for example, said last week it would eliminate the net carbon emissions generated by its financing activities by 2050.

Environmental non-governmental organisations see the “financial sector as a laggard on climate action, and would like them to be a lot more transparent on what their impact is on the climate,” Ms Cummis said in a phone interview. “We provide a structure or framework for financial institutions to show that they’re actually making progress against high-level commitments.”

Some environmental NGOs expressed disappointment that the framework recommends but doesn’t require that firms phase out financing of coal companies and doesn’t mandate that they stop backing fossil-fuel expansion projects.

The framework “is the result of much thoughtful work, but it has disappointingly failed to live up to its full potential to help de-carbonise finance at the rapid speed that science requires,” Patrick McCully, climate and energy director at the Rainforest Action Network, said in a statement.

The SBTi sees divestment as one of several options that firms can pursue to reduce the climate impact of their portfolios, said Nate Aden, a senior associate at World Resources Institute who led the framework’s development. The SBTi sought feedback from firms and developed the framework with the intention of balancing ambition with feasibility, he said.

Among the 55 firms that have signed on, 30 are European, including Standard Chartered, ING Groep and Credit Agricole. Only seven North American firms have committed, including Amalgamated Bank, Principal Financial Group, MetLife and Mexico’s Grupo Financiero Banorte.