Swiss bankers told wealth at nature's expense is a Ponzi scheme

Private sector urged to back environmental action by former aide to Britain's King Charles III

Swiss banks are among those being urged to put their financial firepower behind protecting nature and the climate. EPA
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With trillions of dollars needed to save the planet, a Swiss bank adviser is making the case to deep-pocketed financiers that acting to save nature is in their interests.

Tony Juniper, a former conservation aide to Britain’s King Charles III, chairs a biodiversity committee for Swiss wealth manager UBP which touts itself as green-minded.

Speaking investors’ language at a UBP event in London on Wednesday, a week before Cop28 in Dubai, Mr Juniper described the economy as a “wholly owned subsidiary of nature” as he called for joined-up business and nature goals rather than choosing “one or the other”.

“We are working in an economic system which sees the degradation of nature as rational and we're counting it as growth,” he said. “But, in fact, what we're doing is blowing the capital assets.

“I'm no finance expert, but isn't that a Ponzi scheme, when you liquidate your capital assets and count it as growth?”

The UAE has promised to put damage to nature, such as biodiversity and habitat loss and the degradation of farmland and rivers, at the heart of the Cop28 talks opening at Dubai’s Expo City next week. One day of talks is dedicated to nature, land use and oceans.

A UN report prepared for Cop28 says it is “essential to unlock and redeploy trillions of dollars” to invest in green action, including “shifting finance flows globally” towards more sustainable activities.

It says private finance on capital markets is “likely to be the primary source” for investing in emissions cuts and adaptation to warmer weather, with government spending alone described as “not sufficient”.

Mr Juniper, the chairman of Natural England, the co-author of a 2010 book with Prince Charles – as he was at the time – on the natural world, sounded the alarm over a failure to meet any of 20 separate biodiversity targets that the world agreed on that year.

He said some boardrooms, finance ministries and consumers took the view that the destruction of nature was “regrettable, but inevitable” for the sake of economic growth, which he called a “completely false reading of the information”.

“The more we degrade the natural system, the more in the end, we will degrade the human economic system,” he said.

“Our entire food system is dependent upon healthy nature, healthy soils, pollinating insects, recycling of nutrients, availability of fresh water, stable climate. All of those things depend on ecosystems and yet we're degrading them in ways which is already impacting on the food system.

“Our water supply, it comes these days out of taps and bottles, doesn't it? But actually no, it doesn't. It first of all comes out of clouds and clouds are formed over the ocean, in part with cloud seeding materials coming from vast trillions of plankton drifting on the surface of the ocean. The clouds are a manifestation of life and that's how our water gets recycled.”

Some companies have protested that interest from customers in sustainability is limited and there is little they can do if that is the case, said Victoria Leggett, the Swiss bank’s head of impact investing.

Swiss banks are under pressure over alleged greenwashing, or misleading the public with bogus green credentials, prompting the government last month to announce that reporting rules in Switzerland would be tightened.

Politicians in Europe have sought to keep investors honest by drawing up lists of what counts as sustainable, rather than letting companies be the judge. However, the EU’s classification has been overshadowed by a row over the inclusion of nuclear power.

Updated: November 24, 2023, 2:23 PM