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Why financial institutions are banking on sustainability

INGO-GECPO | 기사입력 2021/11/25 [16:20]

Why financial institutions are banking on sustainability

INGO-GECPO | 입력 : 2021/11/25 [16:20]

                             Photo by Shutterstock/ ESB Professional / 24 Nov 2021

 

Eric Usher’s day planner is filled with meetings with the heads of some of the world’s biggest banks. And while he has years of experience working with the financial industry, his mission isn’t profit. It is to support and challenge banks and other financial institutions to lay the foundation for a more sustainable future.

 

Usher is the head of the United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative (UNEP FI), a partnership between UNEP, banks, insurers and investment companies that has established among the most important sustainability frameworks for the sector. Its aim is to align private money with the UN Sustainable Development Goals that aim to shift our economy to clean energy, eliminate hunger, foster gender equality and achieve more than a dozen other social and environmental targets.

 

In his role, Usher has worked with financial institutions to put sustainability at the heart of their business strategy.

 

“If we want to meet global sustainability challenges, we absolutely need the support of the private sector,” said Usher recently. “There just isn’t enough public money out there, especially in the wake of COVID-19, to finance the massive structural changes our societies desperately need.”

 

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates it will cost $6.9 trillion annually through 2030 to finance the sustainable development goals.

 

Usher’s comments came just ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference of Parties, known as COP26. The gathering came with the planet slipping dangerously behind the goals of 2015’s landmark Paris Agreement and already experiencing the effects of a changing climate. Progress towards the other Sustainable Development Goals has also been uneven.

 

Origins of a movement

UNEP FI was born out of a group of six banks that met on the sidelines of 1992’s Rio Earth Summit, considered by many as one of the most important environmental gatherings of the last three decades.

Nearly 30 years later, more than 450 financial institutions are members of what is the UN’s largest partnership with the finance industry.

 

In the past year alone, member banks have given 113 million vulnerable customers access to financial services and advised over 15,000 companies on their climate strategies.

 

Not only is that work helping people and the planet, it’s also securing the future of financial stability. The burgeoning green economy is creating a host of new investment and lending opportunities. Institutional investors and retail banking customers are increasingly demanding that financial institutions uphold environmental standards. And, perhaps most importantly, a growing number of financial institutions have realized that financing fossil fuels, and other projects that harm the environment, is bad for their long-term future.

 

“I truly believe that the next 30 years of our economy and our society, can’t be like the last 30 years,” said Guy Cormier, CEO of Desjardins Group, one of Canada’s largest financial services companies. “The activities of a financial institution can make a real difference in the lives of the people and also in the environment.”

 

Windmills at sunset.In the past year, UNEP-FI member banks have given 113 million vulnerable customers access to financial services and advised over 15,000 companies on their climate strategies. Unsplash/RawFilm

 

Becoming more environmentally sustainable requires banks, insurers and investors to redesign their business models, says Usher.

 

“Traditional risk (in the financial sector) looks at what failed in the past,” said Usher, “With climate change that doesn’t work. Now it’s about forecasting the future, which isn’t easy and therefore is an area that we work with our members to develop the norms and standards needed to respond.” 

 

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, released in September, finds that nearly every corner of the world has been touched by climate change. UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report 2021 found that, even with new national climate pledges and mitigation measures, the world is still on track for a global temperature rise of 2.7°C by the end of the century, which could lead to catastrophic climate impacts. To keep global warming below 1.5°C this century, the aspirational goal of the Paris Agreement, countries would need to halve annual greenhouse gas emissions in the next eight years.

 

With this as a backdrop, Usher says the work of the UNEP FI has never been so important.

 

“There really is no time to waste,” said Usher. “The current decade is critical to determining the future of our species and our planet.”

 

Guiding principles

To shepherd the financial industry towards sustainability, UNEP FI has unveiled a series of guiding frameworks including:

These industry frameworks have attracted widespread support among financial institutions. Some 80 per cent of the investment industry has committed to the Principles for Responsible Investment while 260 banks, representing $70 trillion in assets, have signed onto the Principles for Responsible Banking.

 

The Principles [for Responsible Banking] are very much hinged on the Paris Agreement as well as the Sustainable Development Goals,” said Siobhan Toohill, Group Head of Sustainability, Westpac. “It’s clear that climate change is a really significant factor that banks need to address… and there are areas of impacts that we need to give closer attention to, such as biodiversity.”

 

A group of zebras standing around.Along with climate change, financial institutions are exploring ways to address a looming biodiversity crisis. Matthew Bradford/ Unsplash

 

A progress report, released in October, highlights the accomplishments of the responsible banking principles initiative. Among other things, it found that signatories have mobilized at least $2.3 trillion in sustainable financing. What’s more, 94 per cent of banks identify sustainability as a strategic priority.

 

The industry frameworks developed by UNEP FI help financial institutions embed sustainability into all aspects of their business. But with more than US$100 trillion required to transition the global economy to net-zero emissions by 2050 – and US$32 trillion of that over the next decade – there is an urgent need to focus financing on helping to achieve that goal.

 

Three UNEP FI-convened groups are working with more than 170 investors, banks and insurers to develop the tools and science-based guidance to use with their customers and the companies they invest in to decarbonize their businesses. The financial institutions are setting targets every few years and making their progress public via annual reporting to ensure that their work can be measured and scrutinized, and that they keep their commitments on track.

 

The large number of financial institutions involved and the near-term action that has been committed to, have left Usher optimistic about the future.

 

“There’s no question we have a lot of work to do to make our societies more sustainable,” he said. “But in the private sector, the desire for real change is growing and that makes me hopeful.”

 

This story is part of a series related to UNEP’s 50th anniversary. See also: related articles and a timeline of environmental milestones during the past half century.

 
24 Nov 2021 Story Green economy
Source: UN Environment Programme (UNEP)
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