Very little time is left to limit global warming to a 1.5°C target. In a context of climate emergency, what the finance industry will decide on the road to the COP26 at Glasgow will shape our joint future. One thing is clear: financial institutions’ net-zero commitments aren’t worth the paper they’re written on, if they’re not accompanied by comprehensive, immediate coal exit policies.
As there will be no transition without an alignment of financial services with a 1.5°C target, the growth of net-zero and Paris-alignment objectives by the finance industry is great news. However, this transition must start now and requires an immediate end to the expansion of the fossil fuel industry and a deep reduction in our reliance on the most carbon-intensive sectors.
The opposite is happening right now: vague net zero announcements for 2050 are becoming trendy, serving as a trick to mask financial institutions’ unwillingness to take decisive action now. While the bulk of coal financing and investment must be ended before 2030, the sector most damaging to climate and public health sector is still attracting billions in financial support.
Commercial banks’ total support for the coal industry higher than in 2016
Groundbreaking research, published by Urgewald, Reclaim Finance, Rainforest Action Network, 350.org Japan and 25 further NGO partners, reveals the names of the financiers and investors behind the entire global coal industry – the 935 companies on the Global Coal Exit List (GCEL).
In 2016, banks provided US$ 491 billion through lending and underwriting to companies listed on the GCEL. By 2019, this amount had grown to US$ 543 billion, an increase of almost 11%. While direct lending for coal companies spiked in 2017, subsequent years show a downward trend in lending volumes. Underwriting of coal industry shares and bonds, however, has grown steadily since 2016.
US investors hold 58% of institutional investments in the coal industry
In January 2021, 4,488 institutional investors (1) held investments totaling US$ 1.03 trillion in companies operating along the thermal coal value chain.
With shares and bonds in value of US$ 602 billion, US investors collectively account for 58% of institutional investments in the global coal industry. The US mutual fund company Vanguard (US$ 86 billion) closely followed by BlackRock (US$ 84 billion) account for 17% of institutional investments in the global coal industry. Each of them holds more dollars in the coal industry than all investors from Japan, which together account for the second highest share of institutional investments in the coal industry – with holdings of US$ 81 billion. The third largest group are UK investors, whose collective holdings in the coal industry amount to US$ 47 billion.
Japanese banks are top lenders, Chinese banks top underwriters
381 commercial banks provided loans totaling US$ 315 billion to the coal industry over the past two years (2). The top 3 lenders are the Japanese banks Mizuho (US$ 22 billion), Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation (US$ 21 billion) and Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (US$ 18 billion). Japanese banks are the top lenders to the coal industry, followed closely by US banks.
Over the same time period, 427 commercial banks channeled over US$ 808 billion to companies on the Global Coal Exit List through underwriting. (3) The world’s top 5 underwriters are all Chinese financial institutions. While Chinese banks account for less than 6% of total lending to the coal industry, they account for 58% of underwriting. Through their underwriting, Chinese banks channeled US$ 467 billion to the coal industry over the past two years. Contrary to banks from the US, Japan and UK, which are also big underwriters, Chinese banks align with Indian banks and almost exclusively underwrite bond and share issues of coal companies from their respective countries.
Quality of coal policies still missing
These numbers provide a sobering reality check on financial institutions climate commitments. The vast majority of coal policies have so many loopholes that their impact is almost meaningless. According to the Coal Policy Tool that tracks and ranks all coal policies announced by financial institutions, 254 financial institutions have now adopted a coal policy, but out of this total only 19 financial institutions have adopted “robust” coal exclusion policies.
Even some of the financial institutions which committed to align their activities with the climate objectives of the Paris Agreement and/or to be net zero by 2050 still have a long way to go when it comes to their stance on coal.
What we need are robust coal exclusion policies and firm coal exit dates for the finance industry. Insurers such as AXA, banks like Crédit Mutuel, UniCredit and Desjardins or asset managers like Ostrum have already shown what must be done by excluding most of the companies on the Global Coal Exit List from their portfolios.
However, the lack of progress made on cutting coal financing since COP21 shows the need for complementary robust public action. We welcome President Biden’s Executive Order and the UK government’s recent announcement to end public financing for fossil fuels abroad. But both administrations must also address the failure of their finance industry to take effective climate action. A speedy exit from coal finance and investment is not only do-able and desirable – it is a question of survival.