Net-zero emissions: pledges abound, but few banks are actually on a path to meet their commitments
In this paper, we provide some context for the role that banks will play in decarbonization, describe our evaluation process, and detail the conditions that have led to the success of banking’s sustainable leaders.
- Banks are acknowledging the pivotal role they play—and the risks they face—in the transition to a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions global economy.
- Our analysis of the sector suggests that commitments continue to outpace action, and while it’s still early, we suspect banks will face both challenges in developing credible climate action plans and increased pressure to build resilience against climate change.
- Industry guidance and examples of real climate leadership do exist within the banking sector and can help illuminate a path forward for banks that have made less progress.
Banks and other financial institutions have a central role to play in decarbonizing the planet. Through their role in capital formation and the creation of credit and innovative financial instruments, banks can help accelerate this transition by shifting the mix of their loan portfolios and other financing activities away from heavy emitters and toward more sustainable actors across different industries—including renewable alternatives in energy, industrials, and materials. Climate change and the uncertainty of an orderly transition also create significant risks for banks with exposure to carbon-intensive industries.
While many of the world's largest banks have expressed support for the Paris Agreement, even setting their own targets for reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, the majority lag the pace of change necessary to hit those targets, in our view. Many continue to finance new fossil fuel infrastructure as they work within the reality of client transition plans and the world's reliance on fossil fuels. Indeed, a relationship with a fossil fuel producer in the loan arm or investment banking can create internal conflict with the rest of an organization, hindering a bank's ability to be a more effective steward in the transition to a net-zero economy.
How can investors assess whether a bank’s net-zero pledge will effectively steer the organization’s assets under management, capital formation, and credit activities to be Paris-aligned? How well does a bank understand the climate-related risk embedded in its loan portfolio? And which banks are on track to achieve their zero-emission commitments? At Manulife Investment Management, we developed a proprietary assessment framework to find out. While its primary function is to provide guidance to portfolio management teams, the framework offers a sobering scorecard on how the global banking sector is progressing on its climate pledges. Of the 36 banks we analyzed—75% of the MSCI All Country World Index’s (ACWI’s) bank sector weight—we believe only 3 are fully aligned with the Paris Agreement today.
Climate change is increasingly viewed as a systemic risk
The consideration of systemic risk has grown dramatically in recent decades, beginning with the 2008 global financial crisis and, more recently, due to the global pandemic. Climate change is clearly another such risk. In 2021 alone, wildfires, heat, flooding, and other weather-related events upended communities around the world and caused billions of dollars in damage.
Of the 36 banks we analyzed—75% of the MSCI All Country World Index’s (ACWI’s) bank sector weight—we believe only 3 are fully aligned with the Paris Agreement today.
Corporations with exposure to physical climate risks are beginning to feel the repercussions of these catastrophes, and even find themselves the targets of victims looking for accountability. In 2019, California’s PG&E filed bankruptcy over its massive wildfire liabilities. In 2020, bushfire victims in Australia filed an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development complaint against ANZ Bank for financing fossil fuel projects. Climate action group Ceres reported a doubling of climate proposals winning majority votes in the 2021 proxy season,¹ and Exxon Mobil lost three board seats to an activist investor seeking, among other things, to force the company to more quickly adapt its business model to the risk of climate change.
Transition risk is also real and growing. A disorderly transition to decarbonization—triggered by a change in regulation, public sentiment, carbon pricing, or a rapid drop in renewable energy prices—would affect not just the fossil fuel industry but the manufacturers, agriculture, construction, and transportation industries that rely on it. Consider the growing but uneven status of carbon taxes and pricing. Today, 18 European nations have implemented carbon taxes, ranging from €1 per metric ton in Poland to more than €100 per metric ton in Sweden. Canada’s much-contested carbon tax features a gradual price increase that reaches CAD$170 per metric ton by 2030. China launched the largest operational carbon market in the world with its national emissions trading scheme.² Meanwhile, the EU’s carbon trading allowance price nearly tripled from the start of 2021 through early February of this year.³ The cost of emitting carbon is coming into view worldwide but remains far from predictable. We can imagine the impact on a manufacturer of a sudden spike in carbon pricing, a new regulation that limits carbon emissions, or the reputational damage from a tipping point in consumer sentiment. The historical underpricing of these risks creates greater risk for the banking system as a whole.
Banks acknowledge the crucial role they play in the pace of decarbonization—but most are moving slowly
The 2015 Paris Agreement articulated three primary objectives designed to help earth avoid the most negative impacts of climate change:
1 A temperature goal to limit global warming to well below 2°C—preferably to 1.5°C
2 An adaptation goal to give much more attention to fostering climate adaptation and resilience, not just mitigation
3 A finance goal, making finance flows consistent with a pathway toward low-carbon and climate-resilient development
Three years later, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change clarified the pace of change required to meet the agreement’s temperature goal, calling for a roughly 45% reduction of global emissions by 2030 to stay on track.⁴ In other words, delay isn’t an option.
Implementing these bold objectives will require unprecedented changes to systems, behavior, technologies, and whole economies, but it’s the third goal that shines light on the enormity of this task. Given their central role in lending and financing the real economy, along with asset management and capital markets activity, banks must play a crucial part in steering finance flows toward net zero. Yet to a certain extent, banks have flown under the radar for many investors.
The cost of emitting carbon is coming into view worldwide but remains far from predictable.
This is beginning to change. Partly in response to growing pressure, a number of banks have made net-zero-by-2050 commitments to honor the spirit of the Paris Agreement and have signed on with organizations created to facilitate the transition to a lower-carbon economy. The Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi), for example, was established in 2015 to help private sector companies set science-based emissions reduction targets, and its more than 2,000 members include many banks. The organization brings a robust target-setting and verification process that is crucial to keeping decarbonization initiatives on track. More recently, the industry-led Net-Zero Banking Alliance brings together banks around the world committed to aligning their lending and investment portfolios with net-zero emissions by 2050. Its signatories, which have grown from 43 to 103 in the course of just a few months, span 40 countries and represent 44% of global banking assets. Signatories must commit to setting decarbonization targets for 2030 within 18 months of joining, with a focus on maximizing their impact in greenhouse gas (GHG)-intensive sectors. Moreover, signatories commit to annually publishing absolute emissions and emissions intensity in line with best practice and, within a year of setting targets, disclose progress against a board-level-reviewed transition strategy.
While these commitments are encouraging, they should not overshadow the current state of practice in the banking sector, in which hundreds of billions of dollars in bank financing is provided to the fossil fuel industry each year. And while many of the world's largest banks have decreased their fossil fuel lending since the adoption of the Paris Agreement, many others have increased their exposure.⁵
Commitment versus action
Given the growing risks and compressed timeframe for cutting emissions, investors are left wondering how to tell which banks are putting their money where their mouths are. Despite all the research and thinking on what it means for a company to be net zero, important initiatives such as the Transition Pathway Initiative⁶ or the Climate Action 100+ benchmarks⁷ are, as of yet, silent on the progress made by banks.
At Manulife Investment Management, our work in sustainable investing includes developing new frameworks for analyzing climate-related risks. In 2019, for example, we developed a sovereign debt environmental, social, and governance (ESG) model to highlight ESG exposures across 200 sovereign issuers. By better understanding each issuer’s exposure to ESG risks, as well as the momentum of change within each country, our portfolio managers can make more informed decisions about the potential resilience of their portfolios.
Similarly, our net-zero banking framework seeks to understand which banks are taking concrete steps to meet their stated commitments within the framework of the Paris Agreement. To answer that question, we completed a detailed assessment of the 36 largest banks in the MSCI ACWI, which together represent 75% of the banking sector weight as of February 2022. The framework assesses banks across three types of indicators:
1 Critical indicators—Those considered the baseline for appropriate risk management by banks (as indicated in the figure below)
2 Insightful indicators—Where banks have recognized capital at risk and have taken proactive steps to quantify and mitigate it (e.g., executes scenario analysis of different warming scenarios to assess the bank's sector/regional exposure and the creditworthiness of clients)
3 Progressive indicators—Where banks are attempting to be leaders in the space with innovative approaches to building resiliency (e.g., proactively self-adjusting capital reserve requirement levels based on findings of carbon pricing stress tests and other scenario testing)
Each category of indicators is weighted and the results scored to provide an overall score for each bank, as adapted from the the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change Net Zero Investor Framework. These scores are arranged based on the four categories of net-zero alignment:
1 = Aligned
2 = Moderately aligned
3 = Moderately unaligned
4 = Unaligned
Overview of our net-zero banking framework
The index-weighted score of the 36 banks in our study was 2.30, which signals that most banks in the MSCI ACWI lie somewhere between moderately aligned and moderately unaligned. Only three of the banks in our cohort were aligned, despite the fact that more than two-thirds of the banks are signatories of the Net-Zero Banking Alliance. Four banks were unaligned.
While there is admittedly some subjectivity in the formulation, weighting, and scoring of our framework, the outcome is nonetheless disconcerting. The nearly 20 indicators in the assessment represent concrete steps banks should take to evaluate and mitigate their exposure to climate change. Most banks haven’t set interim decarbonization targets for their loan or investment portfolios or made public commitments around lending to entities linked to inappropriate deforestation practices, for example. Many of the world’s largest banks may be failing to gauge their future resilience in the face of disorderly transition, carbon price shocks, or other tail risks.
Many of the world’s largest banks may be failing to gauge their future resilience in the face of disorderly transition, carbon price shocks, or other tail risks.
MSCI ACWI banking sector alignment with Paris Agreement
What success looks like
The following examples describe banks that, in our estimation, have gone well beyond commitments and are taking bold action in transitioning their financing activities.
Bank A—For the past decade, Bank A, headquartered in Scotland, has been the U.K. renewables sector’s leading lender. It’s also the top lead manager for green, social, and sustainability bonds issued by U.K. corporates. The bank achieved net-zero carbon status on its direct operations and has committed to making them climate positive by 2025. Bank A conducts climate stress testing of its loan portfolio and links executive compensation to its decarbonization strategy. The bank makes extensive use of forward-looking models to assess climate-related risks and manage progress toward targets. It monitors and discloses its loan exposure across more than a dozen of what it considers heightened climate-related risk sectors.⁸
Bank B—Bank B has made progress against its sustainability commitments for more than 20 years. Headquartered in the Netherlands, the bank transitioned all its buildings to 100% renewable electricity in 2020 and has reduced its scope 1, scope 2, and scope 3 (business travel) emissions by roughly 75% below its 2014 baselines.⁹ Renewables now account for nearly two-thirds of its power generation financing, and lending to thermal coal mining has fallen by 90% since 2017. The bank monitors, discloses, and stress tests its exposure to nine climate-sensitive sectors within its loan portfolio and has established interim targets for achieving alignment with the Paris Agreement. Its decarbonization strategy is strengthened by board-level oversight and is linked to executive compensation.¹⁰
The way forward
The Paris Agreement’s objectives are bold but clear: Organizations need to take action by aligning their emissions trajectories with the latest science and having their emissions reduction targets validated by a certified third party such as the SBTi. The initiative provides a useful foundation for net-zero target setting in the financials sector¹¹ and draws attention to the wide variation in net-zero commitments among financial institutions, including for the boundaries set for targets (e.g., all GHG emissions or just CO2), the inclusion of financing activities, and whether portfolio companies are measured on scope 1 and scope 2 or whether scope 3 is also included. We’ve seen that financial institutions set targets with differing timeframes, from short to long term, and that mitigation strategies may vary significantly from exclusion policies, divestment and engagement with companies, to a focus on investment in climate solutions. Standardization would be helpful, as these variations make it difficult to compare, assess, and evaluate the credibility of financial institutions’ goals, progress, and efforts.
The Partnership for Carbon Accounting Financials has similarly filled a gap in how banks assess and disclose emissions associated with their loans and investments. The industry-led association has worked to establish a harmonized accounting standard so banks have a starting point to set science-based targets and align their portfolio with the Paris Agreement. We also look to the useful disclosure guidance provided by the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures¹² (TCFD) to include important information such as the disclosure of a company’s net-zero transition plan and measurement of progress toward its stated targets. The role of the board and senior management in the oversight and accountability for the transition plan should be articulated, including whether incentives align with the issuer’s climate goals. Companies should also clarify how they’ll maximize transition-related climate opportunities and how their financial planning supports the transition plan and strategy. The TCFD guidance requires transparency on climate policy actions, including whether industry associations align with the goal of net-zero GHG emissions by 2050 and, if not, how this risk is addressed by company management. Finally, banks must make significant progress in their stewardship practices, engaging with loan portfolio companies and others to ensure that their entire financial ecosystem is progressing toward their net-zero emissions targets.
At Manulife Investment Management, our way forward includes strong stewardship of the investments we manage on behalf of clients—not only to protect the health of individual investments but also to foster the strength and sustainability of the systems on which those investments depend. With our public markets portfolios, these stewardship activities include direct engagements, collaborative engagements, and proxy voting. We engaged in more than 200 discussions with financials issuers in 2021, for example, and climate-related issues made up more than a third of our engagements. Our collaborative engagements include participating in the United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative, which brought together 20 of the world’s largest investors to advance the recommendations of the TCFD. Finally, we use our influen