The Paris climate talks in December 2015 were notable for the high level of private-sector participation. In addition to the 195 countries that promised some level of action to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, banks and other global financial institutions pledged hundreds of billions of dollars for investment in clean-energy and energy-efficiency technologies.
The problem for banks when they make such broad statements and promises is that they then must walk the walk. In the months following the conclusion of the COP21 talks, it turned out that many banks were still actively involved in the financing of fossil fuel projects.
Deutsche Bank, for example, was a global leader in coal-mining financing, with at least $6.7 billion committed to such projects worldwide. Promises that such investments were only “incremental” were not enough to mollify critics. Of course, many of Deutsche Bank’s decisions were based on business realities: In the U.S., the natural gas boom and a surge in the deployment of renewables led the German banking powerhouse to pull out of many U.S. coal projects last summer.
But this week, Deutsche Bank issued a statement saying it would no longer offer new financing for coal mining or coal-fired power plant projects. The bank also said it would “gradually reduce” its exposure to the coal industry around the world.
The terse statement comes at a time when other global financial institutions are coming under fire for trying to balance their commitments to fight climate change with the funding of conventional energy projects.
Case in point: The World Bank was called out by a Washington, D.C.-based NGO this week for its financing of oil, gas, and coal projects in developing countries at the expense of low-carbon alternatives such as solar and wind power.
The international lending agency vehemently denied that its investment decisions support any growth of coal, but the numbers make it difficult for the World Bank to counter the NGO’s assertions.
The growing chorus to halt the financing of fossil fuel projects, and to accelerate divestment from the sector, was growing louder even before the COP21 talks concluded 14 months ago.
The U.K.-based Guardian newspaper, for example, operates a long-running a #KeepItInTheGround campaign. NGOs echoed the alarm, and banks have been forced to respond in kind.
For example, Deutsche Bank put the kibosh on an Australian coal port project in May 2014 after protests from environmental groups over the lack of consensus on how such a facility would affect the Great Barrier Reef.
In the end, Deutsche Bank is appearing to heed its own advice.
The financial giant recently partnered with the University of Hamburg and reviewed over 2,000 studies related to corporate social responsibility (generally described as ESG, or environmental, social and governance, across the pond). The results found that there was a “non-negative” relationship between a commitment to corporate responsibility and corporate financial performance. In other words: More investors are actually seeking out responsible firms.
So while Deutsche Bank may suffer some losses in the near term due to its ongoing divorce from fossil fuels, the evidence suggests cutting the strings to the fossil fuel industry will not only score the bank more trust from its stakeholders, but more robust financial results far into the future as coal and oil deposits become stranded assets.
Image credit: Metropolico.org/Flickr