Green discomfort for UBS board as sustainability dominates AGM
A long and heated meeting with shareholders exposes dissatisfaction over the bank's sustainability progress
Despite the recent praise UBS received in Switzerland and beyond for taking on its embattled rival Credit Suisse, it seems its green decisions are not quite as popular among shareholders.
Following a somewhat heated AGM, yesterday afternoon in the Swiss city of Basel, nearly a fifth of UBS shareholders outright rejected the bank's sustainability report, thereby effectively saying no to the bank's green progress so far.
Outgoing chief executive Ralph Hamers rushed to defend UBS climate credentials, arguing the bank has a “leading position” among financial services providers on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, and UBS is included on the Climate A-list ranked by the Carbon Disclosure Project.
However, during a long shareholder meeting in a packed auditorium, concerns were expressed over UBS' recent takeover of the beleaguered rival Credit Suisse, which will make the new combination the fourth largest lender worldwide.
The $3.35bn deal means UBS will take on some of Credit Suisse’s more controversial clients, from an ESG perspective, such as US oil and gas firm Duke Energy.
Net zero targets
Contained within the UBS Sustainability Report was a pledge that by 2050, the bank is aiming to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions for scopes 1, 2 and 3 across its business, “in line with fiduciary duties”.
The report’s climate roadmap also set out three key aspects of the transition plan; net zero to reduce direct climate impact, net zero to support the transition of financing clients, and net zero to support the transition of the assets of investing clients.
Of the level of opposition to the UBS sustainability report, Jeanne Martin, head of the banking programme at advocacy ShareAction, said: “This is a strong signal that investors are not satisfied with the progress made by UBS on all things sustainability, including climate change.”
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According to Vincent Kaufmann, chief executive of Swiss pension fund body Ethos, UBS should look to step up its sustainability credentials after pressure to do so at its 2021 AGM last year.
For example, it should take into account carbon emissions and investment disclosure, and setting concrete targets for investments that limit climate change, he argued.
CEO Hamers is to be replaced as chief executive by Sergio Ermotti, who has acted as chairman of Swiss Re and was at the helm of UBS from 2011-2020.
In his farewell speech, Hamers cited examples of current weather-related catastrophes, such as the 2022 “flood of the century” in Pakistan, and the destructive tornadoes currently impacting the US [it should be noted that there is no proven link between tornadoes and climate change however].
Yesterday also marked the final AGM of Credit Suisse prior to its upcoming takeover by UBS.
Chair Axel Lehmann stated he was “truly sorry” for the collapse of the bank, which was also accused of fraudulent dealings after a massive data leak in February 2022.
One shareholder at the Credit Suisse AGM said: “[board members] should be taken to court, should be put behind bars, and should no longer be allowed to practise their profession.”
At the UBS AGM, Colm Kelleher, chairman of the board of directors, said: “Credit Suisse will no longer be an independent company. It was an icon of the Swiss economy, a bank that played a vital role in the economic development of Switzerland, and a global and respected player. We recognize and honour Credit Suisse’s achievements over its 167-year history.
“At the same time, this means a new beginning and huge opportunities ahead for the combined bank and for the Swiss financial center as a whole. Under the leadership of the incoming CEO Sergio Ermotti we will build on the strengths of both firms.”
Only last month, Credit Suisse came under fire over its latest climate plans, with activist shareholder group Say On Climate labelling the strategy "not fit for purpose."
Don't miss - NZI's exclusive series on Putting a Price on Pollution
Part I: Seven reasons why policymakers aren't accelerating the green transition
A brief overview of the challenges of more ambitious policymaking
Part II: Global firms call for transition pathways and carbon tax
An exploration of the anti-pollution advocacy landscape
Part III: Due Diligence laws divide financial firms
Another look at the advocacy landscape, this time focusing on the EU's due diligence and deforestation laws
Part IV: Co-ordinated policymaking will solve short-termism
This part shows why joined up thinking - strong anti-pollution measures combined with changes to labour policy and other areas - are essential for a successful transition
Part V: Policymakers struggle to mitigate transition risk
The longer policymakers wait, the greater the risk of a disorderly transition. This part explores some of the financial stability issues associated with the green transition
Part VI: Why a market-led transition may be insufficient
So far, policymaking has mainly focused on improving ESG-related information; however, diverse stakeholders caution over-reliance on the soft approach of a market-led transition
Part VII: Why green policymakers need global solutions
This instalment looks at the IMF's international carbon price floor, carbon border adjustment mechanisms, challenges for developing countries, and the potential impact of a green arms race spurred on by the US's Inflation Reduction Act