HSBC: ‘Other banks are following our oil and gas strategy’
Net Zero Investor spoke to Tim Lord, head of climate change at HSBC UK, and Robert King, UK head of sustainable finance at the bank, on what big banks can do if they are serious about sustainability
Like practically every large international bank, the climate targets and goals of HSBC have been met with intense scrutiny in recent years.
The London-headquartered bank has arguably shown something of a spotty record when it comes to its net zero ambitions.
Things were at their nadir last June, when Stuart Kirk, then head of responsible investments at HSBC Global Asset Management, described attitudes to the climate crisis as “hyperbolic” and remarked that if Miami were to be under water in a century “who cares".
Kirk has since left the bank, and chief executive Noel Quinn was quick to stress that Kirk's position was “inconsistent with HSBC's strategy and do not reflect the views of the senior leadership.”
Tim Lord, head of climate change at HSBC UK, is insistent that Quinn’s stance is accurate, and that HSBC is indeed serious about being an ally in the fight against climate change.
“HSBC is aiming for net zero in its financed emissions by 2050. There is also recognition that while the 2050 target is really important, it's not enough on its own. The bank has set sectoral targets for eight different high emitting sectors, and we're going to add a couple more in the next year”, Lord told Net Zero Investor.
HSBC's sector goals include 2030 targets to reduce on-balance sheet financed emissions intensity by 28% for the cement sector, 42% for iron, steel and aluminium, 25% for aviation, and 65% for automotive, on a 2019 basis.
Further evidence to suggest that HSBC may in fact be moving in the right direction came in December last year, when the bank confirmed it will no longer finance new oil and gas fields.
That move was even applauded by activist NGO ShareAction, who urged financial institutions Barclays and BNP Paribas to do the same: BNP Paribas since made this same pledge in March this year, while Barclays is yet to fully commit to doing so).
However, Jeanne Martin, head of banking at ShareAction, did point out that HSBC still provides finance to companies that have oil and gas expansion plans.
Of the decision to exclude new funding of oil and gas fields, Lord said: “The oil and gas sector is critical to the energy transition, yet we recognise the need both for reduced production and use of fossil fuels as the world transitions to net zero, and also for an increase in investment in low carbon sources of energy."
He stressed that "we were the first global bank of our size to commit to not providing finance for new oil and gas fields, and HSBC is very pleased that other institutions have followed in doing that.”
HSBC has also recently announced it will be pulling out of its flagship tower block in London’s Canary Wharf at the conclusion of the lease in 2027, both adapting to the post-pandemic work from home culture and supposedly to help meet its internal net zero commitments.
Policy and renewables
HSBC has entered into sustainable investing on an international level. In partnership with Temasek, the gigantic Singapore-based investment firm, the bank is establishing a debt financing platform focused on Southeast Asia and aiming to deploy over $1 billion in loans over the next five years.
Of the venture, Lord says: “We've got a big global presence and that means that we think we can have a really big role in supporting and driving the global transition. There is a huge opportunity for our customers to make investments in order to play their part in delivering net zero. We've set our global targets and our clients in Asia are a really significant part of achieving those.”
So much is HSBC’s focus on Asia it has been reported to be facing pressure from Chinese shareholder Ping An to reduce its holdings elsewhere, to focus on a continent that may be returning as much as 78% of the group’s profit.
However, the bank is also calling for policy targets both in the UK and further abroad to better support more nascent areas of sustainable investing.
Robert King, head of sustainable finance at HSBC, said: "If you look at large offshore wind projects, there is now a very bankable structure has been around for some time. There's a whole range of banks and investors are very comfortable with that as an investable asset class, and you can raise billions of dollars of financing very quickly."
King told Net Zero Investor: “Where you need to be able to raise finance for some of the new technologies, it might require some help from policymakers. I think that's where the next frontier is.”
King also raised the issue of SMEs and ongoing data concerns, arguing for a “consistent standard” of gathering data in SMEs for banks and large buyers to use to incentivize decarbonisation in supply chains.
There are yet questions hanging over the HSBC approach, and to its governance of its climate goals.
As well as the furore over the remarks made by Kirk last year, in November last year two of its advertisements were considered as misleading by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), as its claims of funding reforestation and providing up to £1 trillion in sustainable financing were according to the agency not matched by making clear the bank remained “involved in the financing of businesses which made significant contributions to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.”
Of the upheld greenwashing accusation, and how HSBC is moving forward, Lord said: “We've taken note of that ASA finding, and we're very conscious of the need to make sure that the targets set and the actions that we say we're going to take are backed up with firm plans in order to achieve them.
“In our annual report and accounts that we published earlier this year, we've got a transparent set of targets, and we've got transparent sets of data on how we're performing against those targets," he concluded.