Nordea’s climate chief: ‘An immediate and complete withdrawal from fossil fuels is not the answer’
Peter Sandahl tells Net Zero Investor that investors should not merely focus on reducing financed emissions
Earlier this year, Finnish financial services giant Nordea set up a new climate and environment team, primarily to speed up efforts to curtail emissions across its lending and investment portfolios by up to 50% by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality two decades after that.
The main star of the new department is Peter Sandahl, who was until March in charge of Nordea Life & Pension’s sustainability and environmental, social and governance strategy. In addition to his new role, Sandahl has been made deputy head of the firm’s sustainability unit.
Sitting down for an exclusive interview with Net Zero Investor, the Helsinki-based member of the asset owner advisory committee of the Principles for Responsible Investing group said he is convinced climate and environment are “deeply interlinked.”
“I believe that it is essential to act upon them together and not as two separate topics in our transition.”
Starting his career at Nordea in 2009, Sandahl is a member, among other initiatives, of the sectoral pathways task force of the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ), and of the Science Based Targets initiative’s (SBTi) expert advisory group.
Why interested in all things sustainable, he explained that his career in finance and a long dedication and engagement with nature had finally converged in one path, “which feels like a real privilege.”
“It might not always be obvious from the outside, but if you want to be part of driving broad systemic change in this area, finance is definitely one of the central and most important places to be in.”
To Sandahl, financial players have an essential role to play in supporting the decarbonisation and helping scale up solutions.
“The discussion about how this is done most effectively has nuanced in the recent year, which I welcome,” he pointed out.
“It is essential that targets and actions focus on where finance has most influence,” he flagged, expressing optimism over the sector’s recent developments.
“There is a tremendous amount of progress that sometimes gets overshadowed by certain topics where the development has not been as strong. Then, we need to do more and do it faster.”
Sandahl, however, stressed that focusing too much on short-term financed emission-based targets will create incentives to reallocate and divest assets, which would lead to “decoupling rather than decarbonisation.”
“It is reducing emissions that counts, but as data and methods evolve, we need to ensure that targets are effective in both reducing financed emissions and decarbonising the real economy,” he continued, citing the need for more public-private capital collaboration.
Co-founder of the United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative (UNEP FI) Principles for Responsible Banking (PRB), Nordea values net-zero alliances in order to push financial actors to commit to carbon neutrality.
“There are definitely areas that can be strengthened and improved,” Sandahl acknowledged.
“But it is important to keep in mind that there are constraints and limitations to the extent certain mandatory requirements can be applied to a diverse group of institutions subject to very different constrains and legal standards.”
“What is more important, in my view, is that we continue to drive harmonisation in key areas across these different target-setting frameworks to ensure that the financial industry’s collective response is aligned in areas where that is critical.”
Questioned on the apparent lead of Nordic banks and asset owners on sustainability-related matters, the financial expert said that it “partly comes from corporate responsibility and sustainable development being deeply connected in the Nordic heritage.”
“We have a long history and experience of working with ESG issues in the financial sector and we have customers and stakeholders that clearly express their demand for and expectation of more sustainable products and solutions.”
Fossil fuel investments
Earlier this month, several organisations looked into the money that the world’s biggest banks had poured into fossil fuels.
The report showed that Nordea had invested over $12bn in fossil fuels between 2016 and 2022, including nearly $3bn to back expansion projects.
“The energy transition is a complex and a multidimensional challenge to solve,” Sandahl justified.
“I don’t think an immediate and complete withdrawal from these sectors is the answer,” he stressed.
“That will lead to a decoupling of financial institutions’ portfolios with the real economy, which is not helpful in decarbonising the economy. Banks and investors should focus on financing emission reductions in the real economy and not only on reducing financed emissions.”
Since 2019, Nordea has cut oil, gas and offshore activities lending by more than 70%, Sandahl added.
“We need to be part of financing the transition in these sectors … while simultaneously being very clear on our expectations and conditions for doing that.”
In efforts to further reduce its exposure, Nordea engages with investee companies whose strategies are insufficiently strong.
“The energy sector is broad and diverse and what constitutes a credible transition plan depends on the sectoral, regional and company-specific attributes,” he explained, pointing to a know-how that can be recalibrated in favour of renewables.
As a result, the Nordic bank expects companies to base their targets “on the best available scientific knowledge,” he stated.
“Interim targets are essential to drive short-term actions and strong disclosure practices and transparency foundational to build credibility around progress and methodologies.”
On the biodiversity front, Sandahl emphasised the importance of expanding what financial players have learned until now to other environmental areas, “in everything from accounting to target-setting.”
He acknowledged that “biodiversity-related data is a challenge, and the availability of sufficient high-quality data is not yet where it needs to be, but that is changing fast and should not be an excuse for inaction.”
“I also think that part of the difference lies in that climate change in several ways is more tangible and easier to quantity compared to biodiversity, and that has implications for how quickly it becomes adopted and integrated,” Sandahl concluded.