Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Banks urged to facilitate development of sustainable economies

Aug 21. 2019
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The Asean bloc is facing existential threats such as climate change and environmental degradation, which could potentially lead to financial instability and social unrest, according to WWF’s 2019 Sustainable Banking Assessment (SUSBA).

The report finds that of the 35 Asean banks assessed, all are not responding fast enough to these threats, based on the level of ESG integration as measured by a framework covering six aspects: purpose, policies, processes, people, products and portfolio.

Humanity stands on the edge of a precipice with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report issued in 2018 saying that there were 12 years left to limit global warming to 1.5°C and prevent a climate crisis.

The number of heatwaves hitting Europe and Asia-Pacific in recent months is testament that climate change is already disrupting our daily lives and business operations. Unfortunately, the Asean economy remains highly dependent on fossil fuels, which contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. 91 per cent of the banks assessed have continued to finance new coal-fired power plants and are therefore fuelling the fire.

Coal is not the only problem. Rampant deforestation has exacerbated climate change and caused biodiversity loss, which threatens food security by disrupting essential ecosystem services such as soil fertility maintenance and pollination. The recent IPCC special report on land use and climate emphasises that sustainable land management alongside rapid decarbonisation of the energy system are critical to meet the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement. SUSBA finds that only 9 per cent of banks assessed have no-deforestation policies, despite being home to some of the world’s deforestation hot spots in Greater Mekong, Sumatra and Borneo.

Southeast Asia is suffering from manifestations of climate change in the form of water-related disasters - from crops and manufacturing facilities being destroyed by floods in Thailand, Malaysia’s water resources expected to be reduced by 20-25 per cent from 2025 to 2030, to major coastal cities such as Jakarta being susceptible to rising sea level. Asean banks remain highly exposed, with just 17 per cent recognising risks of water, while none requires clients to conduct water-risk assessments.

Regulators understand the threat to financial stability and are responding. By the end of the year, seven banking associations or regulators in Asean will have issued sustainable banking guidelines. The central banks of Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand have joined the Network for Greening the Financial System (NGFS), established to enhance the ability of the financial system to manage climate risks and mobilise capital for sustainable development. The NGFS is recommending central banks and supervisors to better integrate climate-related risks into financial stability monitoring. Banks will increasingly be expected to test their resilience of their loan books to climate risks and report the results to the regulators.

374 financial institutions representing US$118 trillion of assets have endorsed the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), which has specific recommendations for financial institutions on climate disclosures. Asean banks have not made much progress to meet these expectations, with only three banks developing a strategy to manage climate-related risks or conducting climate-risk assessment.

Investors are increasingly engaging with banks on their management of climate and environmental risks. Alistair Thompson, director of First State Investments (Singapore) said, “The WWF Sustainable Banking assessment has proven to be a valuable tool for us in Asean. It allows us to track where progress is being made, or not, and the areas in which investors like ourselves can push for improvement. We have used it to engage in areas such as Thermal Coal and Palm Oil.”

SUSBA finds that of the 35 banks assessed, four banks from Singapore and Thailand met half-way the standards set by the indicators while 51 per cent reached less than a quarter. However, there is still progress with 74 per cent of the banks making some improvement compared to last year. In particular, the three Singapore banks have demonstrated leadership by prohibiting the financing of new coal-fired power plants and implementing no deforestation commitments. The uneven playing field undermines the region’s response to these impending threats as unsustainable activities continue to be financed.

“The prosperity of Asean’s economies is underpinned by the bedrock of natural capital which provides climate and air quality regulation as well as food and freshwater production. These are the basic necessities for our societies to thrive. Asean’s economies are very much interdependent, which magnifies the effects of climate change and environmental destruction. To ensure that the people of ASEAN have a secure future, Asean banks must be the lifeblood of sustainable development,” said Jeanne Stampe, WWF’s head of Asia Sustainable Finance.

Asean banks are also leaving money on the table by not actively supporting the urgently needed transition to a low carbon and sustainable economy. A DBS and UNEPFI study estimated the demand for green investment to be US$3 trillion from 2016 to 2030 in sectors such as infrastructure, renewable energy, energy efficiency, food, agriculture and land use. 51 per cent of the banks that offer green financial products have mostly focused on renewable energy, there remains a huge financing gap in the other sectors.

Encouragingly, some banks understand that there is no time to lose and are laying the foundations for good governance of ESG issues. 57 per cent of Asean banks have senior management oversight of ESG issues, nearly half of which have additional responsibilities over climate-related risks and opportunities. However, this needs to be translated down to sector policies based on science-based standards to ensure robust management of material ESG risks. Resources such as Asia Sustainable Finance Initiative (ASFI), a multi-stakeholder platform, can support banks with cutting-edge sustainable finance tools and capacity building.

Financial institutions need to work together on a pre-competitive basis to create a resilient financial sector that can support the region’s sustainable development needs and boost livelihoods. The Association of Banks in Singapore (ABS) has been facilitating peer-to-peer learning in cooperation with WWF to catalyse the transition throughout Asean.

Ong-Ang Ai Boon, director of ABS, said, “Banks in Singapore have been advancing their ESG integration and capacity building efforts following the issuance of the ABS Responsible Finance Guidelines in 2015 and are continuing to improve their practices. We are glad this progress is reflected in the SUSBA results and look forward to continue sharing our experience with our counterparts in the region”.

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