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Banks and Climate Action: Taking Stock of Recent Commitments

Recent months have seen major moves on climate action by some of the world’s largest private banks, including JPMorgan Chase, HSBC, and Morgan Stanley. What sets this latest wave of climate pledges by financial institutions apart from past announcements? Building on previous commitments that increase green investments or restrict financing to certain high-emitting activities, recent pledges add to growing evidence that banks are taking a more holistic approach to the climate emergency.

Looking across their investments in different sectors and regions, more and more banks are considering how to reduce the carbon intensity of entire portfolios over time. After all, through their product offerings, lending activities, and client engagement, financial institutions can play a key role in influencing the transformation necessary for a net-zero emissions economy.

“What we have given the market is an ambition that our total financing by 2050 will be net zero. That is a far bigger prize or goal than picking a sub-segment of our portfolio and saying ‘I am not going to bank you’ because that’s not what the world needs. That industry or that customer may then just go to Bank X, Bank Y, or Bank Z. They won’t have changed their business model.”

– Noel Quinn, CEO, HSBC, in an interview with Reuters on October 9th 2020.

While recent commitments signal increased ambition, they vary in content and structure across institutions. RMI established our Center for Climate-Aligned Finance in July 2020 to support financial institutions—as well as their stakeholders and shareholders—in overcoming practical challenges to align portfolios and investment decisions with a 1.5°C world. As part of this work, the Center seeks to bring transparency to the new landscape of climate commitments—discerning barriers to success and pinpointing opportunities to ensure measurable impact from this promising momentum.


Unpacking Commitments

October 2020 announcements by JPMorgan Chase and HSBC outline their intended contribution to the low-carbon transition over a given time. Specifically, JPMorgan Chase announced in October that it would shape its financing portfolio in three key sectors to align with the Paris Agreement; three days later, HSBC announced its statement of net-zero ambition. This past year has seen a slew of similar statements, including from Barclays in May—making it one of the first banks to announce ambition to go net zero by 2050—and then from Morgan Stanley in September. While this blog focuses on a subset of global banks, their commitments are part of a larger movement across the financial sector that includes institutional investors and broader coalitions.

Climate commitments across institutions may have similar bumper stickers—Paris Alignment, climate alignment, or net zero by 2050—but what’s under the hood? Below, we identify signposts to help pick apart the differences between similar-sounding commitments. These categories represent critical questions facing a financial institution that has committed or may be looking to commit its portfolio to alignment with a climate goal.


Coverage refers to the business units and financial products included in the commitment to measure, manage, and reduce emissions. For instance, several banks have committed to align their lending portfolios. Barclays’ accounting additionally covers the capital markets activity it supports. Coverage can also often be delineated by sectors, such as BNP Paribas’s decision to prioritize decarbonization within its power portfolio, or ING’s inclusion of nine sectors in its annual Terra Report. ING has iterated further by indicating which part of the sectoral value chain is included in the scope (e.g., upstream oil and gas rather than trading, midstream, storage, or downstream). JPMorgan Chase has committed to a sector-specific approach that will seek to address all emissions, including scope 3 emissions in their priority sectors.

Targets and pathways

For the designated coverage, commitments are further distinguished by targets (i.e., what will portfolio emissions be reduced to and by when?) and pathways (i.e., what trajectory will portfolio emissions take over time toward the specified target?). Pathways incorporate technology roadmaps based on a set of assumptions about what the world will look like over time.

The extent of decarbonization achievable over time depends on which low-carbon technologies will be available when—projections that hinge on assumptions about investment rates, policies, demographic shifts, and beyond. BNP Paribas and Barclays are among the institutions that will use the IEA’s Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS) to guide their energy and power commitments, but many other pathways exist. RMI’s Charting the Course highlights that selecting a pathway from the nearly limitless options presents a key challenge to financial institutions taking meaningful steps toward alignment.

Tools for analysis

Many analysis tools, methodologies, models, and platforms exist to support institutions in understanding where their emissions are today, and how they can transition their portfolios over time. For instance, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, and Citi recently announced their participation in the Partnership for Carbon Accounting Financials (PCAF)—a coalition working on measuring financed emissions and improving transparency through disclosure.

Other tools are more forward looking to support investing that steers portfolios in line with climate commitments over time. For instance, 17 global banks recently piloted PACTA for Banks to analyze their corporate loan books with different climate scenarios and inform future decision-making. And 58 financial institutions have committed to SBTi’s financial sector framework, which helps financial institutions “set science-based targets to align their lending and investment activities with the Paris Agreement.”

Disclosure and reporting

Disclosure in line with The Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosure recommendations, much like other financial risk disclosure obligations, is critical for transparency and accountability, and to ensure risks are accurately priced in financial markets. There are currently many voluntary standards and frameworks for reporting material factors across sectors, creating a complex landscape and motivating five standard-setting groups—Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, Global Reporting Initiative, Climate Disclosure Standards Board, International Integrated Reporting Council, and CDP—to collaborate toward a commonly accepted reporting framework. These existing standards could ultimately inform what disclosure and reporting mandates from forward-looking regulators might look like in the future.

Implementation actions

How do banks turn statements of ambition into progress along their pathway and, in turn, measurable impact in the real economy? When investing in a world currently believed to be on track to warm to 4°C, increasing the volume of green finance is essential. However, it cannot in and of itself create the low-carbon world and attendant investment opportunities needed for banks to achieve their climate alignment commitments. Rather, by influencing the availability and cost of capital, banks can more strategically and actively shape the real economy.

Breaking the Code, RMI’s August 2020 survey of climate action efforts in the financial sector, outlines different influence levers financial institutions possess. These levers range from designing products to support the transition of high-emitting assets to offering services to support their clients’ transitions. These levers can and should be employed in unique ways across business units and asset classes based on an institution’s particular commitments and individual context.

Organizational approach

Finally, banks are adopting different organizational responses to support implementation of new products, offerings, and services stemming from commitments. One such approach reflects an “embedded” model, wherein responsibility is dispersed across existing business verticals by, for instance, placing a climate expert within a bank’s asset management team. Alternately, banks may opt for a more “centralized” model involving some sort of systemic re-organization around their commitment. A centralized model may involve creating new business units with a dedicated remit spanning the institution.

JPMorgan Chase, for example, is launching its Center for Carbon Transition, which will provide clients with centralized access to sustainability-focused financing, offer research and advisory solutions, and engage clients on their long-term business strategies and related carbon disclosures. Of course, significant variation exists. Notably, Credit Suisse has adopted a somewhat hybrid approach involving elements of both a centralized and embedded model.

“JPMorgan Chase has put partnering with its clients in carbon-intensive industries at the center of its new commitment.”

– Paul Bodnar, Chair, Center for Climate-Aligned Finance

JPMorgan Chase is one of the Center’s founding partners, alongside Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, and Bank of America.


Next Steps

The landscape of climate commitments by financial institutions is changing rapidly. At the Center, we expect our analysis to broaden and deepen as we work with this sector to first crystallize and then actualize commitments toward climate alignment. Innovation is at the heart of competition among financial institutions, and actions advancing climate alignment should be no different. We expect future analysis to focus on frameworks for enabling comparability across institutions. Our goal is to broaden the path forged by these alignment pioneers, reinforcing their efforts to accelerate change at the scale demanded to meet the challenge of climate change.