Analysis Details How Wall Street Underwriting Quietly Funnels Billions Into Fossil Fuels

A report out Monday sheds light on how big US banks’ underwriting of bonds and equities for polluting corporations constitutes a “hidden pipeline” for fossil fuel financing.

It’s no secret that financial institutions play a leading role in driving the climate emergency. Since 2016, the year the Paris agreement took effect, the world’s 60 largest private banks have provided more than $5.5 trillion in financing to the fossil fuel industry, flouting their pledges to put themselves and their clients on a path to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions as the window to avert the worst consequences of the intensifying climate crisis rapidly closes.

But banks’ underwriting activities receive far less attention than their direct lending practices, even though both are instrumental in enabling fossil fuel expansion and must be reformed to rein in the industry most responsible for imperiling the planet’s livability.

That’s the key takeaway from a new analysis of Wall Street’s participation in capital markets published by the Sierra Club’s Fossil-Free Finance campaign.

“By only focusing on emissions reduction targets for their lending activities, banks are conveniently excluding half of their fossil fuel financing from their climate commitments.”

“Banks play a vital role in capital markets,” the report explains. “Acting as underwriters, they are the gatekeepers of fossil fuel companies: they advise companies issuing bonds and equities, hold the vital information on the issuer, and help market the instruments to investors disclosing only the necessary risk.”

Since 2016, the six largest US banks—JPMorgan Chase, Citi, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, and Goldman Sachs—have provided more than $433 billion in lending and underwriting to 30 of the companies doing the most to increase fossil fuel extraction and combustion worldwide, the report notes. More than three-fifths (61%) of that financing comes from underwriting, with those half-dozen banking giants issuing $266 billion in new bonds and equities for the world’s top 30 fossil fuel expansion firms.

Climate justice advocates have long criticized the concept of “net-zero” because, they argue, allowing planet-heating pollution to be “cancelled out” via dubious carbon offset programs or risky carbon removal technologies is an accounting trick that doesn’t guarantee the significant emissions cuts needed to avoid the climate emergency’s most destructive impacts.

But even if one accepts the premise of net-zero, big US banks’ policies on the topic are misleading.

“Despite the importance of capital markets activities in helping fossil fuel companies secure new financing, banks focus primarily on lending, while downplaying the importance of underwriting, when setting their emissions reduction targets,” the report says. Banks are performing sleight of hand, distracting investors and regulators with net-zero transition plans that are half-finished, while continuing to funnel money to fossil fuel companies via capital markets with limited scrutiny.

In a statement, Adele Shraiman, senior campaign strategist with the Sierra Club’s Fossil-Free Finance campaign, said that “without banks, fossil fuel companies cannot raise money through capital markets.”

“By downplaying their role in capital markets and refusing to include facilitated emissions in their climate targets, big US banks are intentionally sidestepping a major source of real-world emissions and making it impossible to meet their own net-zero commitments,” said Shraiman.

According to the report: “Only three of the six major Wall Street banks include bond and equity underwriting in their sectoral emissions reduction targets—JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, and Wells Fargo. The remaining three banks have so far chosen to only apply emissions reduction targets to lending activities.”

However, “even among those who have set emissions reduction targets that include underwriting, insufficient disclosures and lack of standardization make it difficult to understand how robust banks’ facilitated emissions accounting methods are, and what progress they are making toward achieving their emissions reduction targets,” the report adds.

In a blog post, Shraiman wrote that “Banks don’t want us to know all of the ways they help fossil fuel companies raise funds to continue building the pipelines, oil rigs, fracking wells, and coal mines that are destroying the climate and hurting communities.”

“But investors, regulators, and customers around the world see through their duplicity,” she continued. “We are demanding complete, robust, and transparent net-zero plans that cover all types of financing activities and will lead to real-world emissions reductions in line with our global climate goals.”

“Banks don’t want us to know all of the ways they help fossil fuel companies raise funds to continue building the pipelines, oil rigs, fracking wells, and coal mines that are destroying the climate.”

Monday’s report comes at a key moment in the fight to stop Wall Street from continuing to fund climate chaos.

As the Sierra Club noted, “Banks currently point to a lack of industry standards on underwriting to justify why they do not disclose or set targets for facilitated emissions.” However, the industry-led Partnership for Carbon Accounting Financials is expected to release its updated methodology on accounting for and facilitated reducing emissions in the near future.

“Underwriting is a huge missing piece of net-zero transition plans, allowing big US banks to continue to help fossil fuel companies raise billions of dollars with limited scrutiny,” Shraiman said. “By only focusing on emissions reduction targets for their lending activities, banks are conveniently excluding half of their fossil fuel financing from their climate commitments.”

“It’s time,” she added, “for the major Wall Street banks to adopt a robust and consistent methodology for accounting facilitated emissions, and take full responsibility for the climate impacts of their underwriting decisions.”

The International Energy Agency has stated unequivocally that there is “no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply in our net-zero pathway.”

After the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest assessment in March, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said that limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C is possible, “but it will take a quantum leap in climate action,” including a ban on approving and financing new coal, oil, and gas projects as well as a phaseout of existing fossil fuel production.

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