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HSBC is latest bank to pledge net-zero financed emissions by mid-century

But its commitment is slammed by campaigners as "empty" and an "attempt to buy time" due to its failure to commit to divest from coal and oil and gas.

HSBC bank building in Canary Wharf London

The HSBC bank building in Canary Wharf, London. Image via Shutterstock

HSBC has become the latest bank to commit to achieving net-zero financed emissions, announcing Monday that it intends to align its portfolio of investments and debt financing with global climate targets by mid-century.

The bank, currently Europe's second largest financier of fossil fuels, has committed to reaching net-zero across its supply chain and operations by 2030, before reaching net-zero across its customer portfolio 20 years later.

The pledge does not include any firm commitments to phasing out support of fossil fuel companies, but confirms the bank's plans to channel between $75 billion and $1 trillion of financing and investment over the next 10 years to support its customers' transition towards net zero emissions.

In an open letter to its clients, HSBC CEO Noel Quinn said the bank had been motivated to ramp up its environmental ambition by customer concern about climate change.

"We know this is an issue that many of our 40 million customers care deeply about, particularly in our retail and private banking businesses," Quinn wrote. "They care as citizens, consumers and business owners. We are committed to developing products that allow them to invest or participate in efforts to bring about a more sustainable global economy."

While the pledge provides limited detail on the measures it will take to slash the carbon emissions of its portfolio or operations, the bank said it would establish "clear, measurable pathways" to net-zero using the Paris Agreement's Capital Transition Assessment Tool (PACTA).

We know this is an issue that many of our 40 million customers care deeply about, particularly in our retail and private banking businesses.

HSBC said it would "apply a climate lens" to all its financing decisions and disclose its climate risk in line with the recommendations of the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosure (TCFD). It also said it would work with the broader finance sector to create a standard to measure financed emissions and support a functioning carbon offset market.

Ben Caldecott, director of the Oxford sustainable finance program and COP26 strategy adviser for finance, hailed the announcement as a "big deal," noting that HSBC faced particular challenges due to its being more exposed to emerging markets than many of its peers.

Elsewhere, the news elicited a more lukewarm response, with a number of environmental campaigners slamming the commitment as "empty" due to its lack of a phaseout timeline for its support of fossil-fuel companies and businesses responsible for deforestation.

"HSBC's net-zero commitment is a bit like saying you'll give up smoking by 2050, but continuing to buy a pack a week or even smoking more," said Becky Jarvis, coordinator of campaign group network Fund Our Future UK. "Any further financing of oil, gas and coal expansion today is utterly at odds with a net-zero commitment by 2050. That's just science, not finance."

Adam McGibbon, energy finance campaigner at Market Forces, said the proposals represented "zero ambition, not net-zero ambition."

"If you want to know what HSBC's stance on climate change really is, look at what they fund, not their fluffy marketing," he added. "This is a bank that owns stakes in companies seeking to build enough coal power plants to emit carbon emissions equivalent to 37 years of the UK's annual emissions."

HSBC, which provided $87 billion in financing to top fossil fuel companies since the Paris Agreement and nearly $8 billion in loans and underwriting to 29 companies developing coal plants between 2017 and Q3 2019, has faced growing pressure from shareholders to cease financing companies heavily dependent on fossil fuels.

In May, 24 percent of shareholders voted in favor for an independent resolution that called for clear phaseout targets and in 2019 a group of investors, including Schroders, EdenTree and Hermes EOS, wrote a letter to the bank's then-CEO urging him to end support of companies dependent on coal mining or coal power.

This week's announcement is the latest in a growing wave of pledges from across the financial sector from banks and investment firms looking to fully decarbonize not just their operations but also their portfolios. In the past month alone, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase have made similar pledges, while earlier this year Barclays and Natwest promised to move their investment activities into line with the Paris Agreement.

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