Curbing climate breakdown in time

Tim Root

G7 leaders in Cornwall

The 9th August Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change report shows that on all of the current likely greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, by 2040 we would miss the Paris agreement target to limit global heating to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Above 1.5°C, dangerous weather events would increase in frequency and intensity, and at 3°C the intensity would quadruple, compared to 1.5°C. The horrific scenes of Greek wildfires and flooding in China and Western Europe underline the urgency of cutting emissions. A leading scientist responded to the report by saying ‘every extra tonne of CO2 emitted today is pushing us into a minefield of feedback effects tomorrow’.  However Australia’s prime minister reacted by saying ‘Australia is doing its part’, ignoring the fact that it is one of the world’s largest coal exporters, and has refused to set a date for getting to net-zero emissions. This indicates the type of obstacle climate campaigners need to surmount.

Last month, the BBC’s environment analyst pointed out that for ‘the umpteenth time’, the G7 had failed to deliver on the promised $100 billion annual climate finance for developing nations. These setbacks compound the appalling revelation that between January 2020 and March 2021 the G7 nations committed $189bn to support oil, coal and gas, compared to only $147bn on clean energy.

The G7 debacle also included a failure to provide more Covid vaccine to developing nations. All these factors cast a huge cloud over prospects for the UN climate conference COP26 this November, having severely eroded the trust needed to make progress there. Most developing nations will not prioritise climate over short-term economic gains if they cannot trust that developed countries will do so.

COP26 – will governments succeed at last?

The prospects for COP26, as with all these annual COPs, were poor long before it was postponed by the pandemic. Author David Wallace-Wells said of the 2019 COP25 that its failure could be predicted ‘months away — if not years or decades’.  At the opening of COP25 the UN Secretary General said ‘The point of no return is no longer on the horizon. It is in sight and hurtling towards us’. There have been many similar warnings, including that back in 2014 by Mark Carney, bank of England governor, that fossil fuel assets were likely to become ‘stranded’. However governments are so dysfunctional that such warnings are not enough to prompt the comprehensive action we need. Typical governments, which look no further ahead than their next election, are likely to continue to fail on climate breakdown. Even the 2015 COP, hailed as a triumph due to the Paris Agreement, put us on track for temperature rise between 3 and 4°C.

Campaigning for a good outcome at the COP is hampered by the fact that people distrust governments. Therefore it is very hard to get them to believe that campaigning to influence governments positively would be worth the effort. Throughout the EU, when people are asked to score their level of trust in the government out of 10, the average is only 3.9. An international survey found that government is trusted less than business, or NGOs. In view of all the above factors, it is wise for climate campaigns not to put all their hopes and effort into campaigning for the COP. A complementary strategy is also needed.     

There are promising signs that the business world is moving to protect the climate, to avoid huge losses as fossil fuel assets lose their value. On 26 May, called ‘the most cataclysmic day’ so far for the fossil-fuel industry, shareholders at both Exxon and Chevron overcame the opposition of each company’s board to get the companies to move towards cutting emissions. Moody’s, one of the world’s big three credit rating agencies, described this as ‘a substantial shift in the landscape for oil companies’, making it harder and more costly for them to get credit. In March a group of large investors, brought together by the campaign Share Action, prevailed on HSBC to set a timetable to reduce its fossil fuel investments. In early June 457 investment institutions, controlling a third of all the world’s invested funds, called on governments to ‘significantly strengthen’ their plans to cut carbon emissions in the next decade. Also over seventy Chief Executives from multinationals including Nestle, PepsiCo, and Bayer called on world leaders to make ‘bold’ specified measures to ‘help supercharge the net-zero climate and resilience transition’. In May the International Energy Agency, originally set up by wealthy nations’ governments to ensure plentiful energy supply, warned that development of new oil and gas fields must stop this year, and no new petrol/diesel cars should be sold beyond 2035. It also emphasised that switching rapidly to clean energy would boost the economy and cut energy costs.

Punish the climate-wrecking banks

These concerns will have a strong influence on the banks. The Financial Times recently reported a poll of banks’ risk officers, finding that they considered climate the biggest risk facing their bank over the next five years. An important factor in HSBC yielding to shareholder pressure was probably their knowledge of the poll undertaken for the campaign group Market Forces in December 2020. It found that 31% of their customers strongly agree that ‘banks should reduce investment in fossil fuel companies or projects’, and 14% said they were very likely to consider changing their bank due to HSBC’s investments in fossil fuels. The poll found similar results for Barclays’ customers.

The banks are vital targets for climate campaigners, with bank credit to the private sector globally being worth 98% of total world output. Hence they have a massive ability to influence companies’ carbon footprint. Banks’ financial prospects are far from good. A report by the huge consultancy McKinsey describes how they face major losses due to customers’ losses caused by the pandemic, and the decline in economic activity, which will probably continue till at least 2024. Therefore banks need to avoid any growth of customer negativity towards them. Accenture’s 2020 global survey found that only 29% of customers trust that their main bank is looking after their financial wellbeing. Banks face competition from digital-only neobanks, with nearly a quarter of people surveyed having a neobank account. This proportion is expected to increase substantially.

Campaigners need to engage closely with bank customers to mobilise pressure on the banks. The prospect of anything close to 10% of customers switching bank will motivate the banks to try and protect their reputation with clear evidence of cutting their financing of high carbon businesses. Switching banks is now easy. Campaigns should organise large number of bank customers to close their accounts, or if they are undecided, to complete a postcard to the bank saying that they will close the account within 3 months if the bank has not committed to speed up its withdrawal from fossil fuels. Photos of large groups of customers outside the bank cutting up their cards would get huge publicity. Targeting one bank at a time in each nation would heighten the pressure on that particular bank, emphasising that it is even worse than its competitors. The time is ripe in the UK to make Barclays the prime target. It is the worst-ranked European bank for supporting fossil fuels, in which it invested $20 billion in 2020. At its annual meeting in May, only 14% of shareholders voted in favour of aligning its business practices with the Paris Agreement. Already 10 UK student unions have voted to boycott Barclays. Other organisations could join the Barclays campaign and strengthen it considerably. Giving information about ethical banks would help encourage Barclays customers to switch.

Climate concern spreading throughout society

It is also vital for climate campaigns to increase their influence by getting more supporters from across the political spectrum and from different parts of society. Daily Telegraph leader writer Tim Stanley recently warned ‘The Earth is in trouble and it’s the most important crisis we face … If we don’t act now, an entire way of life will be destroyed’. The Director General of the Confederation of British Industry recently said ‘The climate crisis is worsening and currently we’re way off track’.

In most countries the media now generally cover climate change as an important issue, and more often. In the UK even the formerly sceptical Daily Express has improved most of its coverage, starting with its 8 February headline  Join our Green Britain revolution, with its familiar masthead coloured greenThis article highlights its poll finding that 66% of adults are ‘worried by the state of the planet, climate change and the decline of wildlife and nature’. It called on Boris Johnson to ‘show world leadership on the issue’ at the G7 and COP 26.

This illustrates that it should be possible for broader campaign coalitions to be nurtured. Such coalitions would show society, and the media, that climate campaigning is now mainstream, and no longer the preserve of radicals. This would have guilty institutions like banks urgently reviewing their business model.

Tim Root is co-ordinator of Muswell Hill & Hornsey Friends of the Earth