LONDON — Banks and investors have channeled massive sums of money to support the coal industry in recent years, according to new research, propping up the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel at a time when humanity is facing a climate emergency.
Analysis published Tuesday by campaign groups Urgewald and Reclaim Finance, alongside more than two dozen other NGOs, found that commercial banks channeled $1.5 trillion to the coal industry between January 2019 and November last year.
The research shows how a tiny number of financial institutions from a handful of countries play an outsized role in keeping the coal industry afloat.
Indeed, financial institutions from just six countries — the U.S., China, Japan, India, Canada and the U.K. — were seen to be responsible for more than 80% of coal financing and investment.
“These financial institutions must come under fire from all quarters: civil society organizations, financial regulators, customers and progressive investors,” Katrin Ganswindt, head of financial research at Urgewald, said in the report. “Unless we end financing of coal, it will end us.”
Coal is the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel in terms of emissions and therefore the most critical target for replacement in the transition to renewable alternatives.
The International Energy Agency has made clear that unless coal is rapidly retired there is little chance, if any at all, of curbing global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — the aspirational goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Yet, even as policymakers and business leaders repeatedly tout their commitment to the so-called “energy transition,” the world’s fossil fuel dependency remains on track to get even worse.
Who are the top lenders to coal clients?
The findings outline all corporate lending and underwriting for companies on Urgewald’s Global Coal Exit List but exclude green bonds and financing that is directed toward non-coal activities. The GCEL refers to a list of 1,032 companies that account for 90% of the world’s thermal coal production and coal-fired capacity.
It is the first GCEL finance research update since the COP26 climate conference was held in Glasgow, Scotland late last year. Campaigners say it is for this reason that the analysis should be seen as a benchmark to assess the integrity of promises made at COP26.
Major coal-dependent nations at the U.N. talks pledged for the first time to “phase down” coal-fired power generation and inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels. A last-minute intervention to amend the terminology of the Glasgow Climate Pact to “phase down” rather than “phase out” sparked fears among many it would create a loophole to delay desperately needed climate action.
“Banks like to argue that they want to help their coal clients transition, but the reality is that almost none of these companies are transitioning. And they have little incentive to do so as long as bankers continue writing them blank checks,” Ganswindt said.
The NGOs research shows that while 376 commercial banks provided $363 billion in loans to the coal industry between January 2019 and November 2021, just 12 banks accounted for 48% of total lending to companies on the GCEL.
Of these so-called “dirty dozen” lenders, 10 are members of the U.N.’s Net Zero Banking Alliance — an industry-led initiative committed to aligning their portfolios with net-zero emissions by 2050.
The top three lenders providing loans to the coal industry consist of Japan’s Mizuho Financial, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial and SMBC Group, respectively, followed by the U.K.’s Barclays and Wall Street’s Citigroup.
CNBC has requested comment from the companies identified in this report. Mizuho Financial and Citi both declined to respond to the NGOs analysis.
‘Vast amounts of cash’
The study found it is underwriting that now accounts for the lion’s share of capital that banks mobilize for their coal clients. Underwriting refers to the process by which banks raise investment or capital for companies by issuing bonds or shares on their behalf and selling them to investors such as pension funds, insurance funds and mutual funds.
In the almost two-year period from January 2019 through to November last year, 484 commercial banks channeled $1.2 trillion to companies on the GCEL through underwriting. Of these, just 12 banks were found to account for 39% of the total underwriting since 2019.
The Industrial Commercial Bank of China, the China International Trust and Investment Corporation and the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank were identified as the top three respective underwriters of the coal industry. Indeed, the only non-Chinese bank among the top 12 underwriters for the coal industry was JPMorgan Chase, the biggest U.S. bank by assets.
Jason Opena Disterhoft, senior climate and energy campaigner at Rainforest Action Network, said JPMorgan’s list of coal clients in 2021 “reads like a ‘who’s who’ of the most carbon-heavy companies on the planet.”
He added: “Despite a new coal policy in 2020, it’s still servicing top carbon polluters like China Huaneng, Eskom, American Electric Power and Adani.”
Reflecting on the findings of the research, Urgewald’s Ganswindt told CNBC that it was important to see the big picture when it comes to how banks provide support to the coal industry.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether banks are supporting the coal industry by providing loans or by providing underwriting services. Both actions lead to the same result: Vast amounts of cash are provided to an industry that is our climate’s worst enemy,” she said.
What about investors?
While banks play a pivotal role in helping coal companies get their hands on the capital through underwriting their share and bond issuances, the NGOs behind the research recognized it is ultimately investors that are the buyers of these securities.
The research identifies almost 5,000 institutional investors with combined holdings of over $1.2 trillion in the coal industry. The top two dozen account for 46% of this sum as of November 2021. U.S. investment giants Blackrock and Vanguard were found to be the two largest institutional investors, respectively.
“No one should be fooled by BlackRock‘s and Vanguard‘s membership in the Net Zero Asset Managers Initiative. These two institutions have more responsibility for accelerating climate change than any other institutional investor worldwide,” Yann Louvel, policy analyst at Reclaim Finance, said in a statement.
He added it was “absolutely frightening” to see that pension funds, asset managers, mutual funds and other institutional investors were still betting on coal companies in the midst of the climate emergency.
BlackRock declined to comment on the NGOs findings.
A spokesperson for Vanguard told CNBC that the company was “committed to encouraging companies, through effective stewardship, to address material climate risks” through the energy transition.
“As an asset manager Vanguard has a fiduciary responsibility to the broad range of retail, intermediary and institutional investors who have entrusted us with their assets,” they said. “Our mandate is to invest client assets in accordance with the investment strategies they have selected, and to act as a steward of those assets. We take this responsibility very seriously.”