Monday, October 31, 2022

HSBC’s greenwashing and the myth of stakeholder capitalism

Oh, the irony! Five months after infamously standing down its Head of Responsible Investment, Stuart Kirk, to appease a few outraged lobbyists and ‘capital market influencers’, HSBC has been allegedly engaging in a bit of greenwashing. As humorous as it is, HSBC’s blatant hypocrisy serves as a stark reminder of the risks that arise when companies give in to ‘stakeholder capitalism’ and try to appease everyone but their shareholders.

Around the time of the COP26 summit in October 2021, HSBC ran two advertisements in the UK. Largely in black, grey, and white (no doubt to create a sense of doom and gloom), each sought to tout the Bank’s apparent contribution to addressing Climate Change.

The first ad, with a wave crashing on a beach in the background, promoted the $1 trillion of investment and financing HSBC says it will use to assist clients ‘transition to Net Zero’. The second, featuring a picture of tree growth rings, promoted the Bank’s planting of 2 million trees. As anyone who has ever landed at Heathrow would know, the advertisements could easily be construed as a suggestion that HSBC is attempting to single-handedly save the world.

Whilst the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority didn’t put it quite that highly, it did recently hold that the advertisements represented to consumers that the Bank was making a ‘positive overall environmental contribution as a company’. What the advertisements didn’t mention was the Bank’s financing of significant greenhouse gas emitting companies and sectors. In the ASA’s view, this made them misleading.

HSBC is reported by the ASA as having stated in its defence that high greenhouse gas-emitting companies will require financing during a transition to Net Zero, that fossil fuels will be critical to energy security up to 2050, and that the Bank preferred a phase-down and industry engagement approach over divestment. HSBC also suggested that because of the publicity surrounding the COP26 summit, the average consumer would have been aware of the debate regarding the role of banks in relation to Climate Change.

These arguments clearly didn’t help. The ASA found that the advertisements were misleading, banned them, and warned HSBC that future advertisements featuring environmental claims must be appropriately qualified and not omit material information about its contribution to GHG emissions.

Based on what HSBC submitted to the ASA, none of this should have been a problem. After all, unlike many of its peers, HSBC claimed to understand that fossil fuels are essential to energy security. Yet since December 2021, the Bank has made a series of decisions that are in direct conflict with what it submitted to the ASA.

First, in December 2021, HSBC announced that would phase out the financing of coal used for electricity generation. Displaying not a skerrick of concern for energy security, the Bank said it would stop financing coal-fired power and thermal coal mining in the EU and OECD countries by 2030, and in all other countries by 2040. A full 10-20 years earlier than the Bank expressly told the ASA fossil fuel companies would require financing!

In March 2022, the Bank addressed its approach to other energy companies. Whilst it said it would engage with those companies, HSBC also said that if they do not produce climate transition plans that are compatible with its own Net Zero targets, it will consider whether to continue to provide financing. In other words, it’s the Bank’s way or the highway. So much for debate. HSBC’s Asset Management division made a similar announcement in September 2022, stating that it would immediately stop investing in IPOs or primary fixed debt issuance of any company involved in thermal coal expansion and that it would divest from companies that do not have transition plans that align with its timelines.

By May this year, HSBC was not just refusing to acknowledge the existence of a debate as to the role of banks in relation to climate, it was showing utter contempt for the idea. Following a now well-documented speech, Kirk was stood down. Yes, the speech was a bit sensationalist and probably deliberative provocative, but its substantive content merely raised questions about the time, money, and resources spent by investors addressing climate risks and made the argument for investing in adaptation measures. Never mind the Bank’s position that average consumers would understand that is a debate worth having, the outrage those questions apparently caused some on Twitter was enough for the Bank to effectively show Kirk the door.

So, contrary to what it told the ASA is necessary for energy security, HSBC has committed to stop financing and owning fossil fuel companies well before 2050, foreshadowed divestment, and indicated that it considers there to be no debate about the role of banks in relation to climate change.

Such contradictions are not surprising. Like many companies around the world, HSBC seems confused about the interests it is supposed to promote and protect. This demonstrates one of the big problems with stakeholder capitalism; by requiring companies to act in the interests of multiple groups with disparate and often conflicting interests, stakeholder capitalism can result in a complete lack of corporate focus, inherent contradictions, misplaced societal demands, and ultimately, a situation in which there are no winners.

In trying to boost its green credentials and appeal to certain stakeholders, HSBC was accused of misleading the public. HSBC has tried to step into the shoes of elected public policymakers without the constraint of being answerable to society-at-large and has committed to taking actions that have been shown to be more likely to exacerbate negative environmental impacts than reduce them. One group to whom the Bank is truly answerable, shareholders, have seemingly been forgotten. Perhaps the biggest irony in this story is that if it prioritised shareholder interests, HSBC would probably deliver more environmental benefits.

Not only is shareholder primacy what the law requires, but it is also necessary to ensure that accountability for public policy remains squarely with elected officials, and probably what will bring about the most enduring benefits for the environment and other stakeholders. The concept serves more than just shareholders and should be fought for with vigor. We will know we are back on track when you’re greeted at Heathrow by an HSBC ad featuring a coal mine.


What's wrong with being an apocalypse denier?

Brendan O'Neill
This week, on BBC radio, I made a confession: I am a denier. Not a climate-change denier – an apocalypse denier. I thought it was a clever point – to distinguish between my acceptance that climate change is happening and my scepticism that it will imminently bring about the fiery destruction of Earth. Apparently not. You should have heard the intakes of breath. Apparently even apocalypse denialism is unacceptable in polite society now.

It was on Nicky Campbell’s show on 5 Live. I was up against a spokesperson for Just Stop Oil and the question was whether that movement’s art-splattering and road-blocking antics are justifiable. I made my point – that Just Stop Oil strikes me as an out-of-touch movement that is mad to agitate for less energy production during an energy crisis. Don’t you know that many people, including vulnerable elderly people, are worried about how they’re going to keep the heat on this winter, I asked?

But it was when we got into the question of why Just Stop Oil is doing what it does – because it thinks the end of the world is nigh – that things really kicked off. ‘The world is burning’, said the Just Stop Oil person. Nicky Campbell put the point to me forcefully: ‘Millions of people will die worldwide…’ I started to respond – ‘This hysterical representation of climate change…’ – but I was cut off by gasps and shouts. Campbell made a noise that I can only transcribe as ‘Ohhhhhhewwwww’. Clearly I’d committed blasphemy. I had dared to doubt the imminence of End Times.

Over the huffing I carried on with my point: ‘Everyone accepts that climate change is happening, everyone accepts that mankind has an impact on his environment, and that some solutions will be required to alleviate that impact.’ But, I continued, ‘The presentation of that as “the world is burning”, and there’s an apocalypse, and, in the words of Extinction Rebellion, that billions of people will die – that is untrue.’

It wasn’t enough. Campbell asked if I had read the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports (I have: I couldn’t find anything about billions of people dying). The Just Stop Oil spokesperson branded me ‘dangerous’ and said ‘deniers’ like me should not be ‘taking up precious airtime’. You are a ‘total denier’, she said. ‘I’m an apocalypse denier’, I replied. After that I was pretty much frozen out of the discussion. My sin was too grave. They carried on with their Armageddon chat.

It is no longer enough to accept that the industrial era has impacted on the environment. You must also repeat the millenarian mantra about the coming heat-death of humankind. Acceptance of science will no longer ward off accusations of denialism. You must also accept a hyper-moralised, hyper-politicised interpretation of that science as proof that mankind is a singularly destructive force, that modernity was a mistake, and that the world will end if we don’t stop oil, stop gas, stop nuclear and stop pretty much everything. Bow down to that dire ideology or you’re in trouble.

But it’s untrue. And it’s unscientific. As the American writer Michael Shellenberger has said, the Extinction Rebellion claim that ‘life on Earth is dying’ and ‘Billions (of people) will die’ is not substantiated by anything resembling science. ‘No credible scientific body has ever said climate change threatens the collapse of civilisation, much less the extinction of the human species’, Shellenberger points out. The IPCC predicts a sea level rise of two feet by 2100. That doesn’t sound apocalyptic, especially as we have 80 years to prepare for it. ‘There is robust evidence of disasters displacing people worldwide’, says the IPCC, ‘but limited evidence that climate change or sea-level rise is the direct cause’.

As for billions dying, the truth is that far fewer people die in natural calamities today than in the past. ‘In 1931, 3.7m people died from natural disasters. In 2018, just 11,000 did’, says Shellenberger. And that decline occurred in a period in which the human population quadrupled and more and more of the world was industrialised. The unscientific cry that ‘the world is burning’ – the world clearly is not burning – distracts attention from the provable and wonderful fact that billions of people’s living conditions, life expectancy and safety from calamitous weather have improved in recent decades.

So yes, climate change is happening. And it poses a practical challenge for humankind. But it’s not an apocalypse. I remain an apocalypse denier. Someone in that radio discussion was making scientifically questionable claims – it wasn’t me.

The most striking thing was Nicky Campbell appearing to gloat at the fact that the BBC no longer has to be balanced on climate change. ‘We don’t have to have balance on this topic on the BBC’, he said. ‘It’s like evolution. The science is absolutely clear. So the days of me not being able to say “You’re talking baloney” are over.’

That is extraordinary, is it not? Of course if the BBC wants to ban what it considers to be unscientific views on climate change, that’s its prerogative, though I think even that is a mistake, given that there must surely be contrasting scientific takes even on this issue. But if it starts to sideline people who call into question the politics of all this, who challenge the fearmongering of certain eco-hysterics, then it will be engaging in political censorship, pure and simple. So, BBC, you censor climate-change denialism, we know that. But what about apocalypse denialism? Is that still allowed? Is it still permissible to express faith in humankind and to defend modern society on your network?


Fracking fury: Industry body hammers Sunak after shale gas U-turn

The UK’s leading onshore energy body has expressed its fury with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s apparent decision to re-impose the ban on fracking – just weeks after it was lifted.

Charles McAllister, director of policy for UK Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG), warned banning fracking would risk the UK being reliant on imported supplies for a decades – undermining supply security and ramping up emissions.

He told City A.M.: “If this is true then we are stunned that such an illogical U-turn would be taken by the Government in the middle of an energy crisis, at the expense of UK households and businesses.

“If reports are accurate, then a decision has been made to lock the UK into reliance on imported gas for decades. The geopolitical, environmental and economic consequences of such a decision will last far beyond the two years remaining of this parliament.”

UKOOG highlighted that Sunak had previously expressed his support for fracking provided local communities supported it during the previous leadership campaign this summer.

Mc Allister said: “The scientific consensus is, as the Prime Minister noted a few months ago in his support of fracking, that the seismic activity from shale gas development is not out of the ordinary compared to other industries in the UK, such as quarrying, geothermal and construction.”

Downing Street confirmed yesterday Sunak will drop former Prime Minister Liz Truss’ plans to end the England ban on fracking.

He told MPs in the House of Commons that he “already said I stand by the manifesto on” fracking, which committed to maintaining a moratorium on the practice unless scientific evidence shows it’s safe.

Truss’ decision to end the shale gas extraction ban triggered a major backlash among Tory MPs, with a Labour vote on the issue last week leading to chaos in the House of Commons.

The vote, which saw confusion about the government’s instructions to backbenchers and alleged physical bullying by senior ministers, directly led to Truss’ downfall the next day.

Fracking: There and back again

Fracking involves injecting water, sand and chemicals at high pressure into boreholes deep underground to fracture rock and release shale gas.

The latest setback for the sector is only the latest chapter in a dramatic 12 months, which has seen fracking move from the verge of closure to reopening, only to be re-banned yesterday.

The Government imposed a moratorium on the practice amid concerns over tremors and safety.

Its manifesto in December 2019 said the party would “not support fracking unless the science shows categorically it can be done safely”.

Earlier this year, the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) ordered Cuadrilla to plug the UK’s two remaining shale wells.

However, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NSTA gave fracking a reprieve – pausing its plugging requirement – before the Government decided to commission the British Geological Society (BGS) to conduct a scientific survey on the practice to assess whether the process could be made safer.

The survey suggested that while concerns over tremors remained, there was a case for exploration and drilling to determine the scale of opportunity and the viability of fracking.

BGS argued that more data collection is needed in the UK to ascertain fracking’s safety and potential.

UKOOG has has previously cited data from the BGS forecasting there could be as much as 37.6tn cubic metres of shale gas under the ground.

If ten per cent was recoverable, UKOOG argues this would be enough to help meet the country’s energy needs for the next five decades.

However, fracking remains unpopular compared to other energy activities, such as onshore wind and solar power, with YouGov polling from May suggesting the people oppose the revival of fracking by a 46-29 margin.

The Government’s most recent polling – conducted last autumn – found just 17 per cent of the public supported fracking, compared with 87 per cent who backed renewables.

UKOOG had pledged to work with the Government and local communities over potential shale gas extraction sites.

This included potential compensation and community funding.


Australia: Cheap renewables, rising power bills?

James Macpherson

I cannot work out which is more incredible – the claims this government makes, or the fact that this government expects Australians to believe their claims.

Labor continually promises to reduce cost of living while increasing the cost of living.

Their strategy to lower prices is to increase prices.

If I could afford to laugh, I would.

Renewable energy is the cheapest form of energy, the Prime Minister chants zombie-like, as prices rise in direct proportion to his use of renewable energy.

I swear, every time he utters the words ‘renewable energy’, my power bill goes up.

Australians are caught in a kind of twilight zone where we are continually told to expect cheaper power while continually told to expect more expensive power.

Oh, but don’t worry, you’ll still get that promised $275 cut to your power bill. It’s just that your power bill will have gone up by a couple of thousand dollars before Labor cut it by a couple of hundred dollars.

The Prime Minister will then claim, with a straight face, that he has saved us money. And my teenage son worries that he is the one struggling with math!

This is a government that believes it can keep global temperatures in check when it can’t even keep a $275 promise to struggling families in the suburbs.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers explained today that the delay in providing the promised cut was due to a flaw in the modelling.   ‘That model was done in 2021, and it referred to an outcome in 2025,’ he said.

But don’t worry, the government’s modelling about how taxing cow farts will stop the warming of the planet and the rising of the oceans is totally legit!

This Labor government insists that renewable energy is the cheapest form of energy, or at least it will be, just as soon as they spend another $10 billion of your money here, and another $10 billion there.

How much will it cost taxpayers to end up with cheap power?  The answer is always the same. Just a little bit more.

If you believe the government’s obsession with intermittent energy will deliver cheap power, you have the one prerequisite necessary to do energy minister Chris Bowen’s job – wishful thinking.

Expect him to provide a unicorn with your next power bill.




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