Home > The power of finance to slow new coal plants

The power of finance to slow new coal plants

30 August 2018

Market Forces in the media

Op-ed in the Asia Times, August 29, 2018

So far, 2018 has seen seven banks dominant in Southeast Asia either release or update their policies related to coal, the single-biggest source of greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide. This number is soon to rise, with Standard Chartered in the final stages of preparing its own coal lending policy update.

The decisions of Southeast Asia’s major banks will have a huge bearing on the region’s energy future. And the energy future of Southeast Asia will have a huge bearing on the future of the global climate.

Meeting the Paris climate-change goals means we have already passed the point where any new coal power stations could be built. Contrast this against the fact that 178 gigawatts of new coal power stations are planned in Southeast Asia alone and it’s easy to understand why World Bank president Jim Yong Kim said of Vietnam’s plans to build 40GW of new coal power, “I think we are finished.”

“Finished” means so much more to Southeast Asia than to most regions. The economic impacts of climate change such as droughts, increasingly severe storms and rising sea levels will hit developing countries first and hardest.

The Asian Development Bank has calculated the economic impact of unabated greenhouse-gas emissions at 11% of Southeast Asian gross domestic product by the end of the century. But dollar values pale into insignificance when translated into families and communities displaced, livelihoods destroyed and lives lost.

Public and private banks can literally make or break an energy project when deciding what to finance. This critical role and heightened scrutiny of institutions that also handle the money of hundreds of millions of people has led to banks declaring where they stand on coal power.

Sadly, though, most of the announcements we have seen this year amount to little more than window-dressing.

Take Singapore’s three major banks, DBS, Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) and United Overseas Bank (UOB). All have produced policies that claim to exclude the most polluting coal power plants. But by setting the bar so low, their policies don’t even apply to the projects they are currently in line to finance, meaning that in effect, nothing changes.

Japan’s Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation (SMBC), Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG) and Mizuho Financial Group go further, setting the threshold for projects they are prepared to lend to at “ultra-supercritical” power stations – in essence those that operate at the highest efficiency of any technology.

On paper, this would require the banks to withdraw from 30% or more of the projects they are currently in discussions to finance. But so far they have not withdrawn from a single project, putting the integrity of the policies at risk.

But the most blatantly “status quo” policy was that of HSBC, which ruled out funding new coal power stations around the world except in Vietnam, Indonesia and Bangladesh. What’s so exceptional about these countries? We can only assume they’re the ones where HSBC is currently working to finance new coal.

HSBC’s policy was not well received. Writing in Asia Times, Nguy Thi Khanh of the Vietnamese organization GreenID described it as racist, suggesting HSBC thinks some countries don’t deserve clean air.

To their credit, several financial institutions have gone much further. In May, Daiichi Life Insurance announced it would not provide project financing for all new overseas coal-fired power projects. Then in July Nippon Life Insurance decided to halt funding to all new coal-fired power generation projects. Also in July, Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Bank stated that it would stop providing project finance for new coal-fired power stations.

But among banks, there is a major leadership void.

Step in Standard Chartered. The bank’s new coal policy is an opportunity to set a new tone among its peers, and invest in a way that respects people’s rights to not just clean air and water, but the chance of a safe climate future.

Testing the credibility of Standard Chartered’s policy will be easy. The bank is currently in line to finance three new coal power stations in Vietnam that, over their lifetimes, would add another 694 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Whether and how much this changes will demonstrate the effectiveness of the policy.

If credibility and leadership aren’t enough to persuade Standard Chartered to rule out new coal power, perhaps self-interest will play a role. With the rapidly declining costs of renewables and increased regulation on pollution, coal investments are getting riskier by the day. Bloomberg has commented on the heavy lending of both Standard Chartered and HSBC to coal power, highlighting just how exposed they are.

It doesn’t need to be this way – Standard Chartered can demonstrate leadership among its peers by ruling out new coal worldwide and committing itself to unlocking the capital needed to help Southeast Asia enjoy the renewable-energy revolution the rest of the world is experiencing.