HSBC lags as finance cleans up on Asian energy
Op-ed by Munira Chowdhury, Analyst, Market Forces
Last week marked a significant milestone in the financial sector’s ever-increasing rejection of coal, as the world’s largest fund manager BlackRock, with more than US$6.5 trillion assets under management, announced it would drop thermal coal from its actively managed portfolios.
It came only days after new figures revealed that 2019 saw US coal power plants shut down at the second-fastest pace on record, with the UK seeing its cleanest ever year for electrical energy generation.
While the UK has made global headlines with its planned exit from coal-fired electricity, the same can’t be said of its banks, which poured at least $6.2 billion into international companies expanding coal power during 2019 alone and $26.2 billion since 2017, with 65% of this going to Asian companies.
According to a December report by BankTrack, Urgewald and 350.org, Standard Chartered and HSBC are the worst offenders, having sunk $8.5 billion and $7.9 billion into coal developers respectively from January 2017 to September last year. The funding comes despite numerous warnings from scientists and economists that no new fossil-fuel power plants can be built if global warming is to be limited below internationally agreed limits.
Just weeks after the report’s launch, Standard Chartered announced it would “only support clients who actively transition their business to generate less than 10% of earnings from thermal coal by 2030.” Importantly, the bank also announced it would withdraw its prospective financing of several proposed coal plants, believed to be Vung Ang 2 and Vinh Tan 3 in Vietnam and Java 9 and 10 in Indonesia.
This sits in stark contrast with HSBC, which has held on to a 2018 policy permitting itself to continue funding new coal power in Indonesia and Vietnam, as well as Bangladesh.
In Bangladesh, HSBC is arranging finance for the dredging of a port that would open the floodgates, almost literally, for coal pollution the likes of which that country has never seen. At peak operation, Payra Port would import 20 million metric tons of coal each year for eight proposed and under-construction coal power stations with a capacity of 10 gigawatts, approximately equivalent to the size of the UK’s coal fleet (12GW). Over their lifetimes, these plants would collectively emit more than three times as much carbon dioxide as the whole of the UK did in 2018.
Harvard University researchers calculate that in Indonesia and Vietnam alone, toxic coal-fired power pollution could cause 43,620 excess deaths every year by 2030. Given the current plans for a 63-fold coal-power expansion being pushed on Bangladesh by overseas companies, financiers like HSBC are not only paving the way for a carbon bomb but a health-care crisis.
And in case you’re thinking HSBC might have inadvertently overlooked the dire consequences of arranging funds for this project, it hasn’t. I brought these concerns directly to the bank’s board and senior executives at its annual general meeting in April last year and subsequently provided information directly to the chief executive officer and chairman. Yet HSBC seems intent on moving full steam ahead. Last Thursday, Payra Port Authority chairman Commodore M Jahangir Alam told media, “We’re expecting to complete the financial closure of the deal by March.”
This is one of seemingly countless examples of HSBC, which actively promotes itself as a leader on climate action and sustainable development, failing to live up to its rhetoric. The nature and extent of the bank’s hypocrisy are truly breathtaking and downright embarrassing.
A case in point is last week’s op-ed by Daniel Klier, HSBC group head of strategy and global head of sustainable finance, who wrote, “Injecting new urgency into the actions of governments and business should be the priority. In many countries decisions are being made now that will shape entire economic structures for decades to come. If those decisions are not made on a sustainable, low-carbon basis, we’ll be locking in high emissions for the foreseeable future.”
Perhaps HSBC should heed its own advice.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article suggested that HSBC “remains involved in the Vinh Tan 3 project.” However, HSBC has advised Asia Times that it has “no involvement at all in the Vinh Tan 3 project – including as financial adviser, funding arranger or prospective lender.”