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Westpac: a laggard on climate change

12 December 2019

12 December 2019

Westpac’s board knew they would be facing fired-up shareholders at today’s annual general meeting (AGM) but perhaps weren’t prepared to bear the weight of responsibility for the impacts on communities and customers fighting the climate crisis. 

Amid its recent scandals, the board was forced to address the call from shareholders to commit to a climate policy that would not fund the worsening of droughts, bushfires and extreme weather currently engulfing Australia.

This was backed up by a shareholder resolution coordinated by Market Forces pushing Westpac to align its policies with the climate goals of the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global warming to 1.5°C or at worst well below 2°C.

Our banks campaigner Maggie McKeown addressed the resolution today at the AGM. 

“As we sit here, communities across Australia are fighting to protect their families and homes from unprecedented bushfires, fueled by record-breaking drought combined with blistering heatwaves. This is climate change and this is not normal. We might feel disconnected from that reality right now sitting here in this room, but the decisions that our company and its board make about Westpac’s lending to coal, oil and gas projects will have huge impacts on those communities already bearing the consequences of continued funding of fossil fuels.” 

The resolution achieved a 16.6% vote in favour, representing $14.5 billion dollars worth of support from investors.

Westpac lagging behind its peers 

The recent revelation that ANZ secretly plans to reduce its exposure to thermal coal by 75% by 2024 leaves Westpac as the only one of the big four banks without a strategy to end lending to thermal coal.

In fact, Market Forces’ analysis indicates that Westpac has ramped up its lending to fossil fuel projects since committing to uphold the Paris Agreement goals in 2015, moving us dangerously closer to the emissions tipping point that we must avoid for any chance of a safe future climate.

Westpac’s board will have a lot to mull over as it decides where the bank stands on future fossil fuels lending ahead of Westpac’s climate policy update due in early 2020. 

Westpac still open to funding expansion of fossil fuels

Ken Thompson, former Deputy Commissioner with Fire and Rescue NSW, passionately informed the board that its decision to keep lending millions of dollars to expand the fossil fuel industry contributes to Australia’s current and unprecedented bushfire crisis.

He asked Westpac when it will set a target to phase out its coal lending in line with the climate goals of the Paris Agreement.

Lindsay Maxsted confirmed to the former Deputy Commissioner that Westpac is indeed a laggard on coal divestment and climate action, telling shareholders “we have not to date singled out one aspect of the whole climate change debate i.e. coal and said that we will finish by a certain date.”

This is out of step with mainstream science and calls from major global investors. Research by Climate Analytics points to a need for OECD countries to have phased out coal power completely by 2031. Meanwhile, the Global Investor Statement to Governments on Climate Change – signed by 515 investors representing over US$35 trillion in assets – is calling for the end of coal power in OECD countries by no later than 2030.

Erin Laurence, whose family home burnt to the ground in NSW ‘s November bushfires, called upon the board to take responsibility for the devastation felt by communities facing the extreme weather fueled by ongoing funding of coal, oil and gas projects. Watch Erin’s address to the board:

Asked how Westpac justified lending to projects that expand the scale of the fossil fuel industry, Chairman Lindsay Maxsted’s response was confusing and intellectually dishonest. Maxsted failed to address whatsoever the substance of the question and summed up his answer by addressing an entirely irrelevant point, telling Erin “you’re right, we haven’t gone to the extent of stopping lending today to all fossil fuel companies.” 

Market Forces notes this phrase, and variants of it, are a meaningless trope commonly used by companies to justify inaction on climate change. In this case, it appears Maxsted was implying Erin suggested that Westpac stop “lending today to all fossil fuel companies,” even though they had unambiguously spoken to Westpac’s funding to expand the scale of the fossil fuel industry.

Awash with greenwash

Westpac’s Lindsay Maxsted asked shareholders on multiple occasions throughout the AGM to suspend reality, telling them that the bank is ‘aligned’ with the Paris Agreement and that its climate change plans are ‘consistent’ with the Agreement.

This is despite Westpac having funded the expansion of the fossil fuel industry on numerous occasions since its rhetorical commitment to the Paris Agreement and is still open to funding projects that expand the industry, as well as companies whose business plans rely on the failure of the Agreement.

Maxsted also confirmed that Westpac has no plans to phase out coal exposure in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Take action

Click to tell Westpac to uphold its pledge to keep global warming below 1.5°C by stopping the flow of money to the dirty fossil fuel industry.