The crucial role of banks and insurers in reducing greenhouse gas emissions

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As the planet Earth struggles to stay sustainable — the race to contain and reduce greenhouse gas emissions gets critical. Three countries stand out as the top pollutants — China, US and India, in that order. Each of them is faced with their set of unique challenges. Most of those challenges can be overcome with the support of the banking and especially the insurance industry.


Look at what is happening in the US. In the next decade the nation will account for 61 per cent of the world’s new oil and gas production. The sheer scale of this new production dwarfs that of every other country in the world and would spell disaster for the world’s ambitions to curb climate change. Yet a recent study found that up to half of new US oil fields rely on government subsidies to be economically viable. Without these subsidies, those projects would not proceed.  It is here that banks, asset managers and insurers can play a role. They provide capital to the fossil fuel industry. The only American insurers to date to take a clear position to not insure fossil fuel are Axis and Chubb. Unlike the key European insurers and reinsurers, the Americans — notwithstanding their listed status — stay invested in fossil fuel and continue to support all insurance requirements.


At the other end, China has emerged as the biggest generator of solar power and the biggest installer of solar panels. The installed capacity of solar panels in China in 2018 amounted to more than a third of the global total. But while it has shown interest in solar, challenges persist in the form of its overseas investments in coal. An analysis by the Chinese NGO Global Environmental Institute estimates that China was involved in 240 coal-fired power projects in 25 of the Belt and Road countries by the end of 2016. With 52 projects in the pipeline, Chinese-funded coal projects in Belt and Road countries alone accounted for 12.66 per cent of the world’s planned projects; the 114 plants already in operation represent 4.5 percent of the coal currently being burned.  Again here the changes can be steered by funding. Chinese finance is increasingly stepping in as the lender of last resort for coal plants, according to  Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. This needs to change.  A “green Belt and Road” is not expected to happen overnight. However, emissions by 2050 from all BRI countries could be 39 per cent lower if they followed industrial “best practice” by employing greener technology. China, South Korea and Japan account for most of the public finance for new coal plants in developing countries. If those   three countries joined the 113 finance institutions with coal exclusion policies, most plants outside India and China would go un-financed and thus unbuilt.


Down South, India has committed to install 175 gigawatt of renewable power capacity by 2022. Even though there was a record growth in renewable power capacity installation until 2017, this growth slowed in 2018, due to several reasons. An anti-dumping duty imposed by the government on imported solar modules to aid domestic manufacturing; higher rates of taxation under the goods and services tax (GST), and unclear policy. As of May 2019, 22 per cent of India's total installed capacity for energy generation comprised of renewable sources, while 63.2 per cent of the capacity comprised of coal, lignite, gas and oil. Ironically, it is also waking up to exploit its abundant domestic coal reserves by inviting 100 per cent foreign direct investments in coal mining — just as it is becoming a taboo elsewhere. India has a peculiar record of state financed coal projects and private sector plumping for renewable energy. In 2018, most coal-fired project loans came largely from government and government-owned financial institutions. Privately-owned commercial banks contributed 75 per cent of all finance towards renewable energy projects.


In conclusion, money is the oxygen on which the fire of global warming burns. Be it supplied by asset managers, banks, insurers or state driven—snuffing it would cool down the world we live in — at a sustainable level.
The writer is a former managing director & CEO, Raheja QBE General Insurance Company Ltd

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