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UK must join the race to the top in green finance

Horse race from PA 230x150

The UK's political and financial classes are battered and tossed by Brexit. All the more reason why they should keep their sights on what will ultimately be a bigger issue: how to make finance sustainable.

For anyone who has been involved in the issues around green and sustainable finance, last week's report from the UK's Green Finance Taskforce makes exciting reading.

The panel — a selection of experts chaired by Sir Roger Gifford, SEB's UK country head and a former Lord Mayor of London — has been working since 2016.

The report is not government policy, but it was commissioned by the government and two junior ministers have written a foreword, suggesting there is a good chance that much of it will be adopted. 

The Taskforce's mission was to come up with a double strategy. First, to renew the financial system so that it can raise the capital needed to divert the economy from its current course towards disastrous climate change on to a sustainable path. And second — appealing more to patriotic and money-making instincts — to "further London as the leading world centre for green finance".

Battles between rival financial centres can be dull. Initiatives are often launched that sound worthy but whose effects, if they produce any, lie in the future and will be difficult to trace back to any specific cause. 

What is really meant by London being "the leading world centre for green finance" is hard to define. Whatever it means, it probably owes a lot to London being simply the leading world centre for finance — apart from New York, where interest in environmental issues is clearly lower than it is in Europe.

But in this case, there is certainly some value in this declaration of ambition — or there will be, if the government follows through with a strong statement at Cabinet level and adopts most of the Taskforce's recommendations as policy.

Virtuous claims, virtuous circle

There are whiffs of an arms race about green finance. China's star rose enormously in September 2016, when it made green finance a key theme of the G20 Summit in Hangzhou and announced a comprehensive plan for greening its financial system.

Before that, few would have put China among the top countries for sustainable finance. The traditions of ethical and responsible investing in France, the Netherlands, the Nordic region, the UK, Australia and the US meant most observers would have picked their top five from among those six.

But France soon reminded the world of its claim to the laurels, by launching a €7bn green bond in January 2017. Green bonds, especially large ones and especially those from governments, are big red flashing neon signs in the financial world. 

Their power is not that they achieve any change on the ground or in the real environment, but that they garner an enormous amount of attention and send strong messages.

The French green OAT came after Poland had nipped in a month earlier to become the first sovereign green bond issuer. But France had a much stronger green finance narrative, having hosted the COP 21 conference in 2015 that led to the Paris Agreement and, the same year, introduced a law that obliged asset owners and managers to report on how their portfolios addressed climate change.

The UK's Taskforce report is explicitly a bid for exactly the kind of branding and recognition that France currently enjoys as a hive of green finance expertise and activity. The report clearly recommends, not just that the UK government issue a green bond, but that it issue a very large one, similar in size to France's (which after taps is now €10bn, and set to grow again with another tap this week). 

Time to get real

The point of this rivalry is not who wins. It is that it drives the financial system in the right direction. The more countries make a noise and boast about their green finance credentials, the more others will emulate them.

And that is likely to accelerate the adoption, around the world, of the parts of the green finance agenda that can really make a difference. 

Here, the UK's Taskforce deserves close to full marks. The policies it recommends are a comprehensive set, even bolder and more forthright than the impressive set now being developed with admirable speed by the European Commission.

The UK should set up a Green Finance Institute, a Green Fintech Hub and a Centre for Climate Analytics — to help the financial sector understand climate change and hence start to manage the risks properly, instead of the current practice at the great majority of banks and companies: nodding vaguely in the direction of climate change and then changing the subject.

Crucially, the Taskforce recommends that the government and regulators get behind the drive to make companies and investors use the Taskforce on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) methodology for including their view on climate risk in their annual reports. 

This initiative, in which Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, and Michael Bloomberg, the media entrepreneur, have been centrally involved, is in its infancy, but is vital. It insists chief executives and boards take overt and explicit responsibility for how companies position themselves on climate change. There will be nowhere to hide.

Equally importantly, the UK Taskforce has scored a bull's eye on investor responsibilities. "Relevant regulators should ensure fiduciary duty clearly states the importance of ESG issues", it says. 

Asset managers will no longer be able to hide behind the excuse that it is not their job to make moral judgments or care about the environmental and social risks of their investments. When scandal hits the fan at a company they have invested in, they will have to explain why they had not weeded out that bad apple or made it change its ways.

The Taskforce gets it right, too, on the need for a proper, long term government plan on how it is going to build the infrastructure necessary for a greener Britain, and how it means to raise the capital to do so. 

There is no shortage of capital, but there is a shortage of credible projects backed by stable and trustworthy government policies and regulatory frameworks. The market has been thirsting for such a plan for years.

Astutely, too, the Taskforce highlights the need for resilience planning — not just cutting emissions, but coping with what happens when climate change makes the weather more hostile, as it has already started to do.

Not finally, because there is more in the report, but another A grade should be awarded for the Taskforce's attention to the property sector, where there is a huge need for investment to improve energy efficiency, and where tweaking financial incentives can make a huge difference. The report calls for short term incentives to pump-prime markets for green mortgages and consumer loans, and for stronger targets on buildings' energy performance.

The UK government is understandably obsessed with Brexit, the repercussions of which, especially for London's financial industry, could be severe. The outcome of the UK's negotiations with Brussels cannot be known yet, and it would be natural if the government wanted to put other matters on hold for now.

That would be a mistake. The best time to act on green finance was decades ago — doing it now would be far better than delaying it further.

Philip Hammond, chancellor of the exchequer, or Theresa May, prime minister, should make a statement endorsing the Taskforce's recommendations in a bold enough way to get on to the front pages of the Financial Times and the Daily Mail.

The government should seize the chance to change the public conversation from Brexit for a bit, by branding itself green and reminding voters and economic actors that, hard as it may be to believe it, there are bigger problems than leaving the EU. 

Coping with climate change is one of them, and the sooner we get on with it, the better.

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