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Is Sustainable Finance More Hype Than Hope?

Sustainable finance is in fashion as it’s seen as a tool for slowing down the impact of climate change. But is it more of a catchword than a clear framework?
ESG, environmental social governance, sustainable finance, finance news, sustainability news, development news, environmental news, news on climate change, From Virus to Vitamin, SDGs news

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February 17, 2022 08:03 EDT

In recent years, and even more in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become evident that finance must contribute to the development of a more sustainable economy. However, the current sustainable finance landscape is characterized by heterogeneous concepts, definitions, and industry and policy standards, which tend to undermine the credibility of this nascent market and open the door to greenwashing.

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One of the challenges is to decide where to draw the line between sustainable and “normal” investments, and how to subdivide the universe of sustainable finance. The lack of clear rules on what can be labeled “sustainable” opens the door to unscrupulous companies and fund managers trumpeting their environmental, social and governance rating ratings — known as ESG — while simply relabeling existing funds without changing neither the underlying strategies nor the portfolio composition. As a result, some observers are concerned that “the overall prevailing mechanism is based on short-term maximization of financial returns, and [that] ESG is still essentially an idea.”

Thus, the first step to improve the situation, according to Domingo Sugranyes of the Pablo VI Foundation, is to create “an accepted framework of definitions and metrics” at regional or global levels to identify high-level standards and align the actions undertaken by political authorities around the world. But it is also important to act on the other side of ESG, which is direct financing as opposed to the stock market. For example, the European Commission has adopted several regulations to support and improve the flow of money toward sustainable activities.

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In addition, Archana Sinha of the Indian Social Institute suggests that broader structural reforms may be necessary “to fully integrate climate-aligned structural change with economic recovery.” Not only should the legal framework be changed so “that emissions generate costs,” says economist Ladislau Dowbor, but “international financial transactions must be taxed, so that they leave a trail, shedding light on tax havens while generating resources for sustainable practices.” Other measures, Etienne Perrot says, may include “central bank rediscount policy favoring sectors that do not use fossil fuels; active and pugnacious mobilization of the shareholders most aware of the ecological crisis; [and] monitoring of speculative drifts.”

If sustainable finance is to become real hope instead of hype, then we will also need governments to step in to fix the rules, with a view to make any financial activity “sustainable by default,” says Eelco Fiole, an investment governance expert. Otherwise, Perrot warns, “the present enthusiasm around sustainable finance may well be short-lived.”

By Virgile Perret and Paul Dembinski

Note: From Virus to Vitamin invites experts to comment on issues relevant to finance and the economy in relation to society, ethics and the environment. Below, you will find views from a variety of perspectives, practical experiences and academic disciplines. The topic of this discussion is: What needs to be put in place in order to leverage the present enthusiasm around sustainable finance?

“…the ‘present enthusiasm around sustainable finance’ may be short-lived… ”

Finance is only one of the means: directing public and institutional financial flows toward investments that exclude — or fight against — the carbon economy; central bank rediscount policy favoring sectors that do not use fossil fuels; active and pugnacious mobilization of the shareholders most aware of the ecological crisis; [and] monitoring of speculative drifts. However, whatever financial modalities are adopted, these ecological costs will necessarily weigh on financial profitability. Which leaves me to fear that the ‘present enthusiasm around sustainable finance’ is short-lived.”

Etienne Perrot — Jesuit, economist and editorial board member of the Choisir magazine (Geneva) and adviser to the journal Etudes (Paris)

“…labels should apply only to project financing related to clean energy… ”

“All sustainable finance labels should apply only to project financing related to clean energy. Investment houses should not finance fossil fuel firms in any way to declare themselves deserving of a sustainable finance seal of approval. This also goes for green financing.”

Oscar Ugarteche — visiting professor of economics at various universities

“…ESG is still essentially an idea…”

“The world produces an amount of goods and services amply sufficient to ensure everyone has a dignified life. We have the necessary technologies to produce in a sustainable way. And we presently have detailed understanding of the slow-motion catastrophe climate change represents. While the Paris conference presented the goals, the Addis Ababa conference on how to fund them reached no agreement. The overall prevailing mechanism is based on short-term maximization of financial returns, and ESG is still essentially an idea. The legal framework has to change, so that emissions generate costs. International financial transactions must be taxed, so that they leave a trail, shedding light on tax havens while generating resources for sustainable practices. The key issue is corporate governance.”

Ladislau Dowbor — economist, professor at the Catholic University of Sao Paulo, consultant to many international agencies

“…it is not clear that substantial public intervention is needed… ”

Sustainable finance is a broad umbrella, but nonetheless has a clear meaning as investment strategies and products that aim at fostering activities that promote environmental, social and governance improvements. The private sector has rapidly developed, having realized that there is a clear appetite by investors for investment with such priorities. Specific products have been created, as well as rigorous metrics and certifications. It is therefore not clear that substantial public intervention is needed (in fostering sustainable finance, by contrast to ensuring proper pricing of, for instance, CO2 where taxes are needed). Public intervention could focus on requiring disclosure of the sustainability dimension of investment by financial intermediaries to facilitate transparency.”

Cedric Tille — professor of macroeconomics at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva

“…every financial decision should take climate risk into account… ”

“Globally, the private sector needs altering processes, such that their investments do not worsen climate change. The Indian government needs to introduce guidelines to standardize climate-related revelations in all financial statements and push private companies to manage their exposure to climate risks in their tasks and processes. A lack of clarity about true exposures to specific climate risks for physical and financial assets, coupled with uncertainty about the size and timing of these risks, creates major vulnerabilities. It is suggested that the only way forward is to fully integrate climate-aligned structural change with economic recovery needing a fundamental shift in the entire finance system. Meaning that every financial decision should take climate risk into account and climate finance is integral to the transformation process.”

Archana Sinha — head of the Department of Women’s Studies at the Indian Social Institute in New Delhi, India

“…green rating for business firms…”

“Rendering sustainable finance an effective, practical concept depends, inter alia, on (1) measures regarding definitions, sustainability reporting and regulation; (2) genuine commitment to mitigation of climate change; and (3) honest and sound assessment of outcomes. Under 1, [it] can be singled out the extension of the definitions and accounting essential to regulation, with special attention to the concepts of natural capital and of contingent assets and liabilities. Under 2, there is the need for senior bankers and other key decision-makers to evaluate and explain the charting and navigation of the new business routes required for mitigation. Under 3, there are roles for many different parties — governments, central banks, research institutions and NGOs. The roles could include development and application of green ratings for business firms and other relevant institutions, which draw on historical experience with credit ratings.”

Andrew Cornford — counselor at Observatoire de la Finance, former staff member of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), with special responsibility for financial regulation and international trade in financial services

“…an accepted framework of definitions and metrics…”

“The movement toward ecological sustainability is still in its infancy in the world economy. It is real and probably here to stay, but companies and governments will meet many economic, physical and human hurdles on the way, including raw materials bottlenecks and lack of specialized talent. ESG investment can be seen as an expression of demand for sustainability in society, pressing in the right direction. But to confirm their effectiveness and credibility, ESG-motivated investors will need an accepted framework of definitions and metrics (the ‘taxonomy’ being discussed at the EU level). Ideally, one would imagine a worldwide, self-regulated consensus about environmental cost, similar to the one which led to the international acceptance of the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS).”

Domingo Sugranyes — director of a seminar on ethics and technology at Pablo VI Foundation, former executive vice-chairman of MAPFRE international insurance group

“…a point of reference in public debate…”

“A transition from enthusiasm to reality requires 3 steps:

1: From the experts’ room to the public sphere. Sustainable finance cannot flourish without being a point of reference in public debate and a ‘visible’ concern in everyday life. Such a paradigm shift can only be initiated through a participatory, sociopolitical justification.

2: Toward a glocal perspective. As it happens with every declaration, the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) and the Agenda 2030 provisions need to be part of the national and local development strategy both as aims and evaluation measures.

3: From wishes to accountability. Various actions — mirrored in national and international law — are required to empower accountability: legislation initiatives that forbid hazardous products, give motives for ‘clean production’ and favor a circular economy, annual monitoring on sustainable practices, reduction of waste/emission and a regulatory framework for investment plans.”

Christos Tsironis — associate professor of social theory at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece

“…any finance activity needs to be sustainable by default…”

“Given that rational justice requires the current generation to have a fiduciary duty to the future generation, any finance activity needs to be sustainable by default. In that sense, we need to distinguish between finance and unsustainable finance, and [we] need to focus on diminishing unsustainable finance to the benefit of finance. This means finance needs to be defined as purposeful and needs to account for all interests at stake. This then needs to be coded into law and into incentive systems. While ESG data is important, assessing and certifying impact on a case-by-case basis gives true input for governance and direction toward social and environmental sustainability, all things considered. This requires a new moral psychology for leadership.”

Eelco Fiole — investment governance expert, board director and adjunct professor of finance ethics in Lausanne and Neuchatel

*[An earlier version of this article was published by From Virus to Vitamin.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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