Jun 032015
By Yann Louvel and Greig Aitken, BankTrack, 3 June 2015

It must have been a bewildering scene at the Paris headquarters of Crédit Agricole last Wednesday when the news came through that rival bank BNP Paribas would be joining other French multinationals such as EDF, Engie, Renault Nissan and Air France as official sponsors of the United Nations Climate Summit (COP21) to be held in the French capital at the end of the year. We’ve no idea how such sponsorship deals come together, though COP21 will cost an estimated €170 million and the chosen corporate sponsors – already being slammed by French and international groups for comprising some of France’s worst climate culprits – are projected to pick up 20 per cent of the tab. But the announcement must have left something of a bitter taste in the mouths of Crédit Agricole executives, given that it was them that delivered the stand-out moment from the recent bank AGM season. More on that shortly.

BankTrack has been busy over the last month working with our partners in Europe – Friends of the Earth France and urgewald in Germany – and around the world to take the ‘Banks: Quit Coal!’ message direct to the shareholders and executives of various big international banks.

We were joined most notably by: Paul Corbit Brown from Keeper of the Mountains, a group that campaigns vociferously against the use of the destructive mountaintop removal (MTR) practice in the Appalachian mountains; Maha Mirza, a researcher and activist from Bangladesh who is campaigning, in tandem with groups such as BankTrack around the world, against the development of the Rampal coal power plant project that poses serious implications for local communities and the vast Sundarbans mangrove forest, a UNESCO site; and Thomas Mnguni from groundwork/Friends of the Earth South Africa, long-time campaigners against the spread of coal mining and power in already coal-intensive South Africa.

This year’s AGM season, featuring a string of highly significant coal breakthroughs, involved more victories and good news than ever – no more so than at the Crédit Agricole event on May 21 in Lille, one of the homes of the former French coal mining industry.

As one of our newly published Coal Bank Briefings describes, Crédit Agricole has a troubling legacy of global coal investments, and while its coal finance volumes are not the highest among its peers, in recent years they have been stubbornly consistent. You could say the bank has been clinging on to coal, until now that is. After 10 years of campaigning by Friends of the Earth France, the bank disclosed in Lille that it is ending its multi-million euro lending for coal mining projects and pure-play coal mining companies. This even trumped Bank of America’s surprise announcement on May 7, also after years of hard-hitting campaigning by Rainforest Action Network, that its new global coal mining policy will see it “continue to reduce our credit exposure over time to the coal mining sector globally”. The challenge for Crédit Agricole is now to not rest on its laurels and end its association with coal mining diversified companies, and coal power too. The Thabametsi coal plant being developed by Engie in South Africa and the Plomin C coal plant in Croatia (Crédit Agricole has already provided advisory services for the latter, hugely unpopular project) are just two projects coming down the line where campaigners are now pushing for the bank to say ‘Non’.

Such commitments indeed would really stick it to France’s top coal bank … sorry, the new COP21 sponsor: BNP Paribas. Its AGM the week before in Paris featured no announcements on coal, and no apparent budging from its heavy coal financing course, this despite the launch of the Paris Pledge for French banks on the same day with an advert published in Le Monde, supported by assorted French politicians, scientists, environment groups and Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben, all calling on the French banking sector to end their coal financing in the run-up to COP21.

One French bank taking the hint though – after a direct BankTrack intervention from the AGM floor – was Natixis which, in a little reported move, announced at its AGM that it is pulling out of the MTR sector. With Paul Corbit Brown in attendance in Amsterdam, further MTR momentum also materialised at Dutch bank ING’s AGM where it too pledged to dump MTR financing. Paul’s luck ran out, however, in Frankfurt where Deutsche Bank was unable to wrench itself out of MTR for good – in keeping with much of its approach to the coal industry, Germany’s top bank continues to cling on as a supporter of MTR thanks to a mealy-mouthed statement on its website that reads: “Deutsche Bank does not provide direct financing for and is not directly involved in Mountain Top Removal, apart from providing credit support to reclamation bonds that are issued to guarantee financing for the reconstitution of disturbed land.”

Most of the banks mentioned above have of course firmly distanced themselves from the ‘carbon bomb’ that is ticking in Australia’s Galilee Basin with the potential Adani-led coal mining complex. One major western bank, though, is still dragging its heels, despite the reputational catastrophe that lies in wait should it continue its association with the Indian mining company in Australia – Standard Chartered was duly visited by Greenpeace activists at its event, and encouraged, shall we say, to think again.

There is clearly a head of steam building in coal finance activist networks, as the AGM season’s piecemeal and landmark breakthroughs have been demonstrating. This is in step with the wider momentum being enjoyed by the fossil fuels divestment movement right now, as seen spectacularly in the last ten days with both Norway’s decision to dump all coal-focused investments from its $900 billion sovereign wealth fund and French insurer Axa announcing that it will get rid of around €500 million worth of coal investments from its portfolio.

Amidst the positivity, though, there is a need for perspective about the mountains and coal slag heaps that still have to be climbed and conquered: the Coal Report Card for 2015, published by Rainforest Action Network, the Sierra Club and BankTrack identified $141 billion dollars of coal bank finance disbursed globally in 2014. In climate terms alone, with time fast running out, this is an urgent and perilous situation. But the coal tide is most definitely turning.

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