Rising to the challenge of net zero banking
As soaring greenhouse gas emissions threaten the planet, policymakers and regulators around the world are looking to banks to lead the fight against climate change. So far, almost 60% of the world’s leading banks have made public commitments to reach net zero carbon emissions. Moreover, Accenture research found that many banks are eager to go a step further. They want to become stewards of the global transition to a net zero economy and guide their corporate customers as they decarbonize. This role would enable banks to extend and strengthen their businesses while also playing a pivotal role in preserving the planet for future generations.
According to our research, four major obstacles, or conundrums are hampering banks from achieving this goal:
For banks to overcome the conundrums hampering their advance to net zero and become stewards that guide other companies on the path to decarbonization they must embark on an extensive transformation of all aspects of their organizations. It is vital that banks secure support across their organizations for their journey to net zero; tackle the challenge of reaching net zero as a holistic transformation; train, educate and onboard relationship managers to become ‘climate scientists’ who can help corporate customers decarbonize; and build systematic carbon intelligence throughout their businesses.
The transformation that banks must undergo will certainly be challenging. But the rewards promise to be substantial. Banks that succeed will be stronger and more profitable. Furthermore, they will stand on the right side of history and lead the fight against climate change.
The path to net zero will be guided by banks taking an active role as advisors and partners in their customers’ journey.
Most of the world’s largest banks have committed themselves to becoming net zero across all their activities, yet only 12% of banks are currently on track to reduce their own Scopes 1&2 emissions (from their own operations) by their net zero target date of 2050. What’s more, these emissions are just a small fraction of the total emissions for which banks are accountable. Addressing their Scope 3 financed emissions—helping their customers and the companies they have invested in to curb greenhouse gas emissions—will have a much greater impact on the banks’ progress towards net zero. These financed emissions represent more than 95% of the average bank’s overall emissions.
Measuring and reducing Scope 3 emissions, over which banks have no direct control, will be a huge challenge. Yet, it is a challenge that lies at the heart of the banks’ potential role as stewards of the transition to a net zero economy. Unless banks quickly master the preliminary stages of their own transition to net zero and, simultaneously, get to grips with their financed emissions, they are likely to fall short of their commitments and miss out on a historic opportunity to broaden and grow their businesses.
To curb their own and their financed emissions, banks need to use their capital resources and close corporate relationships to encourage and assist companies in their lending and investment portfolios to substantially reduce their production of greenhouse gases. There are benefits for all—banks, their customers and their respective industries—when banks become not only trusted advisors but partners in their customers’ transition to net zero.
Banks that step up to the challenge of helping build a net zero economy will likely pull away from their competitors. Their businesses will become stronger, more diverse and more durable than those of their counterparts that are slower to reorient their portfolios to greener opportunities and fulfil only the minimum regulatory reporting requirements.
An organization achieves net zero when it balances the carbon that it emits into and removes from the atmosphere.
When a bank commits to net zero, it means making a public undertaking to achieve this balance in three areas: Firstly, the carbon emissions of its own operations—its offices, branches, data centers and so on; then, the emissions resulting from the energy it purchases to operate its business; and thirdly, the emissions of its value chain, including the customers that the bank helps finance through its loan and investment portfolios.
As of August 2022, our quantitative analysis shows that close to 60% of the world’s leading banks have made public commitments to become net zero organizations—to support the Paris Agreement and help limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. We expect more banks to make this commitment in the coming years.
Banks have a dual role in this regard. Firstly, they have a great deal of influence in deciding which organizations receive the capital they need to continue operating or to expand their operations. Secondly, the banks themselves are measured in terms of the emissions that result from their loans and investments.
Banks are ideally placed to provide the vital assistance companies require to decarbonize and become net zero—although most banks need to significantly strengthen their capabilities in this regard. This is a unique opportunity to forge much closer ties with their corporate customers that could yield value for many years to come.
To become stewards of the transition to a net zero economy, and help other companies decarbonize, banks must progress beyond the initial steps of measuring emissions baselines and setting meaningful targets—which in themselves are daunting tasks. They must then go on to tackle the crux of the challenge: driving the actual reduction of emissions with their customers.
Companies across all industries are struggling to reach net zero and need the help that banks could provide. No industry sector is currently on track to reach its 2050 net zero goals, with firms in the banking industry’s middle market especially lagging.
However, many organizations are working hard on mechanisms to enable them to work towards net zero and there are many examples of excellent initiatives. Read about initiatives like this in travel, automotive, natural resources and initiatives to remove carbon-dioxide from the air.
Most of the world’s largest banks have committed to becoming net zero across their own operations and energy consumption (Scopes 1 & 2) as well as within their lending and investment portfolios (Scope 3). However, only 6% of banks are currently on track to reduce their Scope 1 & 2 emissions by 2050. Even fewer are set to meet their Scope 3 commitments.
Scope 3 (category 15) is an urgent priority, because the emissions banks finance represent more than 95% of the total emissions for which an average bank is responsible.
Measuring and reducing Scope 3 emissions, over which banks have no direct control, is a huge challenge. But unless banks quickly master the preliminary stages of their own transition to net zero and simultaneously get to grips with their Scope 3 emissions, they are likely to miss the opportunity to grow their businesses, build closer relations with corporate customers and advance sustainability.