This is the second article of Fossil Money, a series on how the global financial system supports and feeds the climate breakdown. Read the first article here and stay tuned for more!
Picture yourself in a burned landscape. Everything around you is blackened. Tree stumps and ruined houses, and the dried bed of a small stream. The acrid smell of smoke is everywhere and the sky behind the dark hills is red. In the middle of this field, you can see the mouth of a large pipeline, blackened like the rest. And from that gaping blackness, a substance comes out that immediately catches fire, feeding the flames around you. The pipeline stretches back into the hills.
Now, picture yourself somewhere on a green field. The black pipeline stretches in front of you, from one side of the horizon to the other. Once in a while, there is a little leak and the burning substance drops into the ground. Little fires get started here and there when that happens, but you can still put them off. However, the flames come up more and more often. And in the distance, above the horizon, ominous clouds of black smoke show ever more frequently. You know the pipeline is dangerous, and you know you should do something about it.
One doesn’t have to be a genius to understand that, to stop the fire, they would have to stymie the inflow of the substance. The pipeline must be stopped. And this is something that you can’t do on your own, but with friends and allies you can.
This is a little metaphoric image that comes to my mind when I think about the role of the financial system in the current fossil fuel economy. There are impacted people (present and future), there is devastation, and there is a pipeline that brings the resources that fuel that devastation. And the pipeline, from the point of view of those experiencing its impacts first hand, gets lost in the distance. They can’t see who’s on the other end.
Well, I’ll tell you who’s on the other side. The pipeline begins at the feet of those who place their money into fossil fuel ventures. It’s actually their money that goes into the pipeline, and it’s what fuels the fire at the other end. That’s the burning substance. And they put their money in the pipeline because they expect more money to come back to them, in a vicious circle that we’re here to break.
So if you’re at the end of the pipeline, or if you’re somewhere along its path, this concerns you.
Who are they?
Banks are financial institutions that can be public or, more often, private. Most banks have two basic branches of business: on one side they keep money for their customers in accounts, and on the other side they lend money to others, in exchange for an interest. In addition to these, they often also make investments (either directly or through a specific branch) or advise others in their investments. We call those branches investment banks. These are the ones that most often put their (customers’) money into the pipeline.
Some banks put A LOT of money in the fossil pipeline. Others put less. Others have refrained to put any money into it, often after people power has made them see the pipeline is not a viable future investment.
- JPMorgan Chase (USA)
- Citi (USA)
- Wells Fargo (USA)
- Barclays (UK)
- ICBC (China)
- BNP Paribas (France)
- MUFG (Japan)
Asset Managers are specialized financial institutions that don’t necessarily invest their own money, but manage other people’s investments for them. Because they decide where to allocate that money, and because they collectively manage A LOT of money, they are key players in the financial system, and the fossil money pipeline.
According to InfluenceMap and ReclaimFinance, the world’s largest asset managers are, also, the most climate-wrecking. Among them are:
- BlackRock (USA)
- Fidelity (USA)
- Goldman Sachs (USA)
Pension funds are, actually, also asset managers. They’re different, though, because they mostly manage the long-term investments of workers. Some of the largest investors in the world are pension funds, so they play a very important role in the global financial system. And not only that: because their mission is to look after workers’ money, they (should) have ethical boundaries to protect those workers’ futures.
Because of their long-term investment terms, they are not nimble in their changes. Pushing them out of fossil fuels may be hard, but it’s often permanent!
Insurance companies play a key role in the whole pipeline business. These are the companies that protect investors against financial loss. The client (in this case, the fossil fuel industry) pays the insurer some money and agrees to a series of risk conditions that, if met, would trigger the insurer to cover the loss. For example, you may insure your house against fire, and if it DOES catch fire, the insurer pays for the repairs.
Without the support of insurance companies, most fossil fuel projects would be too risky to undertake, and they would not be able to attract investors. The insurance industry is a cornerstone of the fossil fuel industry.
Fossil subsidies are, according to Oil Change International, “any government action that lowers the cost of fossil fuel energy production, raises the price received by energy producers, or lowers the price paid by energy consumers”. Most times, these subsidies are either tax breaks or direct payments to lower the cost of fuels. It’s a way for States to put their money into the pipeline too. A 2022 study estimated that the world spends around $1.8 trillion per year in these subsidies.
Development banks are institutions that provide money for projects that are supposed to promote economic development. The projects are non-commercial, and development banks are often public institutions that belong to countries or supranational organizations. In the latter case, they are normally referred to as Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs).
Some of the world’s largest development banks have pledged to stop financing some or all fossil fuels, but we haven’t seen them take those promises to action yet. In November 2021, many of the world’s public development banks signed an agreement to “increase the pace and coverage” of their clean energy funding, but they refused to phase out fossil fuels.
Some of the world’s largest development banks are:
- The World Bank Group
- The Inter-American Development Bank Group
- The European Investment Bank
- The China Development Bank
- The Asian Development Bank
- The African Development Bank