Green or greedy? How the financial sector could save the planet

How corporations hide their environmental impact and how investors can hold them to account.

Giant multinational corporations have a bad name when it comes to the environment. While they would prefer us to remember their "responsibility" schemes, those of us with more than half an eye on the news are more likely to think of coal-fired power stations, oil-funded "scientists" and government lobbying. Yet when it comes to climate change, it is remarkable how little we know about what the world's largest companies are doing.

Less than half of Europe's 300 largest companies actually disclose complete verified data on their greenhouse-gas emissions, according to areport released this week by the UK-based independent non-profit research body the Environmental Investment Organisation (EIO). Moreover, over one in ten gives no information at all.

While the general trend is to greater corporate transparency, it is clear that there is a great deal of work to be done. The EIO hopes that by publicly ranking companies by their emissions and transparency, it will put pressure on the worst offending corporate giants.

However, public awareness alone is unlikely to make corporations clean up their act. Despite the hard work and success of groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, we are still pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at a rate that, if continued, will bring untold harm to society.

Co-ordinate your response

This is where the financial sector could help save the day. Time after time, governments fail to reach binding international agreements on emissions. Moreoever, even if all the relevant countries met the targets set by the (non-binding) Copenhagen Accord, this would still imply a dangerous temperature rise of between 2.5° and 5°C before the end of the century.

If governments cannot take the rapid action we need to avoid dangerous climate change, a co-ordinated private-sector response is needed. What better way to do this than through stock markets, operating across borders and without the need for lethargic governmental mandate?

Much of what the world's listed companies do is controlled ultimately by the stock market and those who invest in it. These companies also produce many of the environmentally damaging goods and services we consume. The EIO is aiming to use its emissions rankings to create new types of financial products that harness the western model of shareholder capitalism to drive emissions reductions.

The idea is simple: subtly modify where large, mainstream investors put their money to alter the supply and demand for different companies' shares according to their carbon emissions. The EIO's forthcoming Environmental Tracking Index series will be based on a conventional index fund, tracking stock-market performance to attract enough investors, but reweighted according to each company's emissions and transparency to give it clear incentives to reduce its footprint and be open to public scrutiny.

If the past 25 years have taught us anything, it is the power of financial markets. To many, particularly on the left, this is reason enough to distrust them. However, given that they exist, we can use them to our advantage, to hold corporations to account and build a greener, more open society.

We need to take hold of whatever resources are available to refashion our present, unsustainable means of production. The tools we need are right before our eyes.

Oliver Willmott is an analyst at the Environmental Investment Organisation and co-author of the ET Europe 300 Carbon Rankings Report 2011.

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Lord Sainsbury pulls funding from Progress and other political causes

The longstanding Labour donor will no longer fund party political causes. 

Centrist Labour MPs face a funding gap for their ideas after the longstanding Labour donor Lord Sainsbury announced he will stop financing party political causes.

Sainsbury, who served as a New Labour minister and also donated to the Liberal Democrats, is instead concentrating on charitable causes. 

Lord Sainsbury funded the centrist organisation Progress, dubbed the “original Blairite pressure group”, which was founded in mid Nineties and provided the intellectual underpinnings of New Labour.

The former supermarket boss is understood to still fund Policy Network, an international thinktank headed by New Labour veteran Peter Mandelson.

He has also funded the Remain campaign group Britain Stronger in Europe. The latter reinvented itself as Open Britain after the Leave vote, and has campaigned for a softer Brexit. Its supporters include former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg and Labour's Chuka Umunna, and it now relies on grassroots funding.

Sainsbury said he wished to “hand the baton on to a new generation of donors” who supported progressive politics. 

Progress director Richard Angell said: “Progress is extremely grateful to Lord Sainsbury for the funding he has provided for over two decades. We always knew it would not last forever.”

The organisation has raised a third of its funding target from other donors, but is now appealing for financial support from Labour supporters. Its aims include “stopping a hard-left take over” of the Labour party and “renewing the ideas of the centre-left”. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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