The Pope and Greens can agree that banks have been bad for the common good. Photo: Getty
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The Pope of the poor and the Seven Deadly Sins of banking practice

Whether you choose the religious terminology of sin or the secular language of social harm, it is clear that banks have not been helping the poor but have focused on the wealthy few.

Pope Francis’ description of Europe as "somewhat elderly and haggard" was a gift to both UKIP and headline writers. But the Pontiff had much more to say. For example, he called for a Europe built, “not around the economy, but around the sacred nature of the human person.”

Unusually for a Pope, I didn’t once hear him mention the word sin. Equally surprisingly perhaps, this particular term of transgression was left to the Greens. That’s because on the day Pope Francis made his historic speech to the European Parliament the Greens launched an important website on the "Seven Deadly Sins of Banking". 

The Pope could no doubt write a full sermon on each of these deadly sins: addiction, megalomania, distortion, exploitation, greed, trickery and recklessness. Indeed, some of his wise pronouncements could even have been written with the banks in mind. Pope Francis has called for, “financial reform along ethical lines that would produce in its turn an economic reform to benefit everyone”, and has urged for a, “return to person-centered ethics in the world of finance and economics”.

So what might this financial reform look like? Last week, on the same day as the Pontiff spoke to the European Parliament in Strasbourg I also had a chance to address the whole Parliament. I used the opportunity to highlight the need for decisive structural reform of the banking industry.

I pointed out that the two most important causes of the financial crisis have still not been addressed. Firstly, the need for a clear-cut separation of retail from casino banking activities; secondly, the need to reduce the size of individual banks so that no single financial corporation can threaten the global financial system. Banks are still nowhere near the responsible corporations serving the real economy that we need them to be; they are still too big and too interconnected to fail.

Which brings us back to sin. Using the extensive information in the Green Group's "Seven Deadly Sins of Banking" website, we discover that UK banks are some of the greatest sinners. Or to put it another way, they rank particularly low in what we have termed a "Banking Social Harm Index".

UK banks present high levels of speculative activities; they receive high amounts of implicit subsidies and operate in a high number of offshore entities (tax havens). All of which demonstrates precisely the need for such structural reforms in the banking sector.

For each "Deadly Sin", our website offers atonement, or to put it another way, a solution. These include capping bankers’ salaries, penalising banks with operations in tax havens and limiting the percentage of bank assets financed by borrowing (imposing a leverage ratio). 

The Pope often reminds his audiences that he is a Pope for the poor; that he has a duty, “to remind the rich to help the poor, to respect them and to promote them”. Whether you choose the religious terminology of sin or the secular language of social harm it is clear to almost everyone that banks have not been helping the poor but have focused on the wealthy few.

The Pope believes that the ideologies of markets and financial speculation are denying States the ability to provide for the common good. The banking reforms that Greens are pressing for in Europe seek to ensure that finance, and therefore states, are able to work for exactly that: the common good.

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the southwest of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.