Thursday, May 05, 2005

International Banks Adopt Voluntary Environmental Standards for Project Financing

JP Morgan Chase recently adopted a comprehensive environmental policy that would subject its international project financing decisions to review for their impact on global warming. In so doing, JPMC followed in the steps of Citigroup, which earlier this year announced a policy that would screen financings for their impact on deforestation. JP Morgan's policy is remarkable for its scope and its language. Here are some excerpts:

Protecting the natural systems upon which all life depends while lifting people out of poverty and advancing economic development are among the greatest challenges confronting humanity. These three pillars of sustainable development are central to the UN Millennium Development Goals adopted in 2000. We recognize that the policies and practices we adopt today will shape not only our lives but also those of future generations. We therefore have an opportunity to make a positive contribution to environmental and social concerns by enacting policies designed so that our business operations do not degrade the environment or cause social harm. Such policies not only indicate positive environmental stewardship, but also present business opportunities such as innovative financial products and investments in sustainable forestry and renewable energy. This will help us better manage our risks, attract and retain critical talent, develop expertise, and provide clients with solutions to evolving exposures.
. . .
The scientific evidence provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body created by the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization, concludes that climate change is linked largely to the emissions of greenhouse gases caused by human activity, from the burning of fossil fuels, and deforestation. While there remains uncertainty regarding the severity of impacts, we believe that it is appropriate to adopt a precautionary approach to climate protection by working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions today.

That's pretty amazing language, invoking both the UN millennium Goals and the scientific conclusions (at least in part) of the IPCC, the same conclusions that in part form the basis for the Kyoto Protocol rejected by the United States. (We discussed Kyoto here and here.)

What's going on? Has JPMC gone "green" in the face of pressure from NGOs and other stakeholders concerned with balancing profits with social effects? In part, yes. The policy, which environmental groups have applauded , demonstrates how global networks of corporations and NGOs can create and adopt voluntary norms to address important transnational problems like environmental degradation where the international community has failed to do so (or at least succeeded only partially). But something else may be happening. Many of the projects financed by the big banks are taking place in countries that, unlike the US, are parties to the Kyoto Protocol and who, under the treaty, have greenhouse gas reduction targets to meet over the next decades. What we might be seeing is how a binding multilateral treaty obligation can, together with coordinated interest group behavior, create market incentives with environmentally friendly results.

Not everyone is happy with the policy. Some groups concerned with racial and social equality have criticized the measure as placing environmental considerations above human development. (See this discussion from the WSJ.) Perhaps this is not surprising: when multinationals act like governments, they find themselves caught between conflicting interests that are often difficult to balance. While we won't see the impact of such policies for years, it is a trend worth watching, not only from the perspective of corporate responsibility and practices, but also as a piece of transnational "norm creation."

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