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Research reveals top financiers of global coal industry

The world’s largest institutional investor in the coal industry is the US mutual fund company Vanguard, with holdings of almost $86 billion.

A bulldozer operates atop a coal mound at the CCI Slones Branch Terminal June 3, 2014, in Shelbiana, Ky. Photo credit: Luke Sharrett/Getty Images

It is closely followed by BlackRock, which holds investments of over $84 billion. Together, these two investment giants account for 17% of institutional investments in the global coal industry.

This disclosure was made on Thursday, February 25, 2021 when Urgewald and a group of over 25 civil society organisations, including Reclaim Finance, Rainforest Action Network, and 350.org, published groundbreaking research on the financiers and investors behind the global coal industry.

The Global Coal Exit List (GCEL) shows that, by January 2021, 4,478 institutional investors held investments totaling $1.03 trillion in companies operating along the thermal coal value chain worldwide.

Among the investors covered by the research are pension funds, mutual funds, asset managers, insurance companies, commercial banks, sovereign wealth funds and other types of institutional investors.

“In past years, the scope of our financial research was limited to around 200 coal plant developers. Our new research, however, analyses financial flows to all 934 companies on the Global Coal Exit List (GCEL). This is the first time anyone has attempted to analyse commercial banks’ and institutional investors’ exposure to the entire coal industry,” says Katrin Ganswindt, head of financial research at Urgewald.

Based on their size, BlackRock and Vanguard’s coal investments are in a class of their own, but they are also representative of a much bigger problem. US investors are the single largest provider of institutional investment to companies on the Global Coal Exit List.

With shares and bonds in value of $604 billion, US investors collectively account for 59% of institutional investments in the global coal industry.

With holdings of $81 billion, investors from Japan account for the second highest share of institutional investments in the coal industry. Japan’s Government Pension Investment Fund alone holds bonds and shares in value of $30 billion in companies listed on the GCEL.

The third largest group are UK investors, whose collective holdings in the coal industry amount to $47 billion.

“While the UK government recently announced that it will end public financing for overseas fossil fuel projects in 2021, most UK institutional investors have not even begun to expel coal from their portfolios. Unless they do their homework soon, the UK-hosted COP26 will become a big embarrassment for these institutions,” states Katrin Ganswindt.

The Biggest Lenders to the Coal Industry

Urgewald’s research identified 380 commercial banks that provided loans totaling $316 billion to the coal industry over the past two years. The top three lenders are the Japanese banks Mizuho ($22 billion), Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation ($21 billion) and Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group ($18 billion). The 4th and 5th largest lenders to the coal industry are Citigroup ($14 billion) and Barclays ($13 billion).

“The coal policies adopted by Japanese banks are among the weakest in the world. They only cover a small portion of banks’ lending and do not rule out corporate loans or underwriting for companies that are still building new coal plants in Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and elsewhere. Japan’s banks must stop pouring fuel on the fire and finally adopt comprehensive coal exclusion policies,” says Eri Watanabe from 350.org Japan.

A regional breakdown of lenders from different countries shows that Japanese banks collectively provided $75 billion in loans to the coal industry from October 2018 to October 2020. Commercial banks from Japanese banks alone accounted for 24% of total lending to companies on the Global Coal Exit List over the past two years. In total, Asian banks accounted for 39% of total lending.

The Biggest Underwriters of the Coal Industry

Over the same time period, 427 commercial banks channeled over $810 billion to companies on the Global Coal Exit List through underwriting. The world’s top five underwriters are all Chinese financial institutions.

ICBC (Industrial and Commercial Bank of China), the world’s biggest bank, is the top underwriter, with almost $37 million, and also figures in the top 30 list of lenders, with $3 million.

ICBC’s record on coal financing is one of the worst among the largest banks in the world, and they are involved in controversial coal projects all over the globe, such as the Sengwa power station in Zimbabwe, Hunutlu power station in Turkey, Bengkulu Coal Power in Indonesia and many more.

“Facing the prospect of a global recession, investment in coal power infrastructure will become even riskier for borrowing countries and lenders. While the world is embracing the benefits of clean and affordable renewable energy, coal projects supported will lock recipient countries into dirty, dangerous and expensive fossil fuel infrastructure that is outdated.

“Instead, renewable energy investments can be a major force in economic recovery, generating decent returns on investment while boosting employment opportunities. It’s time for ICBC to correctly assess the risks implicated in their investments and stop financing coal projects,” says Yossi Cadan, Global Finance Campaign Manager at 350.org.

While Chinese banks account for less than 6% of total lending to the coal industry, they account for 58% of underwriting. Through their underwriting, Chinese banks channeled $467 billion to the coal industry over the past two years. Next in line are US banks ($105 billion), Japanese banks ($59 billion), Indian banks ($36 billion) and UK banks ($35 billion). Together, banks from these five countries account for 87% of total underwriting for the coal industry, with China, Japan and India accounting for 70%. 

Commercial Banks’ Support for the Coal Industry has Increased since Paris

The research also examined the development of banks’ lending and underwriting for the coal industry since January 2016. While direct lending for coal companies spiked in 2017, subsequent years show a downward trend in lending volumes. Underwriting of coal industry shares and bonds, however, has grown steadily since 2016. The alarming result of this analysis is that commercial banks are channeling more money to the coal industry than in 2016, the year after the Paris Climate Agreement was signed.

In 2016, banks provided $491 billion through lending and underwriting to companies listed on the GCEL. By 2019, this amount had grown to $543 billion, an increase of over 11%.

What needs to be done?

Ending the era of coal means ending the era of coal finance and investment. But the time to accomplish this task is quickly running out.

“While coal demand is falling in the United States and Europe, coal use is growing in Asia. Japan and China have both set lofty net-zero goals and they must meet them through a managed and determined phase out of fossil fuels. Banks in Japan and China must support their countries’ climate goals by withdrawing coal investments not just within their country but also abroad as that is where the vast majority of their investments are directed.

“This is the only way to prevent an unmitigated climate disaster that will affect communities in Asia and globally. I write this as another typhoon bears down on the Philippines, where I live. The climate disaster is now, it is not in the net-zero future,” says Chuck Baclagon, 350 Asia Finance Campaigner.

“What we need are comprehensive, immediate coal exit policies. Insurers such as AXA, banks like Crédit Mutuel, UniCredit and Desjardins or asset managers like Ostrum have already shown what must be done by excluding most of the companies on the Global Coal Exit List from their portfolios. Now is the time for the finance industry to act. A speedy exit from coal finance and investment is not only do-able and desirable, but also a question of survival,” says Yann Louvel, policy analyst for the NGO Reclaim Finance.

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