Q & A With Blair Bateson, Ceres’ Director, Financial Services

May 28, 2024 9:40 AM ET
Campaign: Climate Change

This is the fourth in a series of Q & As with the Ceres experts who are engaging with companies to decarbonize six of the highest-emitting sectors of the economy. Click here to read the previous Q & A.

Q: Why is the decarbonization of the banking sector so important? How can it be achieved? 

Banks are at the center of the global economy. Almost every activity that affects the climate, whether it’s mining, manufacturing, or agriculture, needs financing. This pivotal role banks play is why it is so urgent that they work to eliminate carbon emissions—and climate risks—driven by their financing of their corporate and individual customers. By thoughtfully designing financial products and services that promote sustainability, banks can drive substantial improvements across every sector of the economy.

Q: How can that change be accomplished? 

Fundamentally, it is about aligning the financial best interests of both the bank and its clients with eliminating carbon pollution.

If a client wants to borrow money for a clean energy project, that money should come cheaper for that project than for a plan to extract fossil fuels, and the project should produce a better risk-adjusted return for the bank. This can only be done if the benefits and costs associated with climate change are fully reflected in asset prices and returns on investment – a situation which would produce a “green premium” shared between the client and the bank.

Q: Where do you see the biggest challenges? 

Right now, the “green premium” is hard to find. Policy and price signals are inconsistent-- customers and investors often tell banks and their clients they want to reduce emissions, but they aren’t willing to pay for it. This is mostly due to short-term thinking. Compensation is based on quarterly or annual performance, and long-term planning at banks rarely extends beyond a five-year time horizon. Acting now to produce benefits 10-20 years into the future is difficult, even if those benefits are enormous.

A misguided political effort to block action is also not helping, as banks are, by nature, risk-averse institutions. While this risk aversion is good for financial stability, it means that even a hint of political or legal risk can have major impacts on decision-making.

Q: What are the biggest successes you have seen in recent months to move the sector closer to the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 C? 

The Inflation Reduction Act is having a major impact. The demand for clean energy finance as well as the profitability of such business has improved, and banks are taking advantage. For many banks, this business has moved from being a specialty offering to being a major driver of revenue, and this will only increase as these technologies continue to gain market share.

It’s also been exciting to see the largest global banks release transition plans – sets of actions they are taking to achieve for zeroing out their emissions. It’s great to see their climate commitments starting to turn into action.

Q: What drew you to your work on moving the banking sector to be more sustainable? 

I studied finance, but I’ve never been in it for the money, the status or the intrinsic nature of the work. I’ve always been interested in finance because of its usefulness – it influences and underlies everything. It’s a means to an end, and that end is increasing human flourishing.

Over the last 250 years, the ability to raise capital efficiently has been critical to the gains humanity has made. But further progress is not inevitable, and without sustainability solutions, I think the way forward is going to be much harder. That’s why I’ve chosen to focus my work in this area.

Read more about some of the work being done at Ceres to decarbonize the banking sector.