For this Gen X-er, no statistic about food scarcity or news footage of wildfires was as motivating as the day my son asked, “Why don’t we drive an electric car?” In my house, we don’t call it climate change, we call it what we are trying to avoid: climate disaster.
And we kept having honest, open-minded conversations about other areas for potential improvement. We filled out carbon calculators together and read scholarly articles about individual actions that can help curb emissions. What we learned about the banking industry reshaped our thinking and my career. I believe it will even help change the world.
I’d spent much of my career working to boost access to renewable energy and energy-efficient loans and considered myself a good environmental steward. But that day, my family and I began taking the subject more personally. Since that conversation, we’ve bought a second electric car, modified our diet to eat less meat and installed enough solar panels to charge our cars and power our home.
We learned that, for every dollar we hand over to the bank, they make roughly a dollar’s worth of loans or investments—and most of those loans are accelerating climate destruction without our knowledge. While we took two cars out of circulation, banks were using our money to help Americans borrow over half a trillion dollars to purchase 14 million new internal combustion engine cars, trucks and SUVs. As we invested in solar panels, our money was helping fund coal plants and oil extraction. Pooled together, regular customers’ deposits fund trillions of dollars of loans that enable the world’s most polluting companies to operate and expand. According to a study from organizations including Rainforest Action Network and Sierra Club, the world’s biggest banks have invested more than $3.8 trillion of customers’ money in fossil fuels in the five years since the Paris climate agreement.
A father plays with his son.
NARINDER NANU/AFP via Getty Images
The problem is so insidious that switching to a sustainable bank is one of the most impactful steps individuals can take against climate change. Switching to a sustainable account, Stockholm-based bank Nordea found, is 27 times more effective in reducing your carbon footprint than the combined benefits of flying less, eating less meat, taking shorter showers and taking public transportation.
Business as usual is working quite well for the $21 trillion banking industry. But as public pressure starts to bubble up—from environmental activists and even, more recently, from the White House—big banks are using diversionary tactics. In recent months, several U.S. banks have begun publicizing ambitious-sounding climate initiatives, touting billion-dollar “green commitments.” A fine start, for sure; but not exactly an honest move from the country’s least-trusted sector. While saying they’re “going green,” these same banks continue to aggressively fund the fossil fuel industry. In fact, 98 percent of all bank loans are “brown,” meaning they either contribute to emissions or do nothing to reduce them, while only 2 percent are considered green.
If we want to leave a safe, healthy Earth for future generations, we must reorient trillions of dollars away from climate-destroying loans. Meaningful change can only come from meaningful commitments, and the journey to systemic change starts with transparency. Allowing customers a look behind the curtain is the only way to engender accountability and accelerate banks’ divestment from carbon-heavy loans. But how do we get there? For me and my colleagues at Ando, the North Star is younger generations, specifically Gen Z and millennials. We’re counting on them to take action and demand honesty from the banking industry, then help older generations understand the power they wield when they consider where to put their money.
Banks’ opacity is the norm, but it doesn’t have to be. Two decades ago, virtually no one was having conversations about the ingredients in our cleaning products. The call for a better, more transparent way of business bubbled up from a few passionate individuals to the mainstream—so much so that brands like Clorox and Tide now publish sustainability reports. Every company isn’t expected to make a positive environmental impact, but consumers deserve transparency so they can make informed decisions aligned with their personal values.
JP McNeill is CEO of Ando, the first mobile and online banking provider that allocates 100 percent of customer deposits to sustainable financing and provides customers with transparency on what gets funded.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.
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