The view from Canary Wharf: ‘Climate commitments? Well, we have recycling bins…’

RI speaks to workers in London’s financial district for Earth Day.

Last year, the UK christened itself the “the world’s first net zero financial centre” at COP26 amid a bonanza of headline-grabbing climate pledges from financial institutions operating in the global hub.

A chance to visit the climate war’s new frontline was too tempting to pass up, so RI made the short hop to Canary Wharf yesterday to check in with finance and finance-adjacent professionals on their lunch break.

Doorstepping Joe public can be unproductive and antisocial at the best of times – more so for a sector with some of the highest billable hours around – so RI kept it short. We wanted to see how familiar workers were with their firms’ own climate pledges and how climate change had impacted their day-to-day activities.

Caveats first: this (exceedingly) unscientific assignment took place on a glorious sunny day when chatting to strangers on climate change may not have been top of mind – fulsome apologies to the one meditating banker for the interruption. Even so, RI turned up a mixed bag.

The good news is that the spirit of the corporate climate pledges, if not exactly the substance, has been filtering downwards.

A managing director for Citi’s capital markets division correctly stated that the banking group had a $1 trillion green financing pledge, although she was unsure exactly where this capital would be funnelled.

“It’s pretty much the same thing that our competitors have pledged,” they said. “And its catchy.”

This was echoed across the board. A trio of accountants from an unnamed Big Four firm knew that 2025 was somehow a significant cut-off date but were unsure whether it was in relation to becoming climate negative or climate neutral.

A group of HSBC employees working on leveraged finance were less successful, suggesting an array of dates between now and 2050 for crunch time on climate action.

More interesting were the comments on how climate change had impacted remits.

A bank analyst said: “Most organisations have something around climate but it is not something I’m involved in. We get the emails, read the emails, but it depends on the person [if] you’re committed to that sort of thing” – adding “although we do have recycling bins”.

The previously mentioned Citi MD was also clear that climate was “certainly a consideration” but “it’s not exactly material at the time being”.

More broadly, there seemed to be a sense that the climate agenda is being foisted upon the institutions, either by regulatory or client-driven pressure, rather than being pushed from the inside. An M&A professional from Morgan Stanley said pointedly that “climate was important to investors, so I guess we have to look into it it”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the one respondent who impressed RI with knowledge of their organisation’s climate policy and strategy worked at a prominent state-linked pension fund. Asset owners sit squarely on top of the investment chain and have been key proponents for action on climate and other dimensions of sustainability.

When asked if that policy was integrated into the everyday work of the fund, our pension fund interlocutor said: “Yes, we have a dedicated ESG team and a stewardship code.” The fund had also “issued a responsible investment report”, they added, the second release of which came out last year – later confirmed by RI.

There were other positives to take to heart. A project manager at EY revealed himself to be comfortable with the technicalities of the firm’s climate strategy and was emphatic about the role of professional services in helping companies address climate risks and opportunities.

Separately, an analyst at a major US bank said: “I’m in oil and gas and commodity trading actually, and there is a lot of commitment in terms of trying to cut down on the exposure that we have to climate change.”

Additional reporting by Paul Verney