It was a Labour spokesperson who said the prime minister was behaving “like an A-list celeb”, after Rishi Sunak made his third trip by private jet in 10 days. Last week, he flew from London to Blackpool in a 14-seat RAF jet – a 230-mile journey that would have taken about three hours by train. The week before, he did the same to Leeds, which he could have done in two and a half hours by train, but which wouldn’t have looked nearly so glamorous – to go by the ludicrous photograph of him looking important and being saluted as he boarded the aircraft.
Private planes are up to 14 times more polluting, per passenger, than commercial planes and 50 times more polluting than trains, according to a report by Transport & Environment, a European clean transport campaign organisation. “It goes against the fact that the government has committed to net zero by 2050,” says Alice Ridley, a spokesperson for the Campaign for Better Transport. “They have said they want to see more journeys by public transport, walking and cycling. Taking a private jet is extremely damaging for the environment, especially when there are other alternatives that would be far less polluting and would also be cheaper.”
Private planes carry far fewer passengers, while about 40% of flights are empty, simply getting the aircraft to the right location. Flying short distances also means planes are less fuel-efficient.
“A private jet is the most polluting form of transport you can take,” says Matt Finch, the UK policy manager for Transport & Environment. “The average private jet emits two tonnes of carbon an hour. The average European is responsible for [emitting] eight tonnes of carbon a year. You fly to the south of France and back, that’s half a year in one trip.”
Any climate commitment from a bank that is still financing fossil fuel expansion is greenwashing, pure and simple,” said a Stop the Money Pipeline campaigner.
BRETT WILKINS Jan 24, 2023
Taking aim at Wall Street banks financing the oil, gas, and coal extraction fueling the climate crisis, a coalition of institutional investors on Tuesday announced the filing of climate-related shareholder resolutions in an effort to force “more climate-friendly policies that better align with” the firms’ public commitments to combating the planetary emergency.
In the resolutions, members of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) and Harrington Investments asked six banks—Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, and Wells Fargo—to enact policies phasing out fossil fuel finance, disclose plans for aligning their financing with their stated near-term emissions reduction goals, and to set absolute end-of-decade emissions reduction targets for their energy sector financing.
Shareholders also filed climate resolutions at four companies—Chubb, Travelers, The Hartford, and Berkshire Hathaway—that insure fossil fuel projects.
“Each of the major banks has publicly committed to aligning its financing with the goals of the Paris agreement to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, a target widely considered imperative to avoid catastrophic climate impacts and financial losses,” ICCR said in a statement. “Scientific consensus shows that new fossil fuel expansion is incompatible with achieving net-zero by 2050, yet these banks continue to invest billions of dollars each year in new fossil fuel development—a fact corroborated by a new Reclaim Finance report released last week.”
As Stop the Money Pipeline—a coalition of over 200 groups seeking to hold “financial backers of climate chaos accountable”—noted:
A slate of resolutions calling for policies to phase out financing for fossil fuel expansion was filed by the same investors at U.S. banks in 2022. They received between 9% and 13% support, which was a significant milestone for these first-of-their-kind proposals. This year’s fossil fuel financing proposals have been updated to encourage banks to finance clients’ low-carbon transition so long as those plans are credible and verified. The previous resolutions were supported by many major institutional investors, including the New York State and New York City Common Retirement Funds.
New in 2023 are the resolutions on absolute emissions reduction targets for energy sector financing filed by the New York City and New York State comptrollers, and the resolutions calling for disclosure of climate transition plans filed by As You Sow. The day before the resolutions were filed, Denmark’s largest bank, Danske, announced a phaseout of corporate financing for companies engaged in new coal, oil and, gas development.
“Any climate commitment from a bank that is still financing fossil fuel expansion is greenwashing, pure and simple,” Arielle Swernoff, U.S. banks campaign manager at Stop the Money Pipeline, said in a statement. “By supporting these resolutions, shareholders can hold banks accountable to their own climate commitments, effectively manage risk, and protect people and the planet.”
Dan Chu, executive director of the Sierra Club Foundation—which led the filing at JPMorgan Chase—lamented that “all major U.S. banks continue to finance billions of dollars for new coal, oil, and gas projects every year. Such financing undermines the banks’ net-zero commitments and exposes investors to material risks.”
“These shareholder resolutions simply ask banks to align their promises with their actions and to adopt policies to phase out the financing of new fossil fuel development,” Chu added.
Referring to a warning from the International Energy Agency, Kate Monahan of Trillium Asset Management—which spearheaded the Bank of America filing—said that “we will not be able to achieve the Paris agreement’s goal of limiting warming to 1.5°C if banks continue to finance new fossil fuel exploration and development.”
“Bank of America has publicly committed to the Paris agreement but continues to finance fossil fuel expansion with no phaseout plan, exposing itself to accusations of greenwashing and reputational damage,” Monahan contended. ” By continuing to fund new fossil fuels, Bank of America and others are taking actions with potentially catastrophic consequences.”
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Although President Joe Biden vowed on the campaign trail to phase out federal leasing for fossil fuel extraction, his administration approved more permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands in its first two years than the Trump administration did in 2017 and 2018.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity’s analysis of federal data released Wednesday, the Biden White House greenlit 6,430 permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands in 2021 and 2022—a 4.2% increase over former President Donald Trump’s administration, which rubber-stamped 6,172 drilling permits in its first two years.
“Two years of runaway drilling approvals are a spectacular failure of climate leadership by President Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland,” said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Avoiding catastrophic climate change requires phasing out fossil fuel extraction, but instead we’re still racing in the opposite direction.”
Of the drilling authorized so far by the Biden administration, nearly 4,000 permits have been approved for public lands in New Mexico, followed by 1,223 in Wyoming and several hundred each in Utah, Colorado, California, Montana, and North Dakota.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, these “Biden-approved drilling permits will result in more than 800 million tons of estimated equivalent greenhouse gas pollution, or the annual climate pollution from about 217 coal-fired power plants.”
Just last week, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres told the elites gathered at the World Economic Forum in Davos that “fossil fuel producers and their enablers are still racing to expand production, knowing full well that their business model is inconsistent with human survival.”
Reams of scientific evidence show that pollution from the world’s existing fossil fuel developments is enough to push temperature rise well beyond 1.5°C above the preindustrial baseline. Averting calamitous levels of global heating necessitates ending investment in new oil and gas projects and phasing out extraction to keep 40% of the fossil fuel reserves at currently operational sites underground.
As a presidential candidate, Biden pledged to ban new oil and gas lease sales on public lands and waters and to require federal permitting decisions to weigh the social costs of additional planet-heating pollution. Although Biden issued an executive order suspending new fossil fuel leasing during his first week in office, his administration’s actions since then
have run roughshod over earlier promises, worsening the deadly climate crisis that the White House claims to be serious about mitigating.
“The president and interior secretary have the power to avoid a climate catastrophe, but they need to change course rapidly.”
The U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) argued on August 24, 2021 that it was required to resume lease auctions because of a preliminary injunction issued by U.S. Judge Terry A. Doughty, a Trump appointee who ruled in favor of a group of Big Oil-funded Republican attorneys general that sued Biden over his moratorium. In a memorandum of opposition filed on the same day, however, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) asserted that while Doughty’s decision prevented the Biden administration from implementing its pause, it did not compel the DOI to hold new lease sales, “let alone on the urgent timeline specified in plaintiffs’ contempt motion.”
Just days after Biden called global warming “an existential threat to human existence” and declared Washington’s ostensible commitment to decarbonization at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, the DOI ignored the DOJ’s legal advice and proceeded with Lease Sale 257. The nation’s largest-ever offshore auction, which saw more than 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico offered to the highest-bidding oil and gas giants, was blocked in January 2022 by a federal judge who wrote that the Biden administration violated environmental laws by not adequately accounting for the likely consequences of resulting emissions.
Despite Biden’s pledge to cut U.S. greenhouse gas pollution in half by the end of this decade, the DOI’s Bureau of Land Management held lease sales in several Western states in 2022, opening up tens of thousands of acres of public land to fossil fuel production. The DOI has so far announced plans for three new onshore oil and gas lease sales in 2023. The first will offer more than 261,200 acres of public land in Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Wyoming to the highest-bidding drillers. The second and third will put a total of 95,411 acres of public land in Nevada and Utah on the auction block.
In addition, the Biden administration published a draft proposal last summer that, if implemented, would permit up to 11 new oil and gas lease sales for drilling off the coast of Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico over a five-year period.
The president’s 2021 freeze on new lease auctions was meant to give the DOI time to analyze the “potential climate and other impacts associated with oil and gas activities on public lands or in offshore waters.” Nevertheless, the agency’s long-awaited review of the federal leasing program effectively ignored the climate crisis, instead proposing adjustments to royalties, bids, and bonding in what environmental justice campaigners described as a “shocking capitulation to the needs of corporate polluters.”
The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that roughly 25% of the country’s total carbon dioxide emissions and 7% of its overall methane emissions can be attributed to fossil fuel extraction on public lands and waters. According to peer-reviewed research, a nationwide prohibition on federal oil and gas leasing would slash carbon dioxide emissions by 280 million tons per year.
The Biden administration “has not enacted any policies to significantly limit drilling permits or manage a decline of production to avoid 1.5°C degrees of warming,” the Center for Biological Diversity lamented. The White House even supported the demands of right-wing Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.)—Congress’ leading recipient of fossil fuel industry
cash and a long-time coal profiteer—to “add provisions to the Inflation Reduction Act that will lock in fossil fuel leasing for the next decade.”
On numerous occasions, including earlier this month, progressive lawmakers and advocacy groups have implored the Biden administration to use its executive authority to phase out oil and gas production on public lands and in offshore waters. A petition submitted last year came equipped with a regulatory framework to wind down oil and gas production by 98% by 2035. According to the coalition that drafted it, the White House can achieve this goal by using long-dormant provisions of the Mineral Leasing Act, Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, and the National Emergencies Act.
“The president and interior secretary have the power to avoid a climate catastrophe, but they need to change course rapidly,” McKinnon said Wednesday. “Strong executive action can meet the climate emergency with the urgency it demands, starting with phasing out fossil fuel production on public lands and waters.”
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HSBC made a secretive multimillion-dollar loan to an energy company that is bulldozing a village in western Germany to expand a huge coal mine, just three months after the bank pledged to stop funding coal.
HSBC, which claims it is “helping to lead the transition to a more sustainable world”, approved the $340m deal with energy giant RWE after internal discussions in which senior figures at the bank recommended that its involvement should not be publicised.
Violent clashes broke out at the site of the mine on Wednesday as riot police tried to drag away protesters to make way for the bulldozers under the glare of the world’s media. Hundreds of environmental activists have set up camp in Lützerath, the last of several villages to be sacrificed for the 35 km2 Garzweiler mine, which is owned by RWE, one of Europe’s largest energy companies.
HSBC bankers raised concerns about the expansion of the mine and the demolition of the villages but ultimately greenlit the deal. The disclosure of the loan will mark a further blow to the bank, which has raised at least $2.4bn in so-called “sustainable finance” for companies worsening the climate crisis and recently had a series of adverts banned by UK regulators for greenwashing.
According to data from Refinitiv, RWE borrowed a total of $5.4bn in loans arranged by a group of 25 banks including HSBC, Barclays and Santander. All three have committed to aligning their financing and investments with net zero by 2050.
At COP27 last year the UN secretary general, António Guterres, said that it was reprehensible to use “bogus net-zero pledges” to cover up “messy” fossil fuel expansion. “It is rank deception,” he added. “This toxic cover-up could push our world over the climate cliff. The sham must end.”
HSBC told the Bureau: “Details of this [deal] and all its participating banks are in the public domain, as is normal. We have processes to ensure our financing aligns with our policies, which include an expectation on clients to produce and implement credible transition plans.”
Barclays declined to comment on the RWE loan but said it is phasing out financing of thermal coal mining and coal-fired power generation. Santander declined to comment.
‘We don’t want our name associated with it’
At the end of 2021, HSBC committed to withdraw financing from clients that are expanding the production of thermal coal and phase out funding for coal-fired power and thermal coal mining.
Bankers asked internally whether lending money to RWE would comply with this policy and raised concerns about RWE’s plans to demolish several villages. The Garzweiler mine produces 25m tonnes of lignite – the dirtiest form of coal – every year.
After several meetings, the sustainability and reputational risk department approved the deal but said that RWE should not publicise HSBC’s involvement.
An HSBC banker, who asked to remain anonymous, said of the deal: “We’re saying, ‘We don’t want our name to be associated with it, but here are the funds and please don’t tell anyone that we gave you the funds.’ I acknowledge that this approach is questionable.”
The deal was initially structured as a sustainability-linked loan, meaning its terms include a commitment from RWE that it will hit certain climate targets by 2025. But the penalty it would face for failing to do so is a tiny increase in the interest it pays on the loan. This would come to $86,700 a year for a company whose most recent annual revenues were $26bn.
Sustainability-linked loans are meant to encourage polluters to transition to more environmentally friendly operations, but companies that raise funds through the loans do not face any restrictions on how that money is used.
The HSBC banker said: “There is no guarantee that the [RWE loan] won’t be used to help pay a supplier, or pay salaries of contractors involved in the coal mine project.”
A condemned village
The vast Garzweiler open-cast mine has already swallowed 13 villages, according to Friends of the Earth Germany. Thousands of residents have been resettled and churches, schools and village halls have all been bulldozed to satisfy the voracious demand for energy in a heavily industrialised area.
Local residents and environmental activists across Germany have campaigned to protect another six neighbouring villages that were slated for demolition and appear to have had some success. RWE recently said that it would stop using coal in 2030 and so would drop its plans to raze five of the villages.
That just leaves Lützerath, where police are battling to evict hundreds of activists who have been living in abandoned buildings and makeshift treehouses for the past two and a half years. They have built a skate hall, farmed their own food and run workshops on climate justice.
Eckardt Heukamp was Lützerath’s last remaining resident until he moved out last year. “You saw how the church was torn down and dug up, how the villages have vanished,” he told the Times. “At some point you just say to yourself that it can’t keep going on like this, being subjugated and driven into a corner all the time.”
The showdown between the authorities and occupying activists escalated on Wednesday as riot police armed with batons moved in to evacuate the area, hauling out protesters and making arrests as fires burned in the streets of the village.
Just a few hundred metres away, one of the world’s largest land vehicles continues to carve away at the earth, bringing the edge of the mine ever closer to Lützerath.
In order to secure the loan, RWE committed to reducing its carbon emissions per unit of power generated, across all its energy sources. This means that, as long as it adds enough wind and solar power into the mix, the company could in fact increase its emissions from coal – and its planet-warming emissions overall.
It also committed to increasing the proportion of energy it generates from renewables and the amount it is investing in sustainable energy.
The penalty if RWE fails to meet all three targets is an increase in the interest it pays on the loan of less than 0.03 percentage points.
“It’s almost meaningless,” said Tariq Fancy, BlackRock’s former chief investment officer for sustainable investing. “Because the only thing that really changes behaviour in financial markets is when you change incentives. And you can’t change incentives with something so miniscule.”
Critics say RWE – which is Europe’s largest emitter of CO2 – could single-handedly stop Germany meeting its climate targets. Catharina Rieve of the German Institute for Economic Research said this will be the case if the company follows through with its plan to burn 280m tonnes of coal from the Garzweiler mine before 2030.
RWE told the Bureau it disputed this projection because the EU’s emissions trading system means that “if one company emits less, other companies elsewhere can emit more”.
The company added: “In the current energy crisis, ensuring security of supply is vital. At the same time, protecting the climate remains one of the key challenges of our time. RWE supports both. The company invests billions of euros into accelerating the energy transition.”
The HSBC banker said it was questionable to view a company as transitioning to net zero while it was expanding coal extraction, and that the bank’s attempts to challenge polluters on their transition plans was minimal.
HSBC decided the loan should not be classified as “sustainability-linked” internally, even though environmental targets remained part of the agreement. The bankers agreed it should not count towards HSBC’s target to contribute up to $1tn in sustainable finance by 2030 because of RWE’s plan to expand the Garzweiler mine and demolish several villages.
Barclays and Santander declined to comment on whether they are counting their parts of the RWE loan package towards their internal sustainable finance targets.
HSBC told the Bureau: “We have been clear we will finance energy companies who are taking an active role in transitioning to a net zero energy future, and we remain committed to this goal amid the double challenge of tackling climate change and an acute energy crisis in Europe.”
RWE is not the only company expanding fossil fuel production that has borrowed money under the guise of sustainable finance. Refinitiv data shows that Chrysaor – now part of the UK North Sea’s biggest producer of fossil fuels – raised $4.5bn with a sustainability-linked loan arranged by HSBC, Barclays, Lloyds, Natwest and a number of other banks.
One of the biggest oil producers in the US, Occidental Petroleum, raised $4bn, and the world’s biggest oil services provider Schlumberger raised $912m, also with sustainability-linked loans arranged by HSBC and other banks.
Tony Burdon, chief executive at Make My Money Matter, which campaigns for greener investments, said: “HSBC took an important first step in ceasing direct finance towards fossil fuel expansion projects. But as this report so clearly shows, they haven’t gone far enough.
“By continuing to provide sizeable corporate loans to companies involved in fossil fuel expansion such as RWE, HSBC is not just damaging the environment and displacing communities, they’re undermining their own climate targets.”
Lead image: Riot police stand in front of burning barricades as activists stage a protest in Lützerath. Credit: Bernd Lauter / Getty
Reporter: Josephine Moulds
Environment editor: Robert Soutar
Impact producer: Grace Murray
Global editor: James Ball
Editor: Meirion Jones
Production editors: Alex Hess and Frankie Goodway
Fact checker: Andrew Wasley
This reporting is funded by The Sunrise Project. None of our funders have any influence over the Bureau’s editorial decisions or output.
The head of the United Nations has accused the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies of refusing to abandon a business model at odds with human survival despite knowingly putting the world on course for a climate meltdown decades ago.
Speaking at the Davos summit of business and political leaders, the UN secretary general, António Guterres, launched a strong attack on the world’s leading oil companies, many of which are represented at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting at the Swiss resort.
Guterres said recent revelations that ExxonMobil knew back in the 1970s that its core product was “baking our planet”, made “big oil” similar to the tobacco companies that knew smoking led to cancer.
“Just like the tobacco industry, they rode roughshod over their own science. Big Oil peddled the big lie … And like the tobacco industry, those responsible must be held to account,” he said.
The new coalmine in Cumbria is likely to prevent the UK from meeting its internationally agreed commitment to reduce emissions of the powerful greenhouse gas methane, analysis has suggested.
The Whitehaven colliery, controversially approved by ministers shortly before Christmas, will release about 17,500 tonnes of methane every year, according to estimates from the Green Alliance thinktank.
That is about the same as 120,000 cattle, or about half the beef herd in Cumbria at present, and could put the UK’s methane-cutting targets out of reach.
The analysis comes as campaigners also raise concerns about the filing of more than 100 oil and gas drilling licence applications.
Extinction Rebellion protests Michael Gove’s decision to allow coal mining at Whitehaven, Cumbria at the Department of Levelling Up, Housing & Communities in London. The mine is UK’s first new deep coal mine for 30 years.
Sarah Hart, a mother of two from Farnborough said: “2022 saw record global greenhouse gas emissions, and record global temperatures. Where is the government’s ambition to act on this Climate and Ecological Emergency? How dare they even think of opening a coal mine now? Gove claims this mine is carbon neutral but he completely ignores the emissions from burning the coal. We demand an end to all new fossil fuel projects.”
Dorothea Hackman, a 70 year old grandmother from Camden said: “Opening a coal mine today means the UK can’t argue that China and India should decrease their own coal emissions. Whitehaven coal isn’t even wanted by British steelworks, it’s going to be exported, there is no argument for domestic production.”
Extinction Rebellion is inviting everyone to Westminster from 21 April 2023 to demand a fair society and a citizen-led end to the fossil fuel era. Find out more about The Big One.
Summary of report
New analysis commissioned by Greenpeace International shows that 1,040 private jets flew in and out of airports serving the Swiss mountain resort of Davos during the week of the 2022 World Economic Forum (WEF), causing CO2 emissions from private jets four times greater than an average week.
The research, conducted by Dutch environmental consultancy CE Delft, found that the number of private jet flights to and from airports serving Davos doubled during the 2022 World Economic Forum meeting compared to average weeks, causing CO2 emissions equivalent to about 350,000 average cars in the same time period. The researchers attribute about every second flight to the meeting itself.
Of all these flights, 53% were short-haul flights below 750 km that could have easily been train or car trips, with 38% flying ultra-short distances of under 500 km. The shortest flight recorded was only 21 km. According to the analysis, countries with the highest number of arrivals and departures out of Davos airports included Germany, France and Italy.
The issue of private jets garnered global public attention last year after several public figures faced criticism for taking ultra-short trips by private jet. The analysis released by Greenpeace International comes days before political and business leaders head into Davos to attend the 2023 World Economic Forum, with its self-proclaimed goal of wanting to tackle climate change and other “ongoing crises” calling for “bold collective action”.
Private jets are not regulated in the EU, even though they are the most polluting mode of transportation on the planet per passenger kilometre. For the first time, in 2022, several EU countries spearheaded by France have started to push for an EU-wide regulation of private jet emissions. Greenpeace is calling on a ban on private jets and short-haul flights with train alternatives in the EU.
Coal mine expansion has long been flashpoint for tensions over Germany’s energy policies
News of climate activist Greta Thunberg’s detention by police near the German village of Lutzerath has drawn further attention to controversial plans for a coal mine’s expansion, which she has labelled a “betrayal” by the government.
While perhaps the most recognisable, the Swedish campaigner is among thousands of people who have been compelled to take part in demonstrations at the North Rhine-Westphalia village in recent years, which has become a flashpoint for German climate activists seeking an end to fossil fuels.
[A]ctivists argue that fossil fuels must remain in the ground to avert climate breakdown. Addressing some 6,000 protesters marching on Lutzerath on Saturday, Ms Thunberg called the mine’s expansion a “betrayal of present and future generations”.
“Germany is one of the biggest polluters in the world and needs to be held accountable,” she said, adding: “The most affected people are clear, the science is clear, we need to keep the carbon in the ground.
“When governments and corporations are acting like this, are actively destroying the environment, putting countless of people at risk, the people step up.”