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Goldman Sachs joins U.S. banks in global warming commitment ahead of regulatory threats

March 4, 2021, 11:08 PM UTC

Goldman Sachs will join a rapidly growing group of large U.S. financial institutions in the goal of hitting net-zero greenhouse gas emissions within the next nine years. 

The bank joins Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, and JPMorgan Chase in their mission to reach net-zero emissions in their own operations and those of their clients by 2050 at the latest, leaving Wells Fargo as the only “big six” bank that hasn’t made the commitment. 

“Today, we are expanding our operational carbon commitment to include our supply chain, targeting net zero carbon emissions by 2030,” chairman and CEO David Solomon said in a statement. “We encourage business leaders from all industries to join these collective efforts. After all, it’s the gains we make in the short term that will make our success in the long term possible.”

U.S. banks are the largest financiers of fossil fuel companies and are far behind European competitors in addressing climate change. 

The push for U.S. banks to take responsibility for their role in funding industries culpable for global warming was a major theme at last year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, a meeting of the world’s top business and political leaders. “Banks, insurers, and pension funds are as culpable for the climate emergency as the fossil fuel industry,” said Greenpeace International executive director Jennifer Morgan. Climate activist Greta Thunberg told an audience that banks must “immediately and completely divest from fossil fuels.”

In his annual letter to CEOs this January, BlackRock chief executive Larry Fink warned that “climate risk is investment risk” and said that he expects the companies that BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, invests in to make their own net-zero-emission goals. Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, and JPMorgan Chase soon followed with their announcements, and on Monday, Citigroup CEO Jane Fraser announced a similar goal.

“Net zero means rethinking our business and helping our clients rethink theirs. For banks, what some don’t realize is that net zero includes not just our own operations but also our core business impacts—in other words, our financing,” she wrote in a blog post. 

Investing in sustainability could be big business for top banks. Between January and November 2020, investors in mutual funds and ETFs spent $288 billion on “sustainable” assets, a 96% increase from the previous year. According to BlackRock, 81% of a globally representative selection of sustainable index funds outperformed their benchmarks in 2020. 

The private sector has hit an inflection point, 2020 presidential candidate Tom Steyer told Fortune. Banks understand that in order to compete with Europe, they’re going to have to change. “What’s really going on is a broad societal understanding in the political realm and in the corporate realm,” he said. And as CEOs see their rival banks commit to net-zero goals, they realized that they would have to join in to remain competitive within the U.S. 

But climate activists say that the plans are vague and goals are too distant, and they accuse large banks of “greenwashing” for profit. BlackRock has come under fire for voting against climate change resolutions at annual meetings of companies it holds stakes in and still invests in, such as JBS, the world’s biggest meat company, which has been accused of destroying large swaths of the rain forest in Brazil. 

Divestment from the fossil fuel industry may also be largely symbolic. The major oil and gas companies still generate enough cash to avoid issuing new debt or equity. 

But regardless of impact, financial regulators have indicated that they’re working on creating their own guidelines for how publicly traded companies disclose the way that climate change will impact their outlook, and the Federal Reserve is currently contemplating how to stress-test major banks for climate-related threats. Banks will either regulate themselves or they will be regulated. These changes allow them to get ahead of the Biden administration on their own terms.