Financial firms managing $130 trillion commit to net-zero goals, but no one can agree on what that really means

November 3, 2021, 9:00 PM UTC

Jane Fraser, the CEO of Citi, says that bankers are hamstrung enough trying to compare “apples and oranges” to help clients make sense of their investments. But when it comes to sustainable finance disclosures, “it’s a veritable fruit plate out there.”

Fraser was speaking on Wednesday at COP26 in Glasgow during a panel on the scale of financial assets now committing to decarbonization. The news of the day was that $130 trillion in assets were now under a commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, as announced by Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of England and now the UN Special Envoy for Climate Action and Finance.

That coalition, called the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, now covers 450 financial institutions. It commits them to standards regarding climate stress testing and assessments of their net-zero strategies, including winding down stranded assets, Carney said. Together, it amounted to “arcane but essential changes to the plumbing of finance” that would, for the first time, set out a clear path for how to fund the transition, estimated at a cost of $1 trillion.

The expansion of the coalition also comes alongside measures to attempt to set out exactly what green measures really look like, under the creation of a new set of climate reporting standards by the nonprofit International Financial Reporting Standards Foundation.

Those standards, if accepted and widely used, could form a breakthrough in a frustrating question at the heart of green finance: As banks, asset managers, and pension funds pledge to decarbonize, they are relying on a chaotic hodgepodge of disclosure, reporting, and tracking standards, all attempting to define what “green” actually means. In other words, a messy fruit plate.

This is a problem in all areas of global finance. When it comes to equities, for example, various agencies combine everything from the gender breakdown on boards, to labor relations and pollutions standards into one ESG “score,” which is frequently incomparable—and often outright at odds—with their competitors’ assessments, as MIT’s Aggregate Confusion project has found. Even the most thorough ratings agencies, meanwhile, are relying on a patchwork of voluntary disclosures supplied by the companies themselves, even as ESG-marketed funds have exploded in size and assets.

This has led to rife accusations of greenwashing from both banks and the public companies they lend to alike, and spurred increasing efforts by governments and regulators to define “green.” In the U.S., the SEC has begun asking companies to disclose more information about their carbon footprints to investors, and the commission’s chair has said that investors want to be able to compare one company’s measures to another’s, likening it to sprinting at the Olympics. The EU, meanwhile, has published a vast “taxonomy” of what exactly counts as a “green” activity and is redrawing the financial system around that baseline. It’s a process that will likely take years.

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