Swiss banks – six years of hypocrisy

Since Switzerland signed the Paris climate agreements in 2015 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Swiss banks have loaned nearly USD 3.15 billion to the coal sector. The banks’ climate engagements have more holes than a Swiss cheese. They allow to continue financing companies such as Glencore, under a veil of discretion.

“I look at the room; I see that the reaction is positive; I do not hear any objections. The Paris Agreement on climate is accepted.” It is 12 December 2015. These are the words that the president of COP 21, Laurent Fabius, used to seal the adoption of the first global climate agreement. Some 196 states committed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, with the aim of limiting global warming to a maximum of 2°C by the end of the century, compared to pre-industrial levels, and even to continue the effort to limit the increase to 1.5°C.

Among the signatories, the United States (that later broke ranks under the presidency of Donald Trump) and Switzerland committed, upon ratification of the agreement in October 2017, to reduce their CO2 emissions by half by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. “Switzerland is on the right track to implement the Paris Agreement”, boasted the Federal Office for the Environment on its website. The Swiss population (and most of the cantons) nevertheless dismissed the revision of the law on CO2, which was due to validate the reduction commitments made in Paris. And its banks continue to operate as if nothing had happened, despite their grand commitments to becoming carbon neutral.

According to Public Eye’s investigation, drawing on data from the Dutch research agency Profundo: since the Paris Agreement, Swiss banks have lent nearly USD 3.15 billion to the Swiss coal industry. Financing of the coal trade has even accelerated since 2016, if 2021 is omitted in light of the slowdown in growth caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. From 2016 to 2020, the annual sums raised by coal producers and traders increased by 72 percent. None of the banks in question wished to comment on the figures provided by third parties.

Swiss banks occupy tenth place globally as creditors of coal: In the time between the Paris Agreement and September 2022, the Swiss coal industry raised a total of USD 72.9 billion from banks in France, Japan, the US, Russia and other countries (see the table below).

Despite its commitments to reduce its financing for coal, Credit Suisse is by far the leading Swiss entity. On its own, the second largest bank in the country provided over half of Swiss funding that went to the coal market. Among its best clients are Trafigura and Glencore, as well as the Russian extractors Sibanthracite and Suek. The involvement of cantonal banks should also be noted, despite the fact that their public shareholding should cause them to exert increased diligence in relation to climate issues – and above all Switzerland’s political commitments made in Paris – when they grant loans.

Public Eye contacted all major banks regarding their exclusion criteria. Every institution responded (see table below), except for the Geneva Cantonal Bank. When challenged, the bank did state that it “does not communicate on its policy of distributing international trade financing according to category of commodity”.

The exclusion criteria developed by the banks (see gallery below) are formulated in such a way that large, diversified groups slip through the net of climate commitments. Founder of the NGO Reclaim Finance, Lucie Pinson highlights Glencore as a prime example, the largest private coal exporter in the world – but coal only makes up a small portion of its revenues. “If we don’t touch the largest producers, we know there is a problem”, she says. None of the commitments made by the Swiss banks analysed by Public Eye would actually exclude financing of Glencore’s business linked to coal. Reclaim Finance estimates that 90 percent of financing granted to companies active in the coal sector passes through credit lines that are non-binding in relation to their utilisation (corporate loans) or underwritings (bond issuance to raise funds from third party investors).

Exclusion criteria established by the banks

More infos

  • Credit Suisse

    Climate commitment

    Halt to lending to any company deriving more than 15% of revenues from thermal coal extraction or from coal power generation by 2025 “unless supporting energy transition”

    The threshold will be reduced to 5% in 2030.

    No financing for new greenfield thermal coal mines or new coal-fired power plants.

    Loans to coal sector (2016 - September 2022)

    1.7 billion US dollars

  • UBS

    Climate commitment

    Since 2021, halt on loans to companies operating existing coal plants if the company makes over 20% of its revenues from coal. Unless the company has a strategy aligned with the Paris Agreement or “if the transaction is related to renewable energy or clean technology.”

    Halt to financing for thermal coal miners generating over 20% of their revenues from the sedimentary rock. Unless the company has a strategy aligned with the Paris Agreement or “if the transaction is related to renewable energy or clean technology.”

    No financing for new thermal coal mines and new coal-fired power plants.

    Loans to coal sector (2016 - September 2022)

    594 million US dollars

  • Zürcher Kantonalbank (ZKB)

    Climate commitment

    Does not finance coal extraction, but does not have strict exclusion criteria for banking clients.

    Does not finance the thermal coal trade. “Metallurgical coal is still needed for example for steel production, but we are hopeful that this will phase out”, states a spokesperson in contrast.

    Loans to coal sector (2016 - September 2022)

    339 million US dollars

  • Banque Cantonale Vaudoise (BCV)

    Climate commitment

    From 2020, 4.5% per year reduction of coal exposure in trade finance business (transaction activities). From 2022, this target has been revised to 6.5% per year.

    BCV does not finance nuclear power plants, thermal coal-fired power plants or coal mines.

    Loans to coal sector (2016 - September 2022)

    92 million US dollars

  • Banque Cantonale de Genève (BCGe)

    Climate commitment

    The bank does not communicate on any commitments linked to financing of mining companies, transaction financing for the coal trade or for coal-fired power plants.

    BCGe states that it “rigorously applies the regulations it is subject to, including in relation to all sanctions enacted by the competent authorities”.

    Loans to coal sector (2016 - September 2022)

    49 million US dollars

  • Swiss National Bank (SNB)

    Climate commitment

    Since 2021, SNB excludes investments in “companies, whose main activity is the mining of coal for energy production”.

    However, the Swiss Central Bank did not want to specify how it defines the criteria ‘main activity’. It also did not provide us with the name of the external service provider, which conducts this analysis on behalf of the bank.

    Coal trade as such is not an exclusion criterion.

    Loans to coal sector (2016 - September 2022)

    SNB does not comment its exposure to the coal sector.

More infos

  • Methodology of the coal financing estimates

    At our request, Profundo estimated the sum allocated to coal by Swiss banks that finance producers and traders based in Switzerland. To do so, the Dutch not-for-profit research agency drew on figures from the Global Coal Exit List (GCEL), published by the NGO Urgewald. The information is not public, due to the veil of opacity created by the distribution of investments and, without doubt, the taboo that surrounds the coal trade.

    In most cases, the companies analysed also undertook other commercial activities. In cases where financing allocated to coal is not disclosed, Profundo calculated estimates. The analysis is primarily based on capex (capital expenditure), namely a company’s total investment expenditure. Where this is publicly disclosed, the figure can be used to estimate the percentage of investments made that went to coal. The same percentage can then be used to assess the total sum invested in financing the trade or production of coal. When this data was not available, Profundo used other proxies as a basis, for example the revenues from coal or mining products, as compared to the company’s total revenues.

Invisible finance

In another trend, financing is increasingly being provided through bond issuance organised by these same banks. It’s an instrument that enables companies to borrow money from investors without the investors acquiring a share of the company, as is the case with share purchases. This practice is known as “underwriting” and enables financial institutions to avoid including coal in their accounting statements, as they would be obliged to do in the case of a bank loan. “The bond only passes through the portfolio of the bank that will place it with investors. This dilutes the link between the financial institution and the mining company, and makes it possible to obtain remuneration following the issuance” confirms Lucie Pinson.

Faced with pressure from environmentalists, the finance sector is reorganising to become more discreet. “The higher the reputational risk posed by a project, the more it becomes practical to finance the company rather than the mining project”, maintains the founder of Reclaim Finance. “No bank is crazy enough to associate its logo with the inauguration of a coal-fired power plant”. From 2016 to 2021, underwriting grew by nearly 246 percent.

During this period, on 15 November 2021 at COP 26 in Glasgow, Switzerland – represented by its Minister for Environment and Energy Simonetta Sommaruga – denounced China and India’s move to torpedo a departure from coal. For OECD countries, the UN conference on climate change has just set objectives for 2030. 2030, that’s tomorrow – and nothing indicates any reversal of the trend.

Right to the last piece of coal

The sector thought it had found the solution to fend off divestment by large European banks – code name “Coal to Zero”. Specifically, the idea is to create a fund to continue financing mining projects, under the guise of undertaking “responsible extraction” of coal up to 2040 or 2045, dates at which the industry promises to pull the plug. The project was initiated by the Geneva-based trading house Trafigura and the financial institution Citigroup, which has a branch in Geneva. It sought financiers prepared to continue with the adventure of this sedimentary rock, according to documents intended for London-based investors consulted by the Bloomberg news agency, which revealed the affair in May 2021. Part of the funds would be spent on local communities, with no further specification provided. The rest was dedicated to the acquisition of coal mines in Australia, the United States or South Africa.

In reality, the initiative is an old idea that comes up time and again. “I support the idea of a 'bad bank' that invests in the production of fossil fuels, coal and gas-fired plants”, states the trader Lars Schernikau. “Western companies are forced by investors to divest. For the environment, it is better that someone other than the Chinese are in charge of extraction. The direct consequence is that coal will become even dirtier and energy efficiency will be lost. The restrictions on coal will end up benefitting the small number that continue to profit from the trade.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, the two companies abandoned the idea in December 2021. Contacted by Public Eye, Trafigura’s representative cited “positive feedback” from investors and certain affected communities. However, the representative confirmed that the idea had been rejected “given the uncertainties of a rapidly evolving regulatory environment and the varying priorities of key stakeholders”.

  1. Lucie Pinson, quoted in Mickaël Correia, Criminels Climatiques [Climate Criminals], Ed. La Découverte, 2022, page 106.

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