Insight - Climate scientists swap fieldwork for finance

Laura Garcia Velez poses for a photo in the Tigray region of Ethiopia in 2017, in this handout photo. - Reuters

ENVIRONMENTAL scientist Laura Garcia Velez (pic) cut her teeth on projects to help Ethiopian farmers insure crops for drought and connect remote Colombian communities to the electricity grid before working for conservation campaigners WWF.

Now she’s an analyst for Lombard Odier, charged with improving the US$350bil (RM1.4 trillion) Swiss bank’s green credentials.

“It’s really important that finance recruits from science, ” said Velez, one of a growing number of campaigners and scientists who have switched to banking, which she hopes can play a role in “greening the polluting industries”.

Activism and finance may seem an unlikely pairing of two implacable foes. Yet banks, asset managers and private equity firms, faced with tough regulations to decarbonise portfolios and loan books, are competing to grab the people with the right green expertise, according to jobs data and Reuters interviews with finance firms, recruiters and universities.

“Working in sustainability, it used to feel like you were trying to knock down walls, ” said NatWest’s head of climate change James Close, a former director of climate change at the World Bank. “Now they are pulling us in from the streets through the front door.”

Many environmentalists, for their part, say the only way to save the planet is to force big businesses to radically reduce their carbon emissions, and they see the finance world that funds them as one of the best levers.

Some charities and campaigners argue, though, that “greenwashing” is rife in the finance industry. Many new recruits, they say, are used as a marketing tool and often lack the power to drive real change.

Nonetheless, the green rush is on. The number of job ads for “sustainability” roles nearly doubled to more than 1,000 during the year to February, versus the previous 12 months, according to global finance recruitment specialist eFinancialCareers. Positions range from junior-level analysts to new director-level roles such as head of sustainability or climate change.

Green recruitment specialist Acre said its hires in finance had increased by more than a quarter year-on-year every year since 2017. The most senior posts now offer pay packages of well over £750,000 (US$1mil), up around three-fold over the period.

LinkedIn data shared with Reuters shows a steady increase in the number of finance jobs listed as requiring at least one “green skill”, such as pollution prevention or ecosystem management, particularly in the United States.

“There is a race for talent right now, there’s no doubt about it, ” said Elree Winnett Seelig, Citi’s global head of ESG for markets, adding that demand was particularly strong in fixed income.

Indeed banks, asset managers and private equity firms have been ramping up their climate teams in the past year, pushing salaries up by 30%-50%, said Jon Williams, partner in sustainability and climate change at PwC UK. One of his team recently doubled their salary by jumping ship to an asset management firm, he added.

Environmental advocacy group workers who move to a bank are typically able to at least double their pay packets once bonuses are factored in, recruiters say.

Leading universities with specialist centres that combine climate science and finance say they have seen companies beat a path to their door to recruit graduates.

Charles Donovan, executive director of Imperial College London’s Centre for Climate Finance and Investment, which is jointly run by climate science hub the Grantham Institute, said there had been an “unbelievable” rise in interest in its students from finance sector employers in the past 18 months. Banks such as HSBC and Standard Chartered are seeking prospective hires through climate-research partnerships, while some firms are offering scholarships, he added. ─ Reuters

Iain Withers, Carolyn Cohn and Simon Jessop write for Reuters. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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