Activists target Canadian banks with complaint

Increasing scrutiny: A sign for the Royal Bank of Canada in Toronto. The bank is among five in Canada facing questions over misrepresenting their climate response. — Reuters

Ottawa: A climate activist group is urging securities regulators to investigate Canada’s biggest banks over their green-finance claims and whether “inadequate or misleading” disclosures could be putting investors at risk.

In a complaint filed Tuesday with the Ontario Securities Commission and Quebec’s Autorite des Marches Financiers and seen by Bloomberg News, Investors for Paris Compliance alleges that the country’s five largest banks – Royal Bank of Canada, Toronto-Dominion Bank, Bank of Nova Scotia, Bank of Montreal and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) – have failed to make clear disclosures about the carbon-emissions impact of their green-lending activities.

The group also argues that, in some cases, the banks have made investments under the sustainable-finance umbrella that could actually increase greenhouse gas emissions, citing examples of loans and bond underwriting for oil and gas companies or utilities that have elsewhere been expanding their fossil-fuel operations or exposures.

Royal Bank, Toronto-Dominion, Scotiabank, Bank of Montreal and CIBC have collectively pledged to invest almost C$2 trillion in sustainable finance in coming years, with targets of between 2025 and 2030 for deploying those funds.

“It feels to us that there’s a misrepresentation happening around their climate response that investors need to be more aware of and that securities regulators have a role in policing,” said Matt Price, executive director of Investors for Paris Compliance, which says it works with investors or takes financial positions in Canadian public companies to hold them accountable for their net-zero plans.

The five banks directed requests for comment to the Canadian Bankers Association, a lobbying group for the industry.

“Canadian banks follow prevailing North American market standards on environmental, social and governance disclosure, comply with applicable disclosure rules and regulations and continue to work with industry forums and relevant governing bodies to advance standards that govern sustainability reporting and disclosure practices,” Maggie Cheung, a spokesperson for the association, said in an email.

She said Canadian banks recognise the role of the financial sector in the transition to a low-carbon future and that sustainable finance is one way of helping companies reach those goals.

The complaint is part of a broader international push by environmental activists to use courts and other legal avenues, such as claims with regulators, to push for accountability on corporate climate pledges.

Even within the banking industry, some senior leaders have raised concerns about a lack of uniform standards in how banks disclose and calculate green investments.

The absence of a consistent methodology “can impact the credibility of the entire market, raising fears of greenwashing”, Emily Farrimond, a partner at London-based consultancy Baringa Partners LLP, told Bloomberg News late last year.

Price said the Canadian banks have put their sustainable finance pledges “in the window” as part of their climate transition plans but make only selective disclosure about where the money goes and don’t provide public data on the emissions impact of that funding compared with the rest of their lending.

The complaint alleges shareholders could see the value of their investments decline if the financial institutions fail to mount a credible response to climate change.

Investors in bonds labelled as sustainable or green could suffer owing to “inadequate or misleading disclosure associated with these instruments,” according to the complaint.

Investors for Paris Compliance filed its complaint in both Ontario and Quebec because the two provinces are the principal securities jurisdictions for the five banks.

While the two regulatory agencies aren’t required to respond to the complaint, Price said he’s optimistic they will because both have indicated interest in environmental disclosures and climate-change risk in recent years. — Bloomberg

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