Every year business and world leaders jet into Davos to discuss climate change and other global issues at the World Economic Forum. And every year they are met with vigorous accusations of hypocrisy. Those accusations may well be levelled at the executives from HSBC – one of the world's top funders of fossil fuel expansion – as they mingled with their peers in the pretty Swiss ski town this week, discussing how to develop a long-term strategy for climate, nature and energy.
HSBC says delivering a net-zero global economy is “a pillar of our strategy as a business”. In December 2022, the bank made the shock announcement that it would stop financing new oil and gas fields. Environmental campaigners celebrated, with the responsible investment charity ShareAction saying the decision set “a new minimum ambition for all banks committed to net zero”.
But on the same day, HSBC bankers started selling shares in the refining business of Saudi Aramco, one of the most aggressive expanders of oil and gas. An investor in HSBC told the Bureau of Investigative Journalism that the bank’s policy has been cleverly worded to allow it to fund some of the world’s biggest polluters while boasting about its green credentials.
An analysis of Refinitiv data by TBIJ has found that in the year since HSBC’s new policy was announced, the bank has helped raise more than $47bn (£37bn) for companies that are expanding the production of oil and gas, despite dire warnings from scientists that this will push the world beyond its survivable limits.
Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, told ITV News: “In the world, if we make large scale oil, gas and coal development, we cannot reach our 1.5 degrees target, full stop.” He said if a bank is serious about aligning its business with net zero, it cannot continue to fund companies developing new oil and gas fields.
Andrew Harper, chief responsibility officer at Epworth, an investment manager that holds HSBC shares, said: “[HSBC’s] policy, which is supposed to act as a safety net for the climate, is by design letting the bank circumvent its pledges by allowing them to adhere to the letter rather than the spirit of what they're claiming.
“As investors, we’re not going to be fooled by the marketing, by the pledges, by these policies. We want to see real change and for them to seriously end new fossil fuel financing, no loopholes. Anything short of that is the bank trying to dupe its key stakeholders.”
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HSBC said its policy allows the bank to continue providing finance “at a corporate level” and its approach “is based on the latest science for achieving net zero and follows the UN-backed approach for climate target setting and net zero alignment for banks”.
New projects, no problem
In its feted policy, HSBC notes that global demand for oil and gas to 2050 is “more than met by existing [oil and gas] fields”. It says the bank will therefore no longer provide finance for “new oil and gas fields and related infrastructure whose primary use is in conjunction with new fields”.
However, that has not stopped HSBC from funding companies that are exploiting new oil and gas fields, and providing the necessary infrastructure to do so.
In the first half of last year, HSBC, with other banks, helped the UAE’s state oil and gas company, Adnoc, raise $3.2bn from selling shares in its gas and logistics businesses. Adnoc will receive a further cash boost of $3bn in hefty dividends from Adnoc Gas.
Separately, HSBC helped arrange a $3.2bn loan for Borouge 4, a petrochemicals plant that will be a key customer for Adnoc’s gas, and was described by its project director as “an enabler of Adnoc’s growth strategy”.
Scientists agree that we cannot develop any new oil and gas fields if we are to limit global heating to 1.5C. Adnoc plans to increase oil production by 25% between 2023 and 2027, however, which would dramatically overshoot these limits.
Last year, Adnoc rubber stamped the exploitation of a vast new gas field off the UAE coast, which threatens a vital habitat for sea cows. Burning the gas Adnoc plans to extract from this field would produce 30m tonnes of carbon dioxide per year – more than Denmark's annual emissions.
HSBC has similarly close ties with Saudi Arabia’s national oil company. The share sale for Saudi Aramco’s refining business, Luberef – which HSBC bankers were working on as it unveiled its new oil and gas policy – raised $1.3bn. After the share sale, Saudi Aramco remains a 70% shareholder of Luberef and has management control of the business.
A couple of months later HSBC bankers helped raise $3bn in bonds for Greensaif, a company set up for the sole purpose of taking a stake in Saudi Aramco’s gas pipelines business, alongside Saudi Aramco, which retained the controlling stake.
And in another wildly successful share offering, HSBC helped raise $1.2bn for Ades Holding, which provides oil drilling rigs primarily to Saudi Aramco, among other oil and gas expanders in the region. Adnoc and Saudi Aramco declined to comment.
HSBC rejected the suggestion that its policies allow for financing that is at odds with a net zero transition. “Net zero-aligned scenarios require continued, though declining, financing of fossil fuel supplies to meet energy demand, security, and affordability during the transition.”
The bank said its policy makes clear that it will continue to provide finance for companies with transition plans that align with its climate commitments. “HSBC’s approach is to engage with our major oil and gas clients on their targets and transition plans, and to align our oil and gas financing portfolio to a 2030 net zero aligned financed emissions target.”
Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest polluter, does not appear to be preparing for a transition away from fossil fuels. The company expects to grow oil production by 8% by 2027, and increase gas production by up to 60% by 2030. Last year UN experts sent a letter of concern to Aramco – and its banks, including HSBC – saying its ongoing expansion of fossil fuel production threatens human rights by worsening climate change.
HSBC has chased business in the oil-rich Middle East and was last year named the region’s best bank for financing by Euromoney. Julian Wentzel, HSBC’s head of global banking in the region, told the magazine: “We have been at the nucleus of every major deal in the region, providing the full suite of banking services to our valued partners.”
Ed Matthew, campaigns director of think tank E3G, told TBIJ: “There's a complete conflict between [HSBC’s] ambition to be at the heart of Middle Eastern oil and gas development and their commitment to start to pull out of fossil fuel financing globally.
“They can’t have their cake and eat it. Either they’re serious about delivering on the Paris Agreement or they’re not. At the moment, they’re putting short-term profits ahead of a habitable planet.”
Aggressive fossil fuel expansion
HSBC also funded oil and gas businesses far beyond the Middle East. In December, the bank helped arrange a $5bn loan for TransCanada Pipelines, which is among the top companies in the world expanding infrastructure for oil and gas, according to the Rainforest Action Network. (TC Energy, which owns TransCanada Pipelines, said: “Sustainability is foundational in everything we do.”) A few weeks later, the bank helped secure a $4.7bn loan for Occidental Petroleum, which is buying a Texas oil driller to expand its operations in the biggest shale field in the US.
In Europe, HSBC was among the banks that arranged a $3.3bn loan for Eni, the Italian oil and gas expander. Eni announced last year that it plans to increase its oil and gas extraction by 3-4% a year until 2027.
Experts have praised HSBC’s oil and gas policy for prohibiting funding for infrastructure linked to new oil and gas fields, in addition to the projects themselves. But the bank has continued to raise money for companies involved in the frantic building of export terminals for natural gas on the US southern coast.
The expansion of gas drilling and export in the region has been described as a “carbon bomb” – if all the planned projects are built, the associated annual emissions would outstrip those of Russia. Last year, HSBC, together with a slew of other banks, helped arrange loans worth $14.3bn for two of the companies building gas export hubs in the region.
HSBC was also among a group of banks to arrange loans worth $6bn for Baker Hughes, which provides oilfield services and equipment to oil and gas companies around the world. It helped raise a further $790m in share sales for oil drilling services companies Saipem and Nabors during the year.
At Davos there has been plenty of debate about how to limit global heating to 1.5C but campaigners fear it will remain just that. “Davos has always been a lot of talk and not much action,” said E3G’s Matthew. He would like to see stricter regulation of fossil fuel funding. “We can’t just leave it in the hands of banks, we need stronger action by governments and central banks to help prevent these investments. They need to introduce penalties for banks which are continuing to finance fossil fuel expansion.”
Header image: A liquified natural gas terminal on the Texas Louisiana border in the United States. Credit: The Washington Post via Getty Images.
Reporter: Josephine Moulds
Environment editor: Robert Soutar
Impact producer: Grace Murray
Deputy editor: Chrissie Giles
Editor: Franz Wild
Production editor: Frankie Goodway
Fact checker: Alice Milliken
This reporting is funded by the Sunrise Project. None of our funders have any influence over our editorial decisions or output.
- Climate crisis
- Fossil fuels