Climate Change: Remember Me?

Morgan Stanley this week agreed to disclose the impact of its loans and investments on climate change—signaling the issue remains big.

You’re in the throes of a once-a-century pandemic that is afflicting millions and threatening to crash the global economy. Even so, climate issues are still apparently at the forefront of many leaders’ minds—including at one major bank.

Morgan Stanley this week became the first major investment bank in the United States to join the Partnership for Carbon Accounting Financials, a coalition of more than 60 banks around the world that will measure and disclose how the projects they invest in, such as power plants or infrastructure development, impact climate change. As a member of the coalition, Morgan Stanley will help develop guidelines for disclosing how financial institutions’ loans and investments contribute to greenhouse gas emissions at a time when pressure from activists, investors, regulators, and even employees is mounting for companies to take action on the environment. (In related news, Apple this week committed to be 100% carbon neutral for its supply chain and products by 2030.)

Kate Shattuck, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and coleader of the firm’s Impact Investing practice, says Morgan Stanley’s move sends a signal to employees and clients that it wants to be part of the change. “Disclosure and radical transparency are the best disinfectants,” says Shattuck. “Even if the first few sets of numbers aren’t great, agreeing to disclose them shows that they are willing to take the initial hit in order to strive for improvement.”

To be sure, the risk for Morgan Stanley is relatively low. For starters, more than 60 other banks are similarly disclosing data, so the firm’s climate change impact will be evaluated on a spectrum relative to others. Moreover, as it relates to the cumulative amount of loans and investments it makes, the bank has earmarked a relatively modest $250 billion in financing for low-carbon emissions projects by 2030. In contrast, the bank is estimated by one environmental group to have contributed about $92 billion in financing to fossil fuel–related projects since 2016.

Gloria Mirrione, a sector leader for Korn Ferry’s Asset Management Professional Search practice and coleader of the firm's Impact Investing practice, says the COVID-19 pandemic plays a part in the increased attention on climate change investments. “They are not mutually exclusive,” says Mirrione. There is extensive documentation, for instance, of the relationship between climate change and the spread of viruses like malaria or dengue. While scientists have not uncovered a direct correlation between climate change and the spread of COVID-19, there are overlapping characteristics between the two, such as the fact that greater pollution through the burning of fossil fuels leads to a higher chance of contracting the virus.

Mirrione says the move by Morgan Stanley underscores how purpose has come to the forefront in the face of the pandemic, as opposed to receding. “From an impact perspective, COVID-19 ties together the environment, social impact, and corporate governance to make it top of mind for investors.”

Indeed, speculation is already mounting that other major financial institutions will follow Morgan Stanley’s lead in joining the coalition. But Shattuck says the far greater influence of disclosing the impact of investments on climate change will be on regional and local banks that do most of the lending to the communities in which they operate. “How community banks respond to this could really create a tsunami for sustainable investing,” she says.