An Interview with Paul Moinester, Founder of The Outdoor Policy Outfit
Learn more about the implications for companies and consumers of TOPO’s critical research into corporate financial footprints.
By Ellie Kim Fromboluti
July 30, 2022
As we’ve reported previously, big banks have a fossil fuel problem.
The Carbon Bankroll report reveals how this big bank problem extends more broadly to corporations – even companies trying to be climate conscious – because their banking and investments may unintentionally fund fossil fuel projects. The emissions associated with a company’s financial holdings can exceed its operational emissions by as much as 5,512 percent!
A company’s financial holdings are considered part of its Scope 3 emissions, but until recently, it’s been difficult for companies to accurately report (or even ascertain) their “financial footprints.” However, data is becoming more widely available and analysis methods are improving.
The Outdoor Policy Outfit (TOPO), founded by Paul Moinester, is a prominent player pushing companies to be more aware of the climate impact of their banking and investments.
Read on to learn about Paul’s research and the future directions he envisions.
Paul is the Founder and Executive Director of The Outdoor Policy Outfit (TOPO). We had the opportunity to ask him some questions about his research and the future of corporate cash.
What was the most surprising finding of your research?
We were floored by the sheer magnitude of this previously overlooked emissions source. Going into this project, we knew corporate cash and investments generate substantial emissions, but we honestly had no idea it would be so significant until we started running the numbers.
I vividly remember the day we started running back-of-the-envelope calculations. I asked my report co-author James, “What do you think we’re talking about here - 5, 10, 15 percent of a company’s overall emissions?” Minutes later we realized that we had identified the largest source of emissions for several of the world’s largest companies, and we were stunned by that discovery.
Over the coming months, we worked to refine our methodology and transform our preliminary data into reportable, verified numbers. In the end, we found our initial, rough calculations were actually low and that for Google, Meta, and PayPal, the emissions generated by their cash and investments likely exceed all of their other emissions combined (Scope 1, 2, & 3).
Going forward, in addition to Scope 1, 2, & 3 disclosures, do you think corporations will increase their focus on the emissions associated with their cash and investments?
Yes, I believe over the course of the next decade the decarbonization of corporate cash and investments will become a pillar of the corporate sustainability toolkit. My confidence in this development is buoyed by some forthcoming developments we expect to see with the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol, which is the global, standardized framework companies employ for measuring greenhouse gas emissions.
According to the World Resource Institute (WRI) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), which manage the Protocol, corporate cash and investments have always been an element of a company’s Scope 3, Category 15 emissions—but companies have not yet been able to report these emissions due to data and methodological limitations. However, these data and methodological deficiencies no longer exist.
As a result, in the coming years we anticipate it will become standard practice for companies to disclose the emissions generated by their cash and investments. This enhanced disclosure will also lead companies to focus more on reducing the emissions generated by their banking and investing.
What has been the largest barrier to addressing the corporate financial footprint? Why might that be less of a barrier today?
To this point, the largest barrier has been data availability, particularly around the emissions generated by financial institutions. It was not until recently that financial firms started reporting the emissions generated by their lending and investing through trusted platforms such as the Partnership for Carbon Accounting Financials (PCAF). Additionally, it is a recent development that leading climate finance data firms like our partners at South Pole have had the raw data and methodology to fill in many of the gaps that exist in financed emissions disclosure by financial institutions, which remain robust.
As a result of these key recent developments, we were able to build a methodology that incorporated these foundational efforts, which form the backbone of our calculations.
What enabled you to generate this report now, but not sooner? Do you have plans to expand this research beyond the companies in the current report?
As I mentioned in the previous question, it has only been in the last few years that conducting calculations like these have been possible due to critical advancements in carbon accounting and disclosure. Fortunately, this data continues to get stronger and more robust, which means moving forward this accounting will become more precise and powerful.
Moving forward, we are working on two tracks to expand this research. The first track is to continue to refine our methodology by working with a select number of companies and institutions to better understand their cash and investment management practices and develop a framework for more granular accounting of these emissions.
The second track is to expand our research to other sectors. We are already working to apply this methodology to large institutions such as universities, foundations, and cities that maintain large cash reserves and possess substantial investment portfolios. And we are also working to scale our methodology to individuals so people can better understand the climate impact and untapped power of their personal finances.
Given that emissions from corporate bank deposits are under the direct control of financial institutions, how can corporations help to drive change?
Historically, companies have treated their banking and investing as a climate neutral activity, but the reality is that not only do these activities generate substantial emissions but companies can do a lot to reduce these emissions. Much of these strategies are predicated on the tactics companies already employ across every other aspect of their supply chains to decarbonize emissions sources they do not directly control.
As a result, some well-established strategies already exist for how companies can decarbonize their financial supply chains and accelerate the transition of the green economy. For a more robust rundown, you can check out the ten solutions we outlined in the “Solutions” section of the report. As a high-level overview, this suite of solutions can be divided into four broad activity buckets:
- Select: identify financial institutions and products that are environmentally sustainable and socially equitable from the existing landscape.
- Engage: existing finance providers in their financial supply chain on climate and sustainability, making clear requests and incentivizing good practice.
- Innovate: develop innovative new products, mechanisms, incentive schemes, data insights, behavioral drivers, etc., that enable companies to accelerate the decarbonization of their financial supply chains.
- Advocate: push for climate-aligned financial regulation and policy that will increasingly drive the financial system toward progressive sustainable products and services.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention that given the emergent nature of this corporate sustainability arena and the dearth of climate friendly banks, we do not yet have the comprehensive playbook and suite of options companies require to fully activate this powerful climate lever. That said, I am confident in the coming years we will have made notable progress on both fronts and companies will be able to effectively minimize this significant source of emissions.
Do you know of any companies that are working to address their financial footprint?
Yes, there is a growing community of companies that are working to address their financial footprints, especially companies in the outdoor industry. First and foremost amongst this community is Patagonia, which has been working on this issue for about four years and has put in tremendous effort developing their own tools and strategies for aligning their banking and investing with their core climate values.
Additionally, in the lead-up to the report, we developed strong working relationships with a few companies including Salesforce and Seventh Generation, who are deeply committed to addressing this emissions source. However, what excites me the most about these three companies is that they are approaching this new challenge with a real sense of excitement because they see their “financial supply chain management” not just as a carbon accounting challenge but as an opportunity to transform the financial sector into an engine for climate progress.
Can the methodology used in the Carbon Bankroll report be translated to an individual context (e.g., what is the carbon impact of the cash and investments of individuals?)
Broadly speaking, yes, the methodology in the report can be translated to individuals and reveals some startling revelations. For example from this methodology we can deduce, if a person has $125,000 in a bank account with a major U.S. bank, such as Chase or Bank of America, the emissions generated by this cash are roughly equivalent to the annual carbon footprint of the average American - around 16 tons.
In the coming months, we plan to take our corporate cash research and scale it down to the individual level. We know from this initial research that for many people, where they bank and how they invest are two of the most, if not the most, important environmental and social consumer decisions they make. Recognizing that, our intent is to build tools that help individuals develop a more precise understanding of the emissions their money is generating, the emissions reductions they can achieve by switching banks, and how these emissions reductions compare to other green consumer behaviors.
How can consumers pressure brands with otherwise laudable efforts to address climate change to consider the impact of their investments?
In the coming months and years, I expect a number of corporate responsibility campaigns will start running direct advocacy efforts targeting companies and encouraging them to decarbonize their cash and investments. Right now, those efforts do not yet exist, but consumers can still apply meaningful pressure on companies and push them to act by leveraging the power of their voices.
Reach out to companies and their sustainability leaders on social media and share the report. Ask them to start measuring these emissions and working to reduce them. We have found routinely that all of this information is brand new to companies - even sophisticated ones with dozens of people on their sustainability teams - so even just getting the report on their radar and demonstrating that it matters to their consumers is a big win and an important first step.
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