Expert group recommends setting up European standards for ‘green bonds’

'Green' investment is not only needed in Europe. Cities in the developing world need easier access to finance for sustainable investments. [Sean MacEntee/Flickr]

An EU sustainability taxonomy, a definition of priority investment areas, the clarification of investor duties and development of “official” European sustainability standards for green bonds are some of the recommendations experts made to the European Commission on Wednesday (31 January).

The EU High-Level Group on Sustainable Finance, whose report was published today, is to put “the EU economy on a more sustainable path”, a Commission official explained.

Against the backdrop of the US’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement, Europe has decided to take a step forward to guarantee that more resources are mobilised towards ‘green’ projects.

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According to Standard & Poor’s rating agency, the green bond market is expected to increase more than 30% this year and reach $200 billion.

Last year, most of the green bond issuance (around $60 billion) came from Europe.

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The high-level group on sustainable finance proposed on Tuesday (18 July) a new platform to match capital and green projects, as the Juncker Plan did not develop the ‘big pipeline’ that was expected to unlock the money resting in the pockets of big investors.

But this is still a drop in the ocean. The 20-member high-level group recommends that the financial sector in Europe integrate further the environmental costs and channel more funds to sustainable finance.

“Our economic model is not functioning as it should,” said Christian Thimann of AXA, who chairs the group.

“The financial sector has a key role to play,” he told reporters on the eve of the presentation of the report.

The Paris Agreement signed in December 2015 acknowledged for the first time the key role the financial sector should play in mitigating the adverse effects of climate change.

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Standards

As the appetite for ‘green’ investment products in Europe is growing, the group recommended the Commission develop official European sustainability standards and labels, to ensure that the funds contribute to achieving environmental goals.

As a first step, the group proposes introducing an EU Green Bond Standard, which would be followed by an EU Green Bond label at a second stage.

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The mid-term review of the EU’s Capital Markets Union initiative, due on Wednesday (7 June), will mark another step towards the mainstreaming of green finance in Europe, a senior EU official told EURACTIV.

In order to get this label, the funds should be “exclusively” used to finance or refinance green projects, in line with a new EU Sustainability Taxonomy. In addition, the ‘green’ bond should be aligned with the green bond standards. Finally, an “independent and accredited” external reviewer should confirm the green bond’s alignment with the standards.

Establishing the taxonomy is one of the first priorities to ensure “market consistency”, Thimann explained.

“If Europe is to mobilise capital at scale for sustainable development, it needs a technically robust classification system to establish market clarity on what is ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’. This would enhance market efficiency and would channel funds to sustainable projects, while avoiding ‘greenwashing’.”

Long-termism

Thimann explained that the group also recommends clarifying investors’ duties. “Their obligation is not only short-term benefits but also looking at the long-term challenges,” he said.

The tension between ‘short-termism’, which is part of the financial markets’ DNA, and ‘long-termism’ is one of the challenges that need to be addressed, he added.

In this regard, the report suggests looking at market benchmarks in bond and equity markets used to assess the performance of markets and portfolios. These indicators have an “indirect but important impact” on the capital flows, the report notes, but are “not necessarily aligned with sustainability objectives”.

The group recommends introducing greater transparency and a long-term perspective aligned with environmental goals to these benchmarks.

The Commission was satisfied with the outcome of the report. “It exceeds our expectations”, an official said.

The executive will publish during the first half of March an action plan in which it will integrate part of the proposals.

Regulators

The Commission already proposed last September giving more powers to the three European Supervisory Authorities to steer private capital towards green investment.

Commission wants bigger role for regulators in sustainable finance development

The European Commission has proposed giving the European Supervisory Authorities broader powers to determine what represents environmental, social and governance investment and to monitor banks’ activities in this field.

One of the ideas is that the European Securities Markets Authority, the European Insurance and Occupational Pensions Authority and the European Banking Authority control how financial institutions “identify, report and address” these factors in order to strengthen “financial viability and stability”.

The proposal is currently being negotiated with the legislators. Officials pointed out that this recommendation would not require altering the mandate of the ESAs, who gave a “very positive feedback” to it.

The EU executive is also looking at the capital treatment given to green investment. The European Parliament proposed lowering the capital cushion requested for ‘green investment’.

The backers say that taking into account climate, environmental and other long-term factors “may have a very positive impact on your risk analysis”.

Commission vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis, in charge of financial services, said the Commission is “looking positively” at this idea. But the institution is assessing how to do it without endangering the financial stability and maintaining a harmonised approach at the EU level.

Positions

Wim Mijs, chief executive of the European Banking Federation, said: “This is an important moment, also for the banking sector. To properly serve society banks need to be able to act constructively when addressing climate change and the decarbonization of industry. Banks can only do so when there are clear definitions and clear rules that also maintain financial stability. These recommendations are the starting point.”

Bethan Livesey, Head of Policy at ShareAction, said: "We are particularly pleased to see the strong focus on clarifying legal duties, something that ShareAction has been pushing for since 2010.  It is great to see the EU showing leadership in this area and we urge the Commission to now adopt a strong legislative proposal (...) We welcome the recognition that beneficiaries’ interests are not limited to financial returns only."

Michael Collins, CEO at Invest Europe, said: “The private equity model of active management already makes it well-suited for responsible investment. Applying this in practice depends on the context and market segment, as ESG (environmental, social and governance) issues are broad, the industry is diverse and much decision-making depends on the circumstances of the individual investment. With this in mind, any guidance that becomes legally binding will need to retain sufficient flexibility for funds of different shapes and sizes, to allow interpretation on a case-by-case basis.”

Simon Lewis, chief executive at AFME said: "It is a big step in the right direction. The plans to ease capital charges for banks’ green investments, provided they are commensurate with the risks assumed, can play an important part in the development of a Capital Markets Union (...) It is crucial that capital markets are geared towards ensuring social and environmental sustainability and we look forward to working with the European institutions to take forward those areas of the HLEG report requiring further discussion and analysis.”

Timeline

  • Early March: the European Commission will unveil an action plan to support sustainable finance.

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