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BNP Paribas and l’Opinion : The financial sector, a key player, adopts “principles for sustainable banking”


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THIS NEW STANDARD WILL DEFUSE THE MAJOR CRITICISM MADE OF BANKS REGARDING SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT: NAMELY THAT THEY ACT IN THEIR OWN INTERESTS AND NOT IN THE INTERESTS OF SOCIETY. -Jean-Laurent Bonnafé, Director and Chief Executive Officer of BNP Paribas

On December 4th, the French daily newspaper l’Opinion, published an exclusive dossier: “Sustainable Finance”. A few BNP Paribas experts participated. Jean-Laurent Bonnafé, Director and Chief Executive Officer of BNP Paribas, is one of the 8 key observers to take the floor. Interview by Mériadec Raffray.

The financial sector, a key player, adopts “principles for sustainable banking”  

The climate emergency is a race we are losing, but we can win it,” said Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary-General, at the Climate Summit held this past 23 and 24 September in New York. His message was received. Sixty-six governments pledged to take action to achieve the 17 sustainable development goals (“SDGs”) set by the United Nations. Non-government organisations joined the momentum. Ten or so major regions, some one hundred cities and as many companies signed the SDGs.

The occasion saw some go even further: the day before the Summit, 45 CEOs of major international banks celebrated the launch of the “Principles for Responsible Banking” (“PRB”). Developed in 2018 at the initiative of a core group of thirty major pioneering banks in partnership with the heads of the United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative (UNEP FI), the PRBs were the subject of a global public consultation process lasting several months and involving around a hundred stakeholders of all types.

At the New York summit, 130 banks from 49 countries adopted the final version. The signatories collectively hold $47 trillion in assets, or about one-third of the global banking sector. For Jean-Laurent Bonnafé, Director and Chief Executive Officer of BNP Paribas, one of the group’s three major French banks behind the initiative, “this is a milestone for the banking industry: it has agreed on a single framework for integrating sustainable development at the strategic level in all its business areas”.

Road map

Although the PRBs are not binding and have no quantified targets, experts consider them a “powerful engine for developing social and environmental responsibility”. In concrete terms, this six-point road map “redefines the role and responsibility of the banking world”, according to the French Banking Federation (FBF). 

  1. the signatories pledge to align their business strategy with the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit the increase in global warming to no more than 2°C by 2050. 
  2. signatories will work to increase their positive contribution while reducing their negative impacts, and to publish targets.
  3. they will work with their customers to focus on products and services that create “shared prosperity for current and future generations”. 
  4. they will partner with “all civil society stakeholders” to integrate and achieve society’s goals. 
  5. they will convert their companies’ governance and culture to the practices and goals of sustainable development.
  6. they will introduce transparency and self-auditing.

By permeating every level of banking, the spirit of the PRBs should radically reshape banking practices. The commitment to transparency, for example, should help employees who are subject to internal practices that differ from official policies. 

Moreover, this new standard of “soft law” banking will defuse the major criticism made of banks regarding sustainable development: namely that they act in their own interests and not in the interests of society. It is a paradoxical process for a pioneering sector.

In 2003 the sector adopted the “Equator Principles”, voluntarily committing to taking social and environmental risk into account when financing major projects (transactions exceeding $50-100 million). Since that affected 5% of its business, the sector signed up in 2006 to the UN Principles for Responsible Investment (“PRI”). That new guide covered half the assets. But it wasn’t long before banks were being criticized for acting solely in terms of banking risk, with no concern for the positive or negative impacts their business might have on society. “The PRBs take care of this,” say the banks’ CEOs. “This inclusive and universal process can be adopted by any bank, regardless of location and size.”


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