350 parts per million. 2 degrees. 20 billion dollars.  We all know these numbers mean something, and most know it’s something to do with climate change, but it’s often hard to figure out what without digging through stacks of reports riddled with jargon that even an expert would struggle with. So let’s make it simple. Let’s take a look at the most important stats and numbers to figure out what they really mean, and what we can do to help bring them to where they need to be in order to ensure a safer climate for our future.

350 parts per million sounds complicated, but really all it means is that for every million molecules in our atmosphere, 350 of them are carbon dioxide. 350 parts per million (350ppm) is the roughly highest concentration of carbon dioxide that the atmosphere reaches naturally, and it’s also the highest level that is safe and sustainable for our planet. This year our planet reached over 410ppm.

To put that in perspective, I’m 18 years old and over the course of my life so far, carbon dioxide levels have risen from around 371ppm to 411ppm. That’s a total rise of 40ppm in the lifetime of someone who hasn’t even finished high school yet. To look at it from another view, over William Shakespeare’s entire life (all 51 years), the CO2 levels barely fluctuated over 1ppm. In fact, over the entire century surrounding Shakespeare’s life, the CO2 levels didn’t change more than 3ppm, a representation of the natural, normal CO2 levels on earth (at least while humans have been around). So, in essence, 40ppm in 18 years is a lot, 410ppm is well beyond the natural carbon dioxide levels of the planet and that’s a problem.

2 degrees Celsius, a unit of measurement we are much more familiar with, though a statistic that can sometimes be a little confusing. 2﮲C doesn’t refer to the annual temperature rise globally, but rather the global temperature rise above the pre-industrial levels many governments and organisations aim to keep our atmosphere below. That’s a lot of words for one little number, but basically, since we have started mass producing things in factories and burning a whole heap of fossil fuels and other nasty chemicals to do so, the global temperature has risen quite a bit. While global temperatures do fluctuate naturally, human activity has caused temperatures to rise at an unnaturally accelerated rate. The idea of limiting temperature rise to 2﮲C above the pre-industrial level is to limit our contribution to this accelerated rate. 2﮲C was the decided upon temperature as beyond this point the temperature change not only becomes increasingly harder to slow but the effects it causes start to become irreversible. In an ideal case, the temperature rise would be limited to 1.5﮲C, though 2﮲C was decided on as a massive, sustained global effort is already required to reach this goal. Many climate activists and organisations, including 350 Aotearoa, are committed to the goal of limiting warming to 1.5﮲C.

20 billion dollars. The big one. 20 billion dollars is the amount that ASB, BNZ, ANZ and Westpac collectively loaned to fossil fuel companies from 2015-2017. To put that into perspective, to build and finance a brand new coal plant, it could cost 2-3billion dollars. This investment is huge, and because of it, these four banks could be guilty of collectively enabling 7,421 million tonnes of carbon emissions between 2015 and 2017. Even with this, all four banks mentioned in the report supposedly support the 2﮲C global warming target. If you’re thinking, “something here doesn’t add up”, you’d be right. 

Banks justify their investments in fossil fuels by also financing ‘clean technology’ projects. This, unfortunately, is not as effective of a solution as it sounds for two reasons.

  1. Investing in projects that positively impact the environment doesn’t stop the damage caused by investing in projects that have a negative impact.  It’s like setting fire to something. Just because you put out the flames, it doesn’t take away the damage that’s been done. These banks are using their unwise investments to stoke the flames, except this time, that something that’s on fire? It’s our planet. 
  2. ‘Clean technology’ does not mean clean energy. Clean technology includes sustainable energy sources but also includes environmental projects that do not directly impact the movement away from fossil fuels. The movement away from fossil fuels needs to happen and it needs to happen now. Banks are compromising their own future investment in clean energy by not financing the projects that would allow them to lessen their investments in fossil fuels. 

In addition to investments in clean technology, banking companies have set-up initiatives in their idea to minimise and offset the carbon footprint from banks is great. In theory. In reality, they are putting a Band-Aid on the Titanic and asking us to praise their efforts. These initiatives can be as simple as ensuring the branch recycles their paper waste, and though this is commendable, it is far from a solution to the climate crisis. Most banks that claim to be ‘carbon neutral’ (essentially for every harmful emission a branch may cause, something is done that equally reduces these emissions), but do this through funding projects elsewhere that work to reduce emissions. Yes, it’s great that some groups are working to mitigate the damage, but those causing it are not held accountable. The businesses producing excesses of carbon dioxide are not forced into the cleaner initiatives they would be if they were forced to fix the damage they cause themselves. If someone always cleans up after you, you have no concept of the problems you cause, nor will you ever learn to clean up after yourself. This carbon offsetting also only accounts for the emissions in their offices, completely ignoring any caused by their investments. In addition to this, the investment banks make in clean technology rarely equal those made in fossil fuels. ANZ is particularly guilty of this, providing a clean solution to less than 0.1% of the carbon emissions they enabled. That’s like saying “sorry I stole $1000 from you, have $1. We’re even now, right?” No one would think that was fair, so why should we accept it from our banks? These investments are great, and yes, they do have a positive impact, but it in no way makes up for the negative impact their investments in fossil fuels cause. ANZ has promised to reduce their investment in fossil fuels but gave no timeline in which they would do this. As any high school student will tell you, homework without a deadline is never going to be done.

Banks are starting to join the movement toward a sustainable future, but it’s not enough. We need to act fast in order to avert the impending climate catastrophe, but as of right now, New Zealanders do not have a fossil free banking option. And that’s not good enough. Banks have the power to do a world of good but are prevented from doing so by their own contradictory investments. All it would take is a commitment from the bank to being ‘fossil free’, putting a stop to their current and future investments in this unsustainable and damaging industry. 

Banks only run because of our investment in them. We need to encourage our banks that don’t currently invest in or lend to fossil fuel companies, to guarantee this with policy. The Co-operative Bank, TSB, and Kiwibank are the closest to being fossil free, so let’s send them a clear message that New Zealanders want a fossil free option. Once we have a fossil free option, New Zealanders can move their accounts from those banks contributing the most to the climate crisis. New Zealand needs a ‘fossil free’ bank, and we need it now.

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