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The unravelling thread: SBTI, finance, and the 1.5°C tightrope walk

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By Alex Hong

· 15 min read

The recent announcement of major financial institutions withdrawing from the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) has cast a lengthy shadow on the worldwide fight against climate change. While the Paris Agreement's ambitious goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C remains a beacon of hope, this exodus raises serious concerns about the future of science-based climate action and its potential impact on vulnerable regions such as ASEAN, where millions are already bearing the brunt of the climate crisis.

I. SBTI: A Beacon of Science-Based Climate Action

SBTi was formed as a result of the Paris Agreement as a collaboration between the CDP, the UN Global Compact, the World Resources Institute (WRI), and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). Its primary objective is to assist businesses in developing aggressive science-based emissions reduction targets that are consistent with the 1.5°C goal. This alignment is critical because it turns the abstract language of the Paris Agreement into actionable targets for businesses, allowing them to become part of the solution rather than a problem.

The SBTi technique is based on rigorous scientific concepts. It uses the most recent climate science, including the IPCC's Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, to establish science-based emissions reduction strategies for each company based on their industry, size, and distinct operating footprint. These approaches take into account not just direct emissions (scope 1) and indirect emissions from purchased electricity (scope 2), but also the full value chain (scope 3), urging businesses to accept responsibility for their overall environmental footprint.

Furthermore, SBTi provides various levels of ambition, allowing businesses to select targets that fit their present level of sustainability maturity and growth objectives. This adaptability serves to a wide spectrum of enterprises, from ambitious frontrunners striving for net-zero emissions by 2050 to those just starting out on their sustainability path.

However, big financial institutions' recent withdrawal from SBTi raises concerns about a potential slowdown in the global decarbonisation effort. This could have disastrous consequences for ASEAN, which is already dealing with the effects of climate change. Rising sea levels, harsh weather events, and disruptions in food security and water resources pose an existential threat to millions of people.

To better appreciate the potential impact on ASEAN, we must go deeper into the causes for these departures and consider alternate approaches to maintain momentum towards the 1.5°C objective. This will be addressed in the following portions of this essay.

II. The Cracks in the Facade: Why are Financial Institutions Leaving?

While SBTi is a bedrock of science-based climate action, winds of change are blowing around its core. The departure of major financial institutions raises serious concerns about the initiative's effectiveness and the cracks in its foundational support. Let us go into the heart of these worries, investigating the possible motivations for these exits and their ramifications for the global struggle against climate catastrophe, particularly in the vulnerable region of ASEAN.

Greenwashing and Toothless Targets?

Critics believe that SBTi's target-making procedures are insufficiently rigorous, potentially allowing corporations to engage in greenwashing by declaring lofty targets without taking meaningful action. Concerns are raised about the flexibility provided by scope definitions and baselines, which some claim can be adjusted to provide the illusion of progress without resulting in real carbon reductions. This presents the prospect of "business as usual" wrapped in the green garb of decarbonisation objectives.

For ASEAN, such greenwashing could have serious ramifications. With millions already suffering from climate-related floods, droughts, and food shortages, financial institutions' false sense of progress might stall much-needed investment in true adaptation and mitigation initiatives. The region cannot afford to be misled by hollow promises as the oceans rise and storms rage.

The Uneven Playing Field: Competition in the Shadow of 1.5°C

Financial institutions exiting SBTi sometimes claim competitive difficulties as a driving factor. They claim that meeting strong emissions reduction objectives may limit their ability to attract clients in industries with high carbon footprints, especially in developing economies where other options may be unavailable. This provides a paradoxical incentive in which the pursuit of short-term riches trumps the societal responsibility to keep warming to 1.5°C.

This argument is particularly persuasive in ASEAN, where access to sustainable funding remains a significant obstacle to green growth. The region's ambitious renewable energy transition goals and climate resilience strategies risk failing if the financial sector does not provide appropriate support. The flight from SBTi risks worsening the problem, leaving ASEAN countries with a double whammy: an escalating climate disaster and insufficient finance for solutions.

Regulatory Roulette: Shifting Sands of Financial Governance

The ever-changing landscape of banking regulations complicates matters further. Some institutions argue that forthcoming regulatory changes may make SBTi engagement less lucrative, prompting them to reconsider their commitment. This ambiguity regarding the future regulatory landscape further destabilises the foundation of SBTi's structure.

For ASEAN, this regulatory roulette adds stress to fragile economies that rely heavily on foreign investment. If financial institutions see climate-focused legislation as a big risk, their investments may decline, jeopardising the region's economic growth and climate resilience.

The reasons why financial institutions are abandoning SBTi reflect a worrisome picture. Concerns about greenwashing, competing pressures, and shifting regulatory sands threaten to undermine the collaborative effort to meet the 1.5°C target. The ramifications for ASEAN might be catastrophic, worsening the region's existing climate vulnerabilities and impeding its transition to a more sustainable future. However, hope is not lost. In the following section, we will look at alternate avenues and viable solutions to keep momentum in the battle against climate change, despite the fractures in SBTi's veneer.

III. Unravelling the Thread: Potential Consequences of Financial Defection

The withdrawal of major financial institutions from SBTi casts a long shadow over the global struggle against climate change, threatening to unravel the fragile threads of collective action. 

ASEAN, which is already dealing with the hard realities of increasing sea levels and catastrophic weather occurrences, might face particularly severe effects. Let us look at the potential consequences of this departure, focusing on the loss of market credibility, reduced corporate ambition, and a halt in the green finance revolution.

Credibility in Crisis: Will the SBTi Fabric Fray?

Losing the support of prominent financial institutions risks weakening the SBTi's legitimacy. These institutions serve as gatekeepers, channelling financing to climate-conscious enterprises and keeping them responsible for their emissions-reduction targets. Their departure calls into question the strength of the SBTi framework, perhaps leading to investor scepticism and a decrease in its perceived value as a trustworthy indicator of climate commitment.

This loss of confidence could have a significant impact on ASEAN's access to long-term funding. Investors may avoid the region because they perceive it to lack the requisite commitment to decarbonisation as a result of the weak signal from financial institutions. This may discourage green project development and infrastructure upgrades, making the region more vulnerable to the escalating climate problem.

Ambition on Standby: Will Corporate Pledges Falter?

Financial institutions play an important role in encouraging firms to set ambitious emissions reduction targets. Their commitment to SBTi is generally accompanied by tight lending conditions and investment preferences, driving businesses to pursue aggressive decarbonisation initiatives. Without this pressure, firms may be tempted to soften their climate commitments, opting for less aggressive reductions that match their shareholders' short-term interests rather than the long-term requirement of remaining below the 1.5°C threshold.

For ASEAN, this could mean a slower shift to renewable energy and a greater reliance on fossil fuels. With fewer corporate pledges, the region risks missing out on the economic and environmental benefits of a green revolution, jeopardising its capacity to meet sustainable development targets.

Green Finance: Will the Engine Sputter Out?

A large shift away from SBTi by financial institutions may impede the rising green finance revolution. With diminished interest in sustainable investments, the flow of funding to low-carbon technologies and projects may stagnate, impeding the development and implementation of essential solutions required to achieve net-zero emissions.

In ASEAN, this could slow the region's transition to a climate-resilient future. Limited access to green finance would limit renewable energy projects, climate-smart agricultural operations, and infrastructure modifications required to survive extreme weather occurrences. The effects could be disastrous, jeopardising millions of people's livelihoods and increasing existing inequities.

While the cracks in SBTi's façade are troubling, they do not imply that climatic chaos is unavoidable. In the final portion, we will look at viable solutions and next steps to strengthen the global battle against climate change, mend the frayed threads of collective action, and assure a sustainable future for ASEAN and beyond.

IV. Can We Mend the Fabric? Addressing the Pros and Cons of Departure

The departure of big financial institutions from SBTi poses an important question: is it a blip on the radar of global climate action, or a sign of a weakening commitment to the 1.5°C target? While the previously stated concerns must be addressed, it is also critical to recognise the potential arguments for this departure, particularly for the financial institutions involved, and weigh them against the broader implications for the planet, particularly for vulnerable regions such as ASEAN.

Seeking Flexibility, Escaping Compliance?

Proponents of the SBTi departure claim that it gives financial institutions more freedom to adjust their climate strategy to their unique business models and risk profiles. They argue that the initiative's one-size-fits-all approach may not account for the intricacies of various financial sectors, possibly impeding innovation and long-term sustainability goals. Furthermore, some are concerned about the administrative complexity of SBTi compliance, particularly for smaller institutions.

For ASEAN, however, this flexibility may result in a lack of clear, verifiable action from financial institutions. Without standardised standards and strong accountability mechanisms, the region risks losing access to key green financing required to accelerate its transition to a low-carbon economy.

Weakening the Collective Fist: Sacrificing Global Ambition?

The departure of big financial institutions undermines the collective pressure on firms to set ambitious emissions reduction commitments. SBTi's framework was an effective instrument for linking financial incentives with climate goals, encouraging companies to decarbonise their operations and supply networks. With this pressure reduced, firms may be more likely to set and execute less ambitious goals, jeopardising the global pursuit of the 1.5°C limit.

The ramifications for ASEAN may be grave. A delay in global decarbonisation efforts would have a direct impact on the region's vulnerability to climate-related disasters, jeopardising food security, water supplies, and millions of people's livelihoods.

Mending the Fabric: Towards a Sustainable Future

The fissures in SBTi's framework provide an important opportunity for reflection and adaptation. Instead of viewing the departures as a setback, we should use them as a stimulus for improving the global climate action framework. This can be accomplished through:

  • Improved openness and accountability by refining SBTi's target-setting processes to prevent greenwashing and track progress towards emissions reduction goals.

  • Tailored solutions: SBTi offers sector-specific frameworks to address the issues and opportunities of various financial institutions.

  • Strengthening regulatory frameworks: Encouraging financial institutions to align investments with the 1.5°C objective, levelling the playing field, and supporting responsible climate finance practices through strengthened regulatory frameworks.

The future of ASEAN, and indeed the entire world, is dependent on our ability to repair the threads of collective action. By resolving the legitimate concerns of financial institutions while maintaining SBTi's critical role in driving global decarbonisation, we can secure a sustainable future in which economic growth and environmental protection coexist.

The way forward will be challenging, but the stakes are too great to fail. We can solve today's issues by fostering open dialogue, embracing innovation, and prioritising the 1.5°C target. It is critical to ASEAN's and the world's future.

V. The Tightrope Walk: Will Abandonment Tip the Scales?

The 1.5°C goal is delicately balanced, with its fate likely linked to the departure of large financial institutions from SBTi. While the path to a sustainable future remains open, the defection casts a long shadow, obscuring the distinction between promise and danger. For ASEAN, which is located on the front lines of climate risk, the stakes could not be greater. Let us walk this dangerous tightrope, assessing the repercussions of surpassing the 1.5°C threshold, considering potential scenarios, and finally voicing a clarion cry for renewed action.

A Delicate Equilibrium: The Razor's Edge of 1.5°C

The distinction between 1.5°C and a planet beyond is more than just a numerical abstraction. It symbolises the difference between moderate and catastrophic climate change. Every degree of warming increases the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, threatening food security, displacing vulnerable communities, and pushing ecosystems beyond the point of collapse. Rising sea levels in ASEAN pose a threat to coastal towns, while erratic monsoons and droughts jeopardise agricultural productivity. Exceeding 1.5°C is not a bet; it is a sentencing to an unpredictable and dangerous future.

Shifting Sands: Scenarios and Uncertainties

The amount of the fallout from the SBTi defection is determined by how other stakeholders respond. If widespread abandonment occurs, the global decarbonisation effort may stall, making the 1.5°C objective increasingly impossible. This would entail extreme and painful measures in the future, possibly causing unprecedented cultural and economic upheaval.

However, hope is not lost. Mitigation strategies exist. Strengthening regulatory frameworks, encouraging cross-sector collaboration, and leveraging new financial instruments such as green bonds can all help firms adopt ambitious climate commitments and fill the hole left by existing financial institutions. This scenario, while daunting, provides a path to meeting the 1.5°C objective through innovation and a revitalised sense of social duty.

Immediate Action Needed: Uniting for an Uncertain Future

The time for apathy and finger-pointing is passed. Financial institutions, corporations, and legislators must all work together to navigate the complexities of climate action. Recommitting to aggressive climate objectives, implementing rigorous carbon accounting and accountability procedures, and promoting a just transition to a low-carbon economy are no longer optional, but rather required. ASEAN, with its great vulnerability and potential for long-term development, stands to benefit or lose the most at this important juncture.

The cracks in SBTi's veneer are a striking reminder of the fragility of our route to a sustainable future. However, in the middle of the uncertainty, it is critical to remember that the possibility of collective action exists, like a thread waiting to be repaired. We can traverse the fragile tightrope and establish a future where prosperity and environmental preservation coexist by accepting responsibility, encouraging innovation, and putting the 1.5°C objective ahead of short-term interests. The choice is ours, and the moment to act is now.

The departures from SBTi mark a watershed moment in the fight against climate change. The implications for ASEAN, and indeed the world, are far-reaching. However, we must not succumb to despair. By mending the cracks in the fabric of collective action, keeping the 1.5°C goal as our North Star, and accepting shared responsibility for our planet's future, we can still walk the tightrope of climate action and emerge on the other side, into a future where humanity and nature thrive in tandem.

VI. Beyond the Cracks: Rekindling the Flame of Collective Action

The departure of financial firms from SBTi puts a long shadow over the 1.5°C target, but it also provides a significant opportunity for course correction. While the consequences for vulnerable regions like ASEAN are certainly concerning, we must not succumb to the paralysis of uncertainty. Instead, let us use this time of uncertainty as a catalyst for change, asking ourselves how we can strengthen the fabric of collective action, rebuild trust, and ensure that the 1.5°C objective remains a beacon of hope rather than a distant memory.

SBTi: Recalibrating the Compass

To regain its footing, SBTi must reassert its focus on climate science and concrete mitigation initiatives. This can be accomplished via:

  • Revisiting techniques to set science-based and ambitious targets, taking into account global carbon budgets and equality issues.

  • Expanded scope: Encompassing indirect emissions (scope 3), holding corporations accountable for their whole impact across the value chain.

  • Improved transparency by implementing effective tracking and reporting tools to foster confidence and hold organisations responsible for their success.

Another critical component is the development of trust. SBTi should aggressively interact with stakeholders, particularly those who have expressed concerns, in order to create open discourse and address vulnerabilities in its framework. This encompasses:

  • Addressing greenwashing concerns: To prevent greenwashing, stricter verification mechanisms are needed to distinguish genuine decarbonisation activities from bogus ones.

  • Prioritising equity and inclusivity: Ensuring the Global South and addressing their specific concerns and needs. Acknowledge that the Global South will have to continue its development pathway in order to effectively continue its sustainability pivot. 

  • Investing in Capacity Building: Providing technical and financial assistance to underdeveloped countries to effectively implement SBTi.

However, this cannot be purely a top-down approach. The Global South, while frequently viewed as a beneficiary of climate action, has enormous potential to contribute. Here are a few significant areas:

  • Leveraging Local Solutions: Promoting and scaling up innovative climate-resilient technologies and practices developed in the region.

  • Developing Regional Climate Strategies: ASEAN nations can collaborate to set ambitious regional decarbonization goals and align them with SBTi or equivalent frameworks.

  • Holding Governments Accountable: Civil society must actively engage with policymakers to demand ambitious climate policies and transparent implementation.

The Global South has already shown a commitment to climate action. According to the Climate Action Tracker, Morocco, Costa Rica, and the Maldives are on track to meet the 1.5°C target. Despite considerable budget constraints, these countries have shown that desire and ingenuity can overcome obstacles.

Is the 1.5°C objective lost due to a confusing history? Not necessarily. While the path ahead is surely difficult, the departure from SBTi does not guarantee defeat. It's a wake-up call, an opportunity to fine-tune our methods, restore trust, and ensure that the 1.5°C objective stays a guiding light.

For ASEAN, the stakes are enormous. With millions now suffering the consequences of climate change, inaction is not an option. The region must actively contribute to recalibrating the global response, such as campaigning for a stronger SBTi or investigating other frameworks compatible with the 1.5°C target.

Finally, successful climate change mitigation requires coordinated collaboration at all levels, including international, national, and local. It requires a collective leap of faith, a common commitment to a future in which the needs of people and the world are inextricably linked. Let us not let the fracture in SBTi's facade become a chasm; instead, let us see it as a bridge that we must all build together, a road to a more sustainable and fair future. It is critical to ASEAN's and, by extension, the world's future.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.


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About the author

Alex Hong is the Executive Director of Digipulse Data and strategic advisor. He is the Chief Sustainability Coordinator of the Youth Networking Business Committee (YNBC). Alex is LinkedIn’s Top Voices (Green) in Singapore 2022 and represents the Global Blockchain Business Council (GBBC) as the Ambassador of Southeast Asia.

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