Major bank calls US 'significant outlier' on greenhouse-gas action

One of the world’s largest banks said Thursday there is “positive momentum” in 2011 for climate change-related investments. But the bank says there’s one exception to that rule: the United States.

The global research arm of HSBC, the world’s sixth-largest bank, said Thursday in an investment note that the uncertainty that marked climate investments in 2010 will be replaced this year by optimism.

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But HSBC warns that the United States is a “significant outlier” in the world’s move toward policies that reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and encourage investment in low-carbon energy technology.

The prediction comes as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are calling for policies that will help build a so-called “clean energy economy” in the United States. But lawmakers have largely been unable to come to a consensus on the best path forward. The investment note is the latest indication that the United States is falling behind other countries in this effort. 

“[L]ast year’s failure to pass federal climate legislation is set to be followed by efforts in the new Congress to roll back existing climate measures,” HSBC notes, a reference to efforts by Republicans and some Democrats to block or delay the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions.

And the bank said there is considerable uncertainty as to whether Congress will be able to pass a narrow energy bill that includes a standard requiring that a certain percentage of the country’s electricity come from renewable and low-carbon energy sources. Such a bill “remains a possibility but now looks unlikely,” HSBC says.

Overall, the bank predicts that U.S. climate strategy will “head in a negative direction” in 2011.

On a global stage, HSBC says, it’s a different story. While the latest polling data say that more than 40 percent of Americans believe climate change is a result of “planetary trends” rather than human activity, in Europe, “doubts about science have been replaced by the realities of extreme events and rising commodity prices,” the investment note says.

In addition, United Nations climate-change talks in Cancun at the end of last year “laid the foundations for a pragmatic bottom-up approach to climate diplomacy,” and the European Union is moving forward to impose more stringent energy efficiency goals, HSBC says.

Even China, long considered to be an “outlier” when it comes to reducing the emissions blamed for climate change, is moving forward, HSBC notes. “[K]ey emerging markets, notably China and India, are poised to lay out their plans for achieving low-carbon growth this year: the highlight for low-carbon growth investors will certainly be the finalisation of China’s next five-year plan in March,” the investment note says.