Glaring omission in climate policy: Community financial institutions

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A woman wears a protective mask as she walks in heavy winds during a seasonal sandstorm on April 15, 2021 in Beijing, China. China’s capital and the northern part of the country typically experience sandstorms that originate in the Gobi desert, but scientists believe that climate change and desertification also plays a role in their…

UN climate conference COP26 is in week two, and already some glaring omissions are becoming clear. Climate change policymakers and climate finance initiatives continue to overlook the very lenders that are needed for the global transition to a low-carbon economy that works for all.

In the past three decades, only one president used his presidential speech to Congress to call on a social and environmental focus for banking. President Bill Clinton told a joint session of Congress in 1993, “with a new network of community development banks and $1 billion to make the dream of enterprise zones real, we propose to bring new hope and new jobs to storefronts and factories from south Boston to south Texas to south central Los Angeles.”

More than 25 years later, we are still having the same conversations and banks continue to fail the climate and communities.

Despite large U.S. banks being tiny compared to other global banks, such as those headquartered in China, they disproportionately bankroll fossil fuels. It was these same banks that gave preferential treatment to their wealthiest clients and large businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program that emerged to help businesses sustain the economy. 

It wasn’t until credit unions, community banks and online lenders were added to the Small Business Administration’s roster of financial institutions that the loans flowed to those in most need. The importance of the community-focused lenders such as community development financial institutions (CDFIs) became so apparent that when the PPP portal reopened at the beginning of 2021, CDFIs were granted an exclusive access period. As of June 2021, these institutions have deployed close to $15 billion in PPP loans.

The real economy banks and credit unions that serve communities have been the saving grace of the COVID-19 pandemic, a crisis that can be considered a fire drill for what is to come if climate change is left unabated. With nearly 10,000 community banks and credit unions, these institutions are leading. For example, over 300 community development credit unions have $101 billion in loans outstanding to 7 million low-income workers and small businesses in communities of color across the country.

Since November 2020, the Inclusiv Center for Resiliency and Clean Energy has offered a Solar Lending Professional Training and Certificate Program that trains loan officers in consumer and commercial solar lending. They have trained 125 staff members from over 55 community-based financial institutions and their research shows that 292 credit unions across the U.S. and Puerto Rico are offering or developing green loan products, having combined current assets of over $283 billion and serving over 17.3 million members.

Despite their proven impact, the latest version of U.S. Build Back Better bill not only overlooks community-focused banks and credit unions — it disqualifies them. In the proposed Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, depository institutions are not eligible to receive support. Yet, it is especially because they take deposits and have connections to real people in real places through banking services offered, that these lenders are in the best position to deliver on green loans for farms, community solar, heat pumps, electric vehicles and more.

Is it surprising that policymakers would overlook the existing network of people-centered lenders? No. Only one U.S. senator holds a bank account with a CDFI and only one senator holds a bank account with an MDI, according to Senate Financial Disclosures. On the other side, over 60 percent of senators hold at least one bank account with a prominent financier of fossil fuels.

To be sure, real economy banks have traditionally suffered from drawbacks associated with a lack of economies of scale. These cons have included a limited ability to conduct transactions in foreign currencies, clunky websites and app portals and a lack of 24/7 customer service.

Yet, a lot has changed in the past few years, enabled by credit union-focused tech accelerators, disruptive fintech companies providing efficiency, user-friendliness and a “know your customer” offering unmatched by trillion-dollar banks, and IPOs of sustainable B-Corp certified banks.

Community-focused depository institutions provide personal attention to customers, SME know-how, local decision making and real economy growth that supports communities. Coalitions like BankForGood.org, the Global Alliance for Banking on Values, and B-Corp certification, provide tools, transparency and accountability to ensure that these lenders are achieving real net-zero emissions, without offsets, in a way that works for people and planet.

It’s past time that climate leaders, policymakers and climate financiers provide the scale of support needed for community-driven, real economy-focused, wealth-building climate finance through the depository institutions that are best positioned to deliver: community-focused banks and credit unions.

Marilyn Waite is the managing director of the Climate Finance Fund, an independent platform supported by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and hosted by the European Climate Foundation.

Tags Banks Bill Clinton carbon emissions Climate change Climate finance Community development financial institution Community Development Financial Institutions Fund COP26 Credit union economy Finance Fossil fuel Marilyn Waite Opportunity finance
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