Friday, 19 March 2010

HSBC bankers turn climate crunch champions

Bankers may not be the world's most popular people, but at HSBC they have the good of the planet at heart – the bank has invested $35 million in sending employees to assess the potential effects of climate change and preach the green gospel to colleagues back at the office. Serena Allott joins a group of volunteers in India.

Published: 8:00AM GMT 18 Mar 2010

HSBC employees Maria Qsous and Varun Santosh with Dr Indu K Murthy Photo: CHIARA GOIA
A small crowd has gathered on the ragged road that runs out of Sirsi, a town in the southern Indian province of Karnataka. Crouched at its edge they laugh with delight as they examine a touch-me-not plant – Mimosa pudica – the leaves of which close up when touched or warmed or shaken. These people are bankers but here, far from their computers and air-conditioned offices, they are spending a fortnight working alongside scientists conducting the largest ever field study on the long-term effects of climate change and human behaviour (farming and logging, for example) on the world's forests.
They are a disparate group from Jordan, Dubai, Qatar, Sri Lanka and India; 11 all told, most of them young men. Their common bond is their employer, HSBC, which has flown them here to train as 'climate champions'. After two weeks of field work, lectures, films and workshops they will emerge, a green task force whose mission is to spread the word about climate change among their colleagues and embed the principles of sustainability into HSBC's corporate DNA.

The climate champions project is a collaboration between HSBC, the Earthwatch Institute, the Climate Group (an international NGO), the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). 'Climate change is important to our clients, many of whom are engaged with real environmental challenges in sectors such as energy, forestry or transport,' Nigel Pate, the head of environmental partnerships in HSBC's London office, says. 'The world is totally dependent on fossil fuels and we can't go on in that way. We will have to completely change the way the global economy operates, but to do so will involve a major investment in new infrastructure around the world. Banks have an important role to play in financing this shift, and we want our employees to be on the front foot to spot those opportunities.'
This is one reason for HSBC's investment in its climate champions. The other lies with the employees themselves. 'Anecdotal feedback from the UK and the United States shows that in the war for talent, particularly among graduates, social responsibility ranks very highly on their scale of interests,' Pate says. 'We are now catering for a generation who expect us to behave well and ethically.'
In a previous collaboration called Investing in Nature, launched in 2002, 2,000 HSBC employees were sent to volunteer with the Earthwatch Institute, before launching environmental projects within their own community. Earthwatch, which operates in 50 countries worldwide, was set up almost 40 years ago to give ordinary people the chance to work alongside environmental scientists in the field on a variety of projects, such as identifying medicinal plants in Kenya, collecting information about wildlife in the Amazon basin and studying caterpillars in the forests of Arizona. Rather than having a special programme devised for them, the Investing in Nature volunteers simply joined in with what was already on offer, and those that did appreciated it. A survey carried out towards the end of the five-year project showed that 91 per cent of those who had taken part were more likely as a result to recommend HSBC to others as an employer.
In the wake of this success, the HSBC Climate Partnership was formed. Of the $100 million that HSBC has invested in the partnership, $35 million will go to Earthwatch. Some of this will be spent on environmental projects (tree planting or river cleaning, for instance) in cities where HSBC has offices and where its employees will be encouraged to get involved. But the bulk of it is for training the climate champions, each of whom will spend a fortnight at one of five regional centres: this one in India, and others in China, Brazil, Britain and the USA. These have been set up specifically for this task, and they are all sited in biodiversity hotspots (regions with a significant reservoir of biodiversity that is under threat).
Anyone from any part of HSBC can apply to be a climate champion; selection is made on the basis of a lengthy application form. 'We are looking for people who have demonstrated a commitment to combating climate change, who have already shown initiative and leadership,' Rachel Phillips, the head of learning at Earthwatch, says. Levels of interest vary regionally. Most people applying to the British centre (which covers all of Europe) get a place; Marie Walker, a 39-year-old Australian managing e-strategy in London, who attended the centre at Wytham Wood in Oxfordshire last September, believes she was accepted because she persuaded her local council to halve the number of recycling bins they need by making smaller households share rather than having one set each.
In India – perhaps because opportunities such as this are valued more – many more people apply and the acceptance rate is one in five. Gurkiran Kaur, 43, from Uttar Pradesh, is a mother of two who taught science for 15 years before taking an HSBC job resolving credit card disputes. She applied three times before being accepted, whereas 23-year-old Sunil Sanjay from Bangalore, who processes mortgages and wears an earring, a necklace and a T-shirt bearing the words god is too big to fit into one religion, was lucky first time. 'I play for the office cricket and football teams. People know me, I'm not a celebrity but I'm not like a complete stranger,' he says. The candidates from the Middle East were fairly confident that they would be accepted because so few of their colleagues applied – only four out of 400 in Jordan, where most people apparently know little and care less about climate change. Tarek Kakish, 32, who works in human relations there, says, 'I have heard taxi drivers say it is the will of God and if the fiery day comes it is our punishment. They don't believe there is anything to be done about it.'
This view is gaining prevalence. Dr Monowar Khalid, the field director of the Sirsi centre, points to HSBC's climate confidence monitor (an annual global survey of 12,000 people), which shows that although 48 per cent of people worldwide are now taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint, the number of people who think climate change can be successfully managed has fallen by six per cent in the past two years.
It is the job of climate champions to reverse this outlook, and their training begins with the study of forests – the lungs of the earth. Carbon emissions from the destruction and degradation of forests are thought to contribute to about 20 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. (In other parts of the HSBC Climate Partnership, WWF is focusing on water conservation and the Climate Group on low-carbon technology in cities.)
'We need a clearer understanding of what climate change will do to forest ecosystems, biomass and biodiversity,' says Dr Dan Bebber, the head of climate change research at the Earthwatch Institute and a research fellow at St Peter's College, Oxford. 'Any study of climate change on forests has to consider the people who use and manage their resources. In Europe 99 per cent of forests are heavily managed and two thirds of forests worldwide are impacted by humans in some way. For instance, logging in the tropics increases the forests' susceptibility to drought, which in turn makes them highly flammable – we have seen large areas of tropical forest succumb to fire in recent years.'
In centuries past, forest composition has changed – species have died off or migrated – with climatic variations, but now these changes may be influenced by human activity such as farming. 'By measuring trees repeatedly over a number of years we can see which ones are growing and which aren't, which ones are thriving and which are dying off. It will give us a feel for the way things are changing,' Bebber says. 'The overall aim is to gain information on the best management practices to maintain forests under climate change.'
Tree measurements are the backbone of this study. The work is repetitive and labour-intensive but with the help of the climate champions it is estimated that 60 years' worth of data will be gathered in five years. (At the end of which it is hoped that HSBC will renew its commitment or that the project will be taken on by another corporation.)
At all of the centres the research is essentially the same, with regional variations (in Wytham Wood volunteers also trap and record small mammals). In each forest, sample plots of one hectare (100 x 100m) are marked out, and all sizeable trees therein tagged, numbered, measured and identified. The plot is then subdivided. A 10 x 10m patch is cordoned off in which all the smaller trees (shrubs, at least 1.5m high with a girth of less than 5cm) are marked and measured, and in a 2 x 2m patch the smallest (herbs, less than 1.5m high) are recorded in terms of number and species. The leaf litter and dead wood in the smallest plots are also collected and weighed, and soil samples are taken so carbon content can be gauged. The density of the forest canopy is observed.
At Sirsi – where the project is being run in conjunction with the Indian Institute of Science – volunteers work in the field from about 9am until at least 2pm each day, with one short break. The data gathered then have to be input (a slow process when as many as 800 trees may be measured in a morning), before the evening's lectures at which facts, both gloomy and terrifying, come thick and fast. The following is a sample selection:
If sea levels continue to rise they will displace the 200 million people who live on coastal plains, and have a severe impact on capital cities including London, New York and Sydney.
Species migrate when threatened by climate change. Hence Nairobi, which was built above the altitude at which mosquitoes live, is now experiencing malaria – as are parts of France.
A two-degree increase in temperature means a 66 per cent decrease in wheat production in Britain, and in India a drop in farm revenue of between nine and 25 per cent.
By 2050 the global population will have reached 9.5 billion, leaving 1.63 hectares of land per person as against 7.91 in 1900.
If governments were to act now to correct climate change it would cost $184 billion, or one per cent of global GDP. If they wait until 2050 it will cost between $920 and £3,680 billion, or between five and 20 per cent of global GDP.
After supper there were screenings of films such as Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and Leonardo DiCaprio's The Eleventh Hour – both intended to alarm. 'The movies especially have been very thought-provoking,' said Sumandh Patchi, 21, from Uttar Pradesh, where he chases payments on loans and credit cards. He applied to be a climate champion having measured his carbon footprint and found, to his horror, that because he travelled 10 miles to work by car each day it was 1.7 tons a year, half a ton more than most people's in India. 'It's the bad news that is motivating me, there are so many changes going on, why is nobody responding to them? In the months leading up to my coming here I made changes: I now scooter to work, or share a company cab with four other people. Why can't politicians – those who can really make a difference – make changes too?' he says.
Personally, I felt rather brainwashed by the barrage of bad news but when I mentioned this to Malina Thadani, the head of group communications and corporate sustainability in India, she said, 'I think the climate champions are most influenced by the work they do in the forest. These are people who live in cities, who sit in front of screens all day. To spend time so closely involved with nature has a profound effect on them.'
Sirsi is in the Western Ghats, a 1,000-mile range of rolling hills regarded as one of the world's top 10 biodiversity hotspots: it boasts 139 species of mammal, 508 birds, 179 amphibians and more than 5,000 flowering plants. To stand in the dappled light of the forest with the warmth of the sun on your shoulderblades is to experience tranquillity. Maria Qsous, 23, and in marketing in Jordan, said her enjoyment of the field work turned to awe when a 300-year-old tree was pointed out to her. 'I just stood there staring at it, thinking, "Wow." And the tragedy is that someone could cut that down without even thinking about it.'
The climate champions I met were like sponges, soaking up the information fed to them. In one lecture, climate change sceptics were briefly mentioned and dismissed as people who manipulate figures to suit their own ends. This was in the week that the brouhaha surrounding the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's use of apparently manipulated statistics began, but the remark went unchallenged. 'Some of the information is quite loaded, but now we are part of it,' said Hussain Abalooshi, 24, from Dubai, when I put this to him. He worked chasing credit card debt before moving into corporate sustainability. 'Changing roles has changed my life, it has made me more aware of the needs of the environment and the community. Before I came to Sirsi, educating people was just my job. Now those efforts will be coming from my heart.'
At Wytham Wood the climate champions were more inclined to question things, according to Marie Walker (who trained with people from Germany, Armenia and France as well as Britain). 'Dan Bebber gave us very interesting information but he admitted that they cannot be sure what the long-term effects of climate change will be, whether it will be hotter or colder and by what degree.'
I already had proof of this fallibility: Bebber told me just before Christmas that the Isle of Wight, where I live, would never see snow again; two weeks later I was careering down a neighbour's hill on a toboggan. But experts say it is this very unpredictability that makes climate change so problematic.
Dr Khalid – who delighted in telling how, staying in a hotel in Bath during last July's heatwave, he rang reception begging for a fan: 'I am an Indian and even I am sweltering, I told them' – says if new trends were emerging rather than extreme episodes it would be much easier to prepare for them. As it is, while the Times of India was reporting that 440 people in Delhi have died of cold this winter, in Karnataka the betel nut farmers were lamenting that the cool snap they rely on to protect their crops from fungus had not occurred. (As I wrote this article, the world watched as Washington, DC, was brought to a standstill by 'snowmageddon', while, on the other side of the continent, Vancouver – hosting the Winter Olympics – was warm and wet.)
It is the same worldwide. Tarek Kakish told me Jordan's winter temperatures have risen from 12C to 20C, and this year the rains that should have started in December had yet to make an appearance halfway through January. Marie Walker, who comes from Townsville in Australia, says her home town has recently seen mud storms, caused by gale-force winds picking up red sand from the desert, followed by hail.
All this is grist to the mill of the climate champions, who are armed with the facts they need to woo others to the cause, and then, through role play, brainstorming and workshops, given the skills with which to do so. 'I am shocked by how ignorant I was before I came here,' said Ayjay Joseph, 24, who works in the IT department in Dohar, Qatar. 'The work has been hard – I came expecting to have some free time, but there hasn't been any. I know I will be able to make the information interesting when I get home and I will do my best to convince people. It will be a hard process across the Middle East, where climate change is not considered a major issue. It will be difficult to convince Arabs that water and electricity are threatened when they are available practically for nothing.'
On the night before I left Sirsi, the team practised their presentation skills, taking it in turns to explain what each office was doing to reduce its carbon footprint. There was hot competition. Energy-saving ideas ranged from the simple but effective (halving the size and ply of tissues) to the high-tech (person-sensitive lighting). Banning paper cups in favour of china or tin mugs seemed universal, as did programming printers to use both sides of a piece of paper. In some offices printers were activated by each employee's ID lanyard, which then recorded how many sheets of paper they were using each month.
Watching me scrawling notes on my reporter's pad, Vinay Sharmer, 27, a softwear engineer, leant over and asked politely if I would mind using both sides of the page. His office in Pune was deemed to have made the most impressive changes. Initiatives, many of which have been brought about by previous climate champions, each of whom must instigate a project, include a windmill on the roof that generates the electricity used to light the lifts; solar panels that heat the hot water used in the cloakrooms; a biogas plant that saves the purchase of 10 gas bottles per month; and an award-winning internet portal for car-pooling. Lights are turned off between 12pm and 2pm when many people are out at lunch and after 7pm a pop-up message asks if a computer monitor is still being used – if there is no reply the monitor is switched off. Sharmer had been part of an energy marshalling project in which the three HSBC buildings in the city competed to see who could save the most energy. Initiatives included switching the air-conditioning on in stages to reflect the number of people in the building, promoting the use of bicycles, and setting up an hourly cab service between the three buildings. The total energy save was 14 per cent.
Whether these actions will help avert to global warming or not, they are admirably frugal – a quality that has fallen out of fashion in the past 50 years. 'There are now climate champions in more than 50 countries and there are hundreds of little initiatives going on in offices worldwide,' HSBC's Nigel Pate says. 'It is hard to add them all up, but I do know that in the United States one climate champion's paper reduction exercise saved his office $100,000 a year. Our programme is seen as pioneering. With Earthwatch, we were delighted to host Ed Miliband [the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change] at Wytham Wood. He came three months before the Copenhagen summit and I think it gave him the message that big business really is serious about climate change. It's going to be a major drive in our business for decades to come.'
Within its sector HSBC is now a leader in the field of climate change. It is part of the Climate Group, which brings together governments and influential businesses, including Barclays, Coca-Cola and IBM, with a commitment to tackling climate change; it has signed up to the Equator Principles, a benchmark for the financial industry to manage social and environmental issues in project financing; and it is ranked first in the top holdings list in the Dow Jones Sustainability World Index for 2010. (BP, which is ranked second, has pledged to invest $8 billion in its low-carbon business by 2015, has a $500 million 10-year commitment to the US-based Energy Biosciences Institute, and a $73 million investment in commercialising clean energy with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.)
As I finished talking to Pate an email pinged into my inbox from Varun Santosh, 22, and as keen as mustard. He had finished at Sirsi and was back at his desk in Bangalore, where he is a business analyst. 'We measured a whopping 4,230 trees belonging to 70 different species! This is a record for all teams across all five centres to date by a large margin,' he wrote. 'Moreover we have come up with a team goal to collectively plant 2,500 native saplings at our respective sites by July 1 2010.' I wish them luck.