The top 5 policy and finance stories in 2017

Policy headlines in 2017 were dominated by Trump's intervention to slow climate action, but other more encouraging news included the growing divestment and responsible finance movements, and recognition of women's capacity to drive change.

Trump effigy
An effigy of US President Donald Trump at the Washington DC Climate March on April 29, 2017. Image: Mark Dixon, CC BY 2.0

This year’s policy headlines were dominated by newly-elected United States president Donald Trump’s various attempts to sabotage climate progress, from pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement to gagging climate scientists, and signing an executive order that paves the way for higher emissions and the resurgence of coal power.  

But beyond the US, the world made significant progress on shifting economic and political support away from fossil fuels. Responsible investment also continued to grow, along with the number of initiatives to encourage the role of women in climate action.

Here are the top 5 policy and finance headlines of 2017.

 1. Exodus from fossil fuels

Several international finance giants unveiled commitments to stop financing coal, oil, and natural gas this year; the World Bank in December announced that it will end support for oil and gas extraction in 2019, Dutch multinational bank ING announced plans to bring its exposure to coal power generation down to almost zero by 2025; and French insurance giant AXA also said it would scale up on existing divestment commitments.

This is from a €500 million divestment from coal announced in 2015 to a €2.4 billion commitment to drop firms whose revenue stream or energy mix is 30 per cent derived from coal. 

Other notable divestment moves from the year include announcements by National Australia Bank and Commonwealth Bank to end financing for coal, and recent plans unveiled by both New York City and New York state to divest public pension funds from coal, oil, and natural gas companies. 

Asia, however, lags significantly behind this global divestment movement. As a Fossil Fuel financing report card produced by civil society groups in July found, Asian banks remain the world’s largest lenders to fossil fuels

 2. Spotlight on climate refugees 

The global community continued to grapple with the prospect of climate refugees this year. Cornell University Researchers in June released research that estimates there could be 2 billion climate refugees by 2100, when the global population reaches 11 billion. 

In response to this growing challenge, New Zealand Climate Change Minister James Shaw in October announced that the government is considering creating a visa category just for Pacific Islanders displaced by rising sea levels. The specifics of such a visa remain unclear.

But despite this promising move, more needs to be done for climate refugees, say campaigners. Organisations such as the Pacific Islands Association of Non-Government Organisations pointed out that climate refugees will not be recognised in the United Nations’ migration pact talks next year, begging the question: “Where is the justice?”. 

 3. United States fails on climate policy

From almost the day he took office on January 20 this year, US President Donald Trump has unveiled a raft of policy measures that undermine climate action.

First, the Trump Administration in late January banned officials and scientists at various agencies from speaking to the press, froze new science grants at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and took down the website’s climate change page.

In March, he signed the “Executive Order on Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth” which among other things, repealed former president Barack Obama’s ‘Clean Power Plan’ and rescinds a ban on using federal land to mine coal. In June, Trump announced plans to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

Unsurprisingly, these moves were met with a swift and vocal backlash; from the People’s Climate March in various cities around the world in late April to the global March for Science, which rejected Trump’s dismissal of climate science, to other countries like France and China quietly taking the lead on the global climate agenda.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s cheekily named ‘Make our planet great again‘ initiative is funding climate science research, and his recently convened One Planet Summit galvanised a wave of climate finance commitments from around the world. China, meanwhile, is racing ahead with its adoption of renewable energy—though its use of fossil fuels remains high—and is on track to peak its greenhouse gas emissions before 2030.

4. Spotlight on women

The World Economic Forum revealed some bleak news in December: the gender wage gap and disparity in workplace representation is at an all-time high; women will have to wait 217 years before they earn as much as men.

But despite this, government and business leaders this year became vocal advocates of women, and drew attention to the critical role they play in shaping a better world. 

In March, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, who is the first female leader of global cities network C40, hosted the inaugural Women4Climate summit to bring together the next generation of women climate leaders. Hidalgo had previously noted that women in political office “have an ability to resist and lead which is undoubtedly stronger than that of most men with a typical career path,” and therefore have the courage to bring about big changes such as the shift to clean energy and adapting to climate threats. 

The world’s first responsible finance platform for women, Moxie Future, was launched in June this year, building on research that women are more likely to invest their money for social good than men.

The United Nations Industrial Development Organization in November also pledged to focus on women’s economic empowerment and workforce participation, while Oxford University and corporate giants such as Coca-Cola and Walmart in December launched the Global Business Coalition for Women’s Economic Empowerment initiative. This effort aims to improve women’s economic status by bringing women-owned businesses into corporate supply chains and boosting their access to finance, among other things. 

5. Responsible finance rises

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres summed up the international community’s finance priorities when at a September meeting, he stressed the importance of reshaping the currently “unproductive and unrewarding” US$300 trillion finance sector to a more structured format that would create a better world. 

Initiatives the UN has taken this year to drive responsible finance include the launch of the Principles for Positive Impact Finance in February, a guiding framework for investors developed by nearly 20 leading global banks and investors, totalling $6.6 trillion in assets.

The UN Environment Programme and 11 global banks also launched a set of develop analytical tools and indicators to help companies better disclose their climate related risks and opportunities.

At the national level, the responsible investing movement continued to grow. In Australia, a report released in July showed that responsible investment is on the rise, and more profitable than ever. China in June set up pilot zones for green finance across the country, where financial institutions will be given incentives to expand financing of sustainable projects.

Meanwhile, a survey released by BNP Paribas security services in July showed that investors in Asia Pacific were moving more quickly on integrating Environment, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) strategies into their investment decisions than their global counterparts were.

It is clear that more of the same will be needed: The United Nations Development Programme estimates that achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will take between US$5 to $7 trillion, with an investment gap in developing countries of about $2.5 trillion remaining. 

  

This story is part of our Year in Review series, which looks at the top stories that shaped the business and sustainability scene over the last 12 months.

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