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Sarah Rowe reports on taking the Big Shift campaign to HSBC's Annual General Meeting

Over 25,000 of you have emailed John Flint, the CEO of HSBC, to raise your concerns about HSBC’s finance of climate-wrecking fossil fuels. A few thousand more have sent him a postcard. And a few hundred others have written letters to him or handed them in at their local HSBC branches.

But it’s not often that any of us get a chance to speak face-to-face with the people at the highest levels of a bank like HSBC - the people who make the decisions about the issues we campaign on.  

On Friday 12 April, Helen and I, from Christian Aid’s campaigns staff, went along to HSBC’s Annual General Meeting in Birmingham, to make sure that all those thousands of messages were getting through. We were buoyed on by a larger group of Christian Aid campaigners outside the AGM holding a banner with the simple message `HSBC: Stop Funding Climate Change’.

AGMs for the biggest companies are slightly strange affairs for those of us who don’t spend much time in the corporate world. In a big conference venue, with a big stage, the meeting starts a bit like a show, with a very slick PR film designed to make you feel good about the company’s performance over the last 12 months. But it’s the only day of the year that the board appear together in public, giving us an opportunity to ask questions about their decisions - so it’s important to be there.

Having been told that HSBC wants to be at the heart of the transition to clean energy, we asked why they had spent over $57 billion in the last three years on fossil fuels.

After short presentations from the CEO and the Chairman, the meeting opened for questions. We got in early with a challenge about their fossil fuel funding, which was later reported in The Daily Telegraph. Having been told in the presentations that HSBC wants to be at the heart of the transition to clean energy, we asked why, therefore, they had spent over $57 billion in the last three years on fossil fuels and $19 billion on the expansion of fossil fuels. Given the impacts on vulnerable communities around the world already living with the impacts of climate change, why are they still spending money on the number one cause of climate breakdown?

The answer from CEO John Flint was honest but ill-informed. He said that HSBC agrees the transition out of fossil fuels is vital, and that coal must be the first fossil fuel to be completely phased out.

But he doesn’t agree that we need to stop funding fossil fuels immediately as `the world hasn’t yet reached peak emissions of greenhouse gases’ [to keep global temperature rise well below 2 degrees]. He also asserted that HSBC remained willing to finance coal power projects in Bangladesh, Indonesia and Vietnam for a short window till 2023, as coal power is important for tackling energy poverty and it wasn’t right for HSBC to deny energy, and therefore `development’, to poor communities. In answer to a question from Share Action (with whom Christian Aid works closely) regarding HSBC’s finance of coal companies, he simply said he would investigate further. 

Not content with the answers, we made a beeline for John Flint and Chairman Mark Tucker over the decidedly unappetising brown-bag sandwich lunch provided to shareholders after the AGM (presumably while the rest of the board banqueted elsewhere).  

We made the point that investing in new fossil fuel projects today will increase emissions tomorrow – for decades to come, in fact – so the premise that HSBC can continue to finance fossil fuel expansion and keep emissions within safe limits simply does not stack up. Evidence from the relatively conservative International Energy Agency is very clear that there is no room for expansion of fossil fuels.

We also pointed out to John Flint that coal power does not solve energy poverty, something we and our partners in developing countries have long-argued. Remote communities in Bangladesh’s delta, for example, cannot connect to a national grid because of their location - so, therefore, cannot benefit from coal power.  Overall, there is now a body of research that shows that coal is bad news for lifting the poorest communities out of poverty for a host of reasons. (See the ODI report Beyond Coal for more on this.) 

Our bottom line is that none of what John Flint was proposing is in line with the transition to a clean energy future that HSBC claims to support.  

Thanks to you, we were able to present CEO John Flint with a selection of the messages you’ve sent, and pictures of your local branch visits over the past few weeks.

Both John Flint and Mark Tucker were receptive to our points and it was a constructive dialogue. But regrettably, neither of them promised any more action or policy changes by HSBC – at least not at the AGM (watch this space). They did, at least, promise to keep talking to us. The CEO for HSBC UK, Ian Stewart, even invited us to pop into HSBC UK’s Birmingham headquarters any time for a cup of tea with him! 

We are happy and keen to talk, but until we see concrete progress from HSBC towards rapidly phasing out the finance of fossil fuels altogether - with a clear timeframe that’s compatible with the Paris Agreement - our campaign will go on. 

Thanks to you, we were able to present John Flint and Mark Tucker with a selection of the messages you’ve sent to them, and pictures of some of the local branch visits that have taken place over the past few weeks. This was a reminder to them that thousands of UK citizens are expecting HSBC to live up to its rhetoric of being climate leaders and its new strapline of `Together We Thrive’ – without climate breakdown.