By Trevor Sharman, AGM activist

This year I feel I moved into the AGM Premier League by attending the meetings of two major UK banks: Barclays and Standard Chartered. 

First, the Barclays AGM. It turns out that this quintessentially British outfit has paid out an enormous £36 billion in penalties, fines and compensation over the past six years and its CEO has just been censured for a whistleblowing episode! The Barclays board were at great pains to explain to shareholders that all this was now behind them and sunnier uplands beckoned.  

From the chairman’s statement, we learnt that business was blooming if not yet booming, but disappointingly no mention was made of the risks of climate change and the low-carbon transition. Climate was immediately brought onto the agenda, however, when a group of protesters who had  been sitting quietly by suddenly stormed the stage chanting: “Barclays bank, we said no, fossil fuels have got to go!” They were swiftly removed but this set the scene well for the ShareAction questions that immediately followed. We asked Barclays when it would phase out financing to the highly polluting coal sector, and if it would publish lending targets to low-carbon, renewable industries, as its competitors have done. The chairman’s response yielded no commitments but we did learn that the bank are in the process of improving their climate-related policies. 

Interestingly the board member with a key role in this, Mary Francis, has the responsibility for ‘board reputation’ rather than for sustainability. We did manage to catch her for a chat afterwards and she explained that Barclays was “on a journey” towards being a more sustainably-minded bank. She also added that ShareAction’s challenges to their current and planned investment intentions were “very much taken on board”. I was left hoping this was the beginning of real change in policy.  

A board member added that ShareAction’s challenges to their current and planned investment intentions were “very much taken on board”. I was left hoping this was the beginning of real change in policy

Standard Chartered was a less fraught affair, although many individual shareholders were clearly unimpressed by a similar series of penalties and fines for their recent buccaneer past. The bank had published their ‘Sustainability Philosophy’ a few days before the AGM, though a deeper reading revealed this lacked the specific commitments seen in other banks’ climate change statements. The board were challenged by ShareAction and others over their continued investments in new coal plants. In response, they spoke repeatedly of taking climate change seriously and being ‘fully committed’ to the Paris Accord, but that they also needed to take a ‘balanced’ approach. This seemed seriously at odds with their introductory motivational video of 100 metre sprint world records being exceeded with the tagline ‘good enough not being enough to change the world’.  

The Directors on the top table clearly weren’t listening to their own messages, so I suggested in my question, that they look to Liverpool FC – who they sponsor – and their manager, Jürgen Klopp for inspiration.  

It seemed to make for a memorable intervention since the CEO came up and chatted over lunch and proudly shared a finance deal the bank had made with a major French company in which Standard Chartered helped to structure a loan where the interest rate was linked to the company’s sustainability performance. I was quite impressed at this. I think Jürgen calls it ‘pressing’, so maybe they are listening to him after all. 

Thanks Trevor! To find out more about our campaign to engage the banking sector with the Paris Agreement, click here.