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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

May 2021: A recent report from WWF and Greenpeace finds that the investments held by the UK’s biggest banks and investors emit 805 million tonnes of carbon per year, almost double the UK’s domestic emissions. Despite UK financial institutions having committed to aligning their lending and investment portfolios with net-zero emissions by 2050, campaigners are calling for the UK government to introduce regulating legislation. Such legislation could include mandatory reporting mechanisms and would allow the UK finance sector to lead the net zero transitions as global business shifts towards more sustainable investments.


A recent study from WWF and Greenpeace assessed emission associated with the global investments held by 15 British banks and 10 asset managers. They found that  their investments emit 805 million tonnes of carbon per year. In short, if the sector was a country, it would rank 9th in the world for carbon emissions and is at similar levels than other ‘carbon intense’ industries such as oil and gas, coal, aviation, and transport. The assessment included traditional loans, investments in sectors including IT, energy, industry, and mortgages. While UK financial institutions have committed to themselves aligning their lending and investment portfolios with net-zero emissions by 2050, the amount of carbon emissions associated with their current financing and investments is nearly double Britain’s annual domestic carbon emissions. The report also highlights that, since the Paris Agreement in 2015, the world’s 60 largest banks have provided £2.7 trillion to high emissions industry sectors, such as fossil fuels. It coincides with an increased focus on limiting global temperature rises to 1.5-degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels to avoid the worst impacts of climate changes, which requires carbon emissions to fall by 45% from 2010 levels to 2030 and to net zero by 2050.

Implications and opportunities

Campaigners and environmental groups are calling for the UK government to move away from voluntary commitments and self-regulation that aims to reduce associated carbon emissions towards the introduction of legislation. Such legislations would mandate the finance sector to limit emissions associated with their financing and investment holdings in line with goals set out in the Paris Agreement and require all UK regulated financial institutions to adopt and implement advanced climate change action plans to transition to net zero across their portfolios. Such regulation could include mandatory disclosure mechanisms across the economy by 2050, an increased focus on green bonds or setting up a UK Infrastructure Bank which could unlock investments for the transition to net zero. The report and associated calls from campaigners coincide with the UK hosting the UN’s Climate Change Conference, COP26, in Glasgow in November 2021 which offers a platform for promoting accelerated climate change mitigation measures. Achieving net zero at an accelerated pace could allow the UK financial sector to be the first global financial sector to achieve alignment with the Paris Agreement across their portfolios and benefit from early action as global business shifts towards clean and green investments.


The reports findings are indicative and draw from data samples of 15 banks and 10 asset managers and exclude some financial activities such as insurance underwriting or property investment. Therefore, the findings should be seen within the context of the data’s limitations. In addition, the study uses the carbon accounting methodology to calculate carbon emissions associated with lending and investment activities based on the indicative sample.


World Wide Fund for Nature, (2021). The Big Smoke: The Global Emissions of the UK Financial Sector. Available at:

Shukman, D., (2021). UK finance sector in top 10 for carbon emissions. Available at: