Chinese banks urged to divest from firms linked to deforestation

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Campaigners have called on Chinese banks to stop funding overseas agribusinesses that accelerate deforestation and biodiversity loss and have a negative impact on regional water cycles and climate.

In a new report, the campaign group Global Witness said Chinese banks were funnelling billions into global agribusinesses, becoming some of the biggest global financiers of deforestation.

The report found that, between January 2013 and April 2020, Chinese financial institutions provided more than $22.5bn to major companies that produce and trade commodities at high risk of driving deforestation. They include beef, soy, palm oil, paper, pulp, rubber and timber.

Five of China’s biggest commercial banks have provided $10.25bn, according to the report. The research shows they constitute 45% of all the financing provided by China’s financial institutions. Global Witness has urged Chinese financiers to undertake more rigorous checks on companies they engage with overseas.

The analysis is based on publicly available data produced by Forests & Finance, a coalition of non-governmental organisations. In April, the consortium wrote in a separate report that since the Paris Agreement, from January 2016 to April 2020, Chinese banks have become the second largest financier of commodities related to tropical rainforest deforestation.

Global Witness has previously exposed how big European and American banks finance some of the world’s most harmful agribusinesses linked to global deforestation. But as China is in the process of revising its law for commercial banks amid its growing demand for commodities, the campaign group has seized on the opportunity to call for change.

“If the revised law was to take note of the problems we have exposed, and include mandatory requirements to ensure Chinese banks are not financing environmentally or socially harmful businesses, it would be a real game-changer in addressing China’s links to global deforestation, biodiversity loss and climate change,” said Yin Beibei, the group’s senior forest campaigner.

China is one of the world’s largest consumers of agricultural commodities such as soy, beef and palm oil. In Brazil, for example, Beijing’s huge demand for beef and soy has resulted in it being Brasília’s largest consumer of both commodities.

After tracking 10 major soy traders and meatpackers using satellite imagery, the environment group Mighty Earth found that the five companies that received most financing from Chinese banks for both commodities were linked to deforestation and land clearance.

Last month, the Guardian reported that three of the world’s biggest food businesses have been accused of buying soy from a farmer linked to illegal deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Scientists have been alarmed by the scale of the degradation.

Supporters of the Chinese banks that are financing such projects point to the loosening of regulations in host countries such as Brazil, where president Jair Bolsonaro has been accused of undertaking an unprecedented dismantling of environmental protection policies.

“Given this context, Chinese and other international investors cannot rely on Brazilian authorities to protect their exposure to the deforestation risks associated with Brazilian agribusiness finance, along with the risks this carries to their reputations,” said Robert Soutar, the managing director of Diálogo Chino, a specialist environment issue publication focusing on China and Latin America.

“Since the government is not adequately protecting the environment in Brazil, private players should take the lead,” he added.

According to Global Witness, Chinese banks have also provided $31.8m of financing to two US agribusiness companies for their palm oil operations. Last year, the campaign group found that both companies sourced from Indonesian palm oil mills that have been accused of violating local community land rights and contributing to environmental degradation.

Recent reports highlighting the role of Chinese banks came amid president Xi Jinping’s push to show China’s leadership in tackling climate change. Beijing has pledged for its emission to peak by 2030, and to be carbon neutral by 2060. Campaigners urge Beijing to match its rhetoric with action.

“With President Xi’s bold commitment on climate, China needs to put its money where its mouth is by ensuring that Chinese banks are not financing agribusiness that fuels deforestation, the climate crisis and biodiversity loss,” said Yin.

Additional reporting by Jason Lu

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