Pulling Back the Curtain on Canada’s Banks and Net Zero

Downtown Toronto skyline

Toronto, ON - Downtown skyline.

How do Canada’s Big Five banks help or hinder climate policy? In May 2024, we heard from InfluenceMap researchers about how Canada’s Big Five banks are not adhering to their own commitments to phase out fossil fuel financing, and from communication experts on the best strategies and frames climate communicators can use to address this issue.

Pulling Back the Curtain on Canada’s Banks and Net Zero” webinar.

On May 2, 2024, we held a thought-provoking webinar on the findings from InfluenceMap’s May 2024 report “Canada’s Big Five Banks: Heading to Net Zero?” which assesses the climate impact of Canada’s Big Five banks.

We gained special insights on this work from report authors Daan Van Acker and Bonnie Steinberg, learned effective messaging strategies from The Sunrise Project’s lead campaign consultant, Jason Mogus, and dove into the theory behind social change and landscape of corporate power in Canada with Dr. William Carroll.

Experts weighed in on the gap between banks’ commitment to net zero versus their actual practices and offered tried-and-true strategies and frames for communicating on these issues.

Here’s what we learned.

Key Takeaways from the Webinar

Banks play a fundamental role in transitioning Canada’s economy away from fossil fuels. But despite all being signatories of the Net Zero Banking Alliance, InfluenceMap found that between 2020 and 2022, Canada’s Big Five banks (RBC, CIBC, TD Canada, Scotiabank and BMO) have actually increased their financing of fossil fuels. We know that Canadians support their financial institutions practicing sustainable finance. They also support legislation that will regulate greenwashing in the financial sector, even while they are skeptical that governments are willing to force businesses to make necessary climate-related changes.

Our panelists shared their insights on how the financial sector can help or hinder climate action and what can be done to support their transition to a low-emission economy.

Here’s what the panelists had to say: 

  • Canada’s Big Five banks say they are committed to net zero, yet there appears to be a discrepancy between their statements and actions on climate change. All of them have actually increased their investment in the fossil fuel sector from 15.5% in 2020 to 18.4% in 2022. Banks say they are considering the impacts of climate change on their business, but they aren’t developing mitigation measures in response to the risks they’ve identified. In fact, they are using their considerable political and economic influence to advocate for new oil and gas development and promote the inclusion of gas in clean energy policies.

  • In some cases, banks are actively obstructing climate action in the financial sector through business associations and industry associations. Daan van Acker pointed out that the Canadian Bankers Association, which the Big Five are part of, is opposed to the Climate Aligned Finance Act, which would require banks to align with Canada’s climate commitments.

  • There is a lack of leadership within the financial sector specifically and the realm of public policy more generally to address climate change. As Dr. William Carroll mentioned, if the government, business councils and lobby groups continue to encourage fossil fuel expansion, delay regulation or support dubious, industry-led initiatives like carbon capture, this signals to banks and other investors that the oil and gas industry is a safe and possibly growing space to make money.

Insights for Climate Communicators

Panelists shared insights and offered advice for climate communicators to apply in their work:

  • Ask yourself what kind of narrative shift you want to achieve and create a big, simple story that describes the problem and how to solve it.

  •  Don’t shy away from the numbers—there’s plenty of publicly available data that can help tell the story of how banks are enabling the fossil fuel industry. Connect the dots between the types of investments banks make, fossil fuels, and climate change.

  • When doing work on banks, demystify the language financial institutions use by staying away from jargon. Take the time to translate finance-speak into plain language information that everyone can understand.

  • Support legal frameworks that define what constitutes ‘green’ investments and hold companies accountable for misleading claims. Jason Mogus emphasized, “We think there should be greenwash legislation. We think there should be financial penalties for saying your fund is sustainable” when, in fact, it’s not.

  • After all, we know language is important, and the right definitions do matter.  Policies like the Green and Transition Finance Taxonomy are designed to scrutinize the financial language used by banks and identify which economic activities truly support climate goals, ensuring the definition of ‘green’ doesn’t include fossil fuels like gas.

  • Take an “ecosystem-based approach” to your communications practice. Build coalitions and relationships with a wide variety of stakeholders who have a shared interest in shifting the narrative on banks—including NGOs, social movements, communities most impacted by climate change, and Indigenous communities.

  • Take the time necessary to cultivate trust and build strong relationships in order to coordinate your work effectively. Jason Mogus highlighted the benefit of this approach: this “kitchen sink approach or maybe perhaps better said as a surround sound approach [ensures] the target gets kind of hit from all sides, including in elite spaces.”

Our Panelists

Panelists for Pulling Back the Curtain on Canada’s Banks and Net Zero webinar

Daan Van Acker | Manager, FinanceMap | InfluenceMap
Daan Van Acker leads the FinanceMap program at InfluenceMap, analyzing financial institutions through a climate lens. FinanceMap’s research aims to drive climate ambition within the financial sector and to hold financial institutions to account for their climate commitments and claims. Daan holds a BS and MS in Mechanical Engineering from KU Leuven, and MS in Management from LSE.

Bonnie Steinberg | Analyst, FinanceMap | InfluenceMap
Bonnie works as an Analyst on FinanceMap, working on the qualitative side and evaluating financial institutions and their stewardship activities through a climate lens. Bonnie joined InfluenceMap in December 2022, after completing an Americorps service year at a nonprofit in New York City. She graduated with a BA in Environmental Biology and Spanish from Colgate University.

William Carroll | Professor of Sociology | University of Victoria
William K. Carroll’s research is centred the political economy/ecology of corporate capitalism, social movements and social change, and critical social theory and method. Much of his research has used social network analysis to map the power of large corporations, in Canada and transnationally. Since 2015 he has co-directed The Corporate Mapping Project, an interdisciplinary initiative bringing scholars and activists together in research and knowledge mobilization on the influence of fossil capital in Canada.

Jason Mogus | Special Advisor, Directed Networks | The Sunrise Project
Jason has been a social change campaigner for over 25 years. Most recently, he was with the Sunrise Project, a global climate campaigning organization. In this role, Jason helped co-found many prominent campaigns including on Canadian and UK fossil banks, BlackRock’s Big Problem, and StopAdani. He is the co-founder of the Web of Change conference, and in 2016 he co-authored the Networked Change report, which coined the term “directed-networks.”


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