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Can banks make a profit by investing in the Great Barrier Reef?

Earlier this month, Australia’s Big Four banks copped a serve over their support of the coal and gas extraction industries, focusing attention on the ways large banks' investment decisions can put the…

Are there viable investment alternatives to funding coal and energy projects in the Great Barrier Reef region? AAP

Earlier this month, Australia’s Big Four banks copped a serve over their support of the coal and gas extraction industries, focusing attention on the ways large banks' investment decisions can put the future of the Great Barrier Reef at risk.

A study conducted by Friends of the Earth-affiliate Market Forces with global environmental group calculated Westpac, the Commonwealth Bank, ANZ and NAB have lent A$3.8 billion since 2008 for energy projects in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

The groups called for people to “put their banks on notice” that if they “continue to fund dirty coal and gas” they will “risk losing you as a customer”. But focusing on the negative consequences of coal investments is only half the story. The hard reality is that we cannot expect Australian banks to stop funding mining altogether. The question we need to be asking is - can banks make a profit by investing some of that coal money towards reef-friendly businesses?

At the same time, government and non-profit organisations spin in circles trying to find revenue for marine conservation and management, and we are missing the bigger picture.

There are a number of investment options that could prevent adverse impacts on the reef and reduce the current and future needs for marine conservation finance - while creating self-sustaining economic incentives for improving the state of the reef.

Making an impact with investment

“Impact investing” achieves environmental and social benefits while generating financial profit. It is more proactive than socially-responsible investing, which avoids negative external factors, because it requires positive and measurable benefits. Globally, the impact investing market is currently estimated at US$9 billion but investors surveyed by JP Morgan on behalf of the Global Impact Investing Network feel that the industry is “in its infancy and growing”. Experts predict a US$500 billion industry globally by 2019.

In the past, the rate of return on impact investments has been lower than the market rate but, in 2013, it is expected to close to market rates of return. (Investors' expectations and actual financial returns vary widely depending on instrument and region.)

In Australia, a broad range of “first movers” are generating profit by investing in affordable housing, renewable energy, early childhood education, and most famously, a social impact bond in in New South Wales.

Green bonds

Green or environmental bonds operate similarly to other bonds but invest in “green” companies, usually in the renewable energy sector. Seven supranational banks (such as the Asian Development Bank) issued US$4.2 billion in green bonds in 2011-2013. Most notably, in March 2013 the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation issued a $US1 billion green bond.

Korea followed suit a month later by issuing US$500 million of green bonds for low carbon initiatives, with a payout of 1.75%, at 95 basis points above US Treasury bills. The bonds were highly oversubscribed, leaving high demand for similar products.

Banks in Australia could issue green bonds focused on investing in Queensland businesses which create net benefits for the reef and the community. They could fund eco-tourism that provides reef stewardship opportunities, or sustainable agriculture and other uses of land that reduce pollutants flowing to the reef from its catchments.

Revolving loan funds

Revolving loan funds mobilise capital to help businesses change their practices to be more environmentally-friendly. The costs of changing their business can often stop organisations shifting to new ways of doing things, even if there are long-term environmental and economic benefits.

For example, Verde Ventures, a partnership between Conservation International, Starbucks, and KfW Development Bank has to date invested US$23 million in sustainable enterprises and generated US$137 million in sales in addition to achieving biodiversity outcomes.

Revolving loan funds for commercial fisheries could help fund the transition to sustainable fishing. Fish 2.0, a US competition for innovative fishery business plans, uncovered a host of business strategies for sustainable seafood harvest and processing. Similar business strategies could be supported in and around the Great Barrier Reef.

Screening out, and in

A third solution is called “screening”. Investment screening initially encouraged people not to invest in businesses doing unethical things, such as using child labour. The second generation of screening is positive: ensuring that a percentage of investments produce environmental and social returns in addition to financial returns.

In Australia and New Zealand, just under A$20 billion dollars is invested in “responsible investments” through screening, and the market grew 8% from 2010 to 2011. No banks have yet set up an investment product explicitly related to reef health, but current responsible investment products could be adapted to benefit the reef.

If the Big Four banks re-directed 10% or A$300 million over five years into a combination of green bonds, loan funds, and positive-screened investments, this would build momentum towards a more reef-friendly economy in Queensland. The smaller rate of financial return would be offset by conservation and community benefits, as well as protection of the A$5 billion annually flowing from reef-dependent industries.

With UNESCO considering putting the Great Barrier Reef on the “in danger” list, it is urgently necessary for banks and environmentalists come together and invest in the reef’s future.

Join the conversation

6 Comments sorted by

  1. Wade Macdonald


    Generally bank initiatives are about control of natural resources at the expense of local communities, not for the benefit of local communities or the environment.

    Lets put a dollar value on it and ban eveyone else from utilising it, like in this link below.

    No doubt reefs/wetlands/seagrasses and mangroves are next on the list for privatisation if the latest FRDC 'blue carbon' initiatives for protective investment are anything to go by?

  2. Dale Bloom


    There seems something odd occurring here.

    Projects are approved by governments after environmental impact assessments have been carried out.

    But now, there has to be a second type of assessment carried out to see if the approved projects are actually environmentally safe and ethical, and whether money should be invested in those projects.

    Seems that those involved in carrying out environmental impact assessments are making money hand over fist, although considerable debate as to whether environmental impact assessments are worth the paper they are written on.

    1. Daniel Boon

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      The sceptic in me says ... environmental assessment companies aligned to the LNP get to stick their snout in the trough to 'validate' the project (whatever it is) ...

      I can't remember the instance, but do recall the previous Qld Labor government used the EPA to fight against environmentalists to push through a development ...

      and I know its not directly related, but the bi/tri-partisanship of taking Voters money to help fund political parties administration introduced by Gillard and supported by Abbot .. is indicative of politicians looking after themselves first, second and so on ...

  3. Daniel Boon

    logged in via LinkedIn

    The probability that any bank will invest in saving the GBR is poor, they know that on the current trajectory, the GBR is gone ...

    However, maybe they will consider funding drilling for oil of the GBR when its considered 'acceptable' by a more malleable populace with little left of local oil (after all, various federal governments have allowed drilling for same over the years on the once Great Barrier Reef and what the public has paid for, probably formed some sort of a 'dowry' for some senior public servants joining the fossil fuel industry) ...

  4. Roger Currie

    logged in via Facebook

    Who owns the sea grass ? , its not FH tenure , Mangroves are technically owned by the State of Qld , wetlands are FH tenure , only HES wetlands will be 'offsettable' .

    How much is a HA of sea grass worth ?, what is its market value ?, not its ecosystem services production value, we can calcuate that , its comparable to class 1 soils , so should the price reflect that ? what does the management plan do about floods from climate change impacts ? how do we regulate (protect) sea grass ? , more green zones ?

    Can we trust Seeney to protect all Qld sea grass which is owned by the crown? not bloody likely .

  5. Theo Pertsinidis

    ALP voter

    Knowing what the banks currency order position is... there is a very high probability of making money through currency trading.

    The fact is... money moves on financial charts because of big traders.

    Though if there was nobody trading at a specific time, a single order of a dollar will go a long way... but that scenario is no different to pigs flying.

    Any chance The Conversation can start a currency and stock financial chart section. With all the available human resources... professors, lecturers, graduates, students, researchers... I'd think there are plenty willing to give their thoughts.

    Read My Thoughts at