EU expert group outlines ways forward for reorienting finance sector

At the request of the European Commission, a group of experts has been working for over a year on a catalogue of recommendations on how regulations for financial markets can be changed – to make them more secure and see to it that they support rather than hinder sustainable development. These are their results.

If things simply continue the way they have done, the EU will not achieve the Paris climate targets. An additional 180 billion euros annually must be invested in buildings, transport, renewable energies, energy efficiency and much more, estimates the European Commission. To fill the gap, more private capital is urgently needed, concludes the 20-strong group of experts – and lays out on 100 pages of recommendations which regulations need to be changed to achieve this. Not only in order to achieve the Paris targets, but also for implementation of the United Nations 2030 Agenda.

“The report is the most comprehensive document ever written on the subject of sustainable finance,” comments Michael Schmidt, member of the Management Board at Deka Investment and one of the experts of the High-Level Expert Group on Sustainable Finance (HLEG). This panel is made up of representatives of banks, universities, insurers, funds and stock exchanges as well as NGOs like WWF, think tanks like the 2° Investing Initiative, the Climate Bonds Initiative (CBI) or Third Generation Environmentalism (E3G).

“Europe now has the unique opportunity to build the world’s most sustainable financial system,” says the report, which states clearly early on: there is no single lever with which we can reorient the entire financial system. “We have developed an overall concept. The individual recommendations dovetail closely with one another, and that should definitely be taken into account when implementing them,” explains Schmidt. Moreover, implementation requires synchronisation with the real economy and especially with politics. “We need to finally agree on a sensible price for carbon emissions,” adds Schmidt.

Classification of what constitutes sustainable investment

Specifically, the report makes a total of 24 suggestions for measures: eight core recommendations, eight cross-sector measures and eight concrete measures, for instance for pension funds or banks. Among the core recommendations is that a clear Europe-wide definition of which investments can at all be labelled as “sustainable” is needed. Such a classification would need to be applicable to all types of investment – from project financing to bonds and equity.

It has to be dynamic in that it adjusts to ongoing developments in scientific insight and could be designed to build on pre-existing standards. A matrix has already been developed by the experts: it links various sectors, such as energy, transport, forestry or healthcare, with the global sustainable development goals like access to clean water or reduction of waste.

Another core recommendation relates to requiring investors to disclose how they take sustainability into account in their investment decisions. Pension funds in the EU are already required to report on if they include ecological and social aspects in their risk management. However, they are not required to disclose how they apply the ESG criteria (environment, social and governance) concretely to their investment decisions.

Further, the report argues in favour of EU labels for green investment funds and green bonds. In particular, the latter would make it easier for ecologically minded companies to raise funding. The experts also see a much more active role for the authorities at EU level that are tasked with financial market oversight. The European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) and the European Banking Authority, for instance, should more closely supervise the long-term risks for the financial system that are associated with climate change.

The “tragedy of the horizon”

A central idea behind the cross-sector measures is the “tragedy of the horizon”, or rather of the mismatched horizon, in the financial sector: investments in sustainability – education, infrastructure, energy – do not yield good results until years or even decades later and thus are not attractive to many fast and speculative financial market players. “Short-termism”, as people sometimes call this type of thinking, is a clear obstacle to more sustainable finance. And the experts do not see a fast solution. They suggest that in a first step the regulations be evaluated with a view to determining which of them promote short-term profit generation.

In other areas, the experts express considerably more concrete views – with respect to ratings agencies, for instance: quite simply, they should incorporate ESG criteria into their ratings and disclose their methods of doing so publicly. This also includes educating their staff on topics related to sustainability.

Marlehn Thieme, Chairwoman of the German Council for Sustainable Development, describes the report of the HLEG as ambitious. “It is very good because it shows clearly how the future of the financial markets can be oriented. And it shows through its orientation towards practical application that sustainable financial markets are possible,” Thieme comments. “However, it fails to set out a synopsis of various policy areas. With regard to European budget, tax and economic policy, we need a coherent regulatory structure that enables the use of market economy tools.” The Council Chairwoman also points to the key role of the companies themselves. “If we are to make the finance sector sustainable, we need both banks and insurers as well as the companies.”

Overall, the report only concerns itself with making recommendations. On 20 February, the EU Finance Ministers will be reviewing the report and in March, the European Commission will present its action plan on sustainable finance, which is to incorporate the experts’ recommendations. A major conference of experts on the topic is scheduled to be held in Brussels on 22 March. The High-Level Expert Group recommends that a working group at EU level be established this year so that it can develop by 2020 an EU classification system for sustainable investments. “Implementation of our report is now in the hands of the EU and the various financial market players,” comments Schmidt.

What comes next

Council Chairwoman Marlehn Thieme: “Sustainable finance is not mentioned anywhere in the federal government’s coalition agreement. However, as the HLEG report is only a recommendation, political support is needed. The new government must work to promote implementation at EU level of well-designed carbon regulation processes on behalf of sustainable finance and the real economy.”

In Germany, the ten recommendations of the Hub for Sustainable Finance have also taken up some of the recommendations of the HLEG report. This open network of financial market players and other stakeholders was initiated in the summer of 2017 by the German Council for Sustainable Development (RNE) and Deutsche Börse. Following a first summit in October 2017 in Frankfurt, the various actors are now called on to make contributions that help promote a sustainable financial system in Germany and establish the topic in mainstream capital market activities.

A dedicated project website is currently in the process of being created; until it is completed, the latest information is available at On 22 February, a conference on sustainable finance will be held in Berlin, organised by the Hub together with the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW). The main topic of the conference will be the HLEG report. The conference is, however, already fully booked up.