Is Citi serious about fighting global warming? “No. No, I wouldn’t say that.”

posted by Josh Ran

It’s not every day that one has the opportunity to chit chat with the likes of Bob Rubin, but today was such a day. I was at the National Clean Energy Summit in (of all places) Las Vegas (not to self: in future, avoid excessively consumptive locales when trying to stay inspired about the future of clean energy). It was essentially a day-long pep rally for clean energy, attended by such glitterati as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, New York Major Michael Bloomberg and Governor Janet Napolitano from Arizona, T Boone Pickens himself, Van Jones from Green for All (how great is Van Jones? So great) and my personal favorite, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.

It’s not that I’m particularly fond of Bob Rubin for his Clinton-era treasury dealings, not to mention Citi’s role in the mortgage crisis that’s wreaking havoc in our economy. It’s just that – well, these days he’s the Chair of Citi’s Executive Committee and Citi just happens to be the biggest financier of new coal-fired power plants in the US. And if there’s one thing I don’t like…it’s coal.

So I wondered what Bob would have to say about Citi’s coal investments. Come to think of it what would Bob have to say about Clean Energy?. Turns out that he has a lot to say about clean energy and the need to transition rapidly to renewables and energy efficiency (who am I to split hairs when he includes nuclear and ‘clean burning coal’ in his definition of renewables?). Frankly, his policy analysis was predictable — he thinks we need to move fast and furiously towards renewables by removing ‘undue’ national and regional regulatory hurdles and freeing up trade.

Despite my quarrels with the details of his recommendations (remove regulatory hurdles for nuclear and so-called ‘clean burning coal’? No thanks.) he seemed like a smart guy, so I thought he’d have a thing or two to say about Citi and coal. So I asked: “How do you reconcile the need for a rapid transition to renewables with the fact that Citi is the top financier of new coal-fired power plants in the US? In the last six months alone, your bank has done 10 deals with utilities building new coal-fired power plants….NONE of which will be able to capture and store their carbon.”

Surprisingly, he didn’t have a thing to say. He rambled a little bit about how he felt that fossil fuels are still an important part of our energy balance and that change was coming, and don’t forget that Citi is just an ‘investment institution’ and needs to make money. Right. No matter that investing in coal is about as close to a sure thing as sitting down at one of those Vegas slot machines (not to mention the gambling with our climate future part).

So in an attempt to gain some clarity on exactly where this top adviser for Citi (and erstwhile seemingly infallible predictor of all things economic) thought his bank was really positioning itself vis-a-vis the clean energy revolution, I followed up by asking whether, “we could expect to see a dramatic decline in Citi’s investments in coal over the coming months.” Because of course the elephant in the Clean Energy room was that if we don’t stop building coal-fired power plants at the rate they are planned (there are still around 100 on the books) we will not be able to avert catastrophic climate change no matter how many concentrating solar plants and wind farms we build.

His response: “No. No, I wouldn’t say that.”

Thank you Mr Rubin, very illuminating. How does this jive with Citi’s stated commitment to taking a hard look at their coal investments through the adoption of the Carbon Principles? Too soon to tell. The Carbon Principles themselves came into effect on August 4th (six months after they were announced) and we have yet to see how their implementation is going to affect Citi’s investments in coal-fired power plants. Sounds like if Bob has anything to do with it…..not very much. But since by the end of his Q and A period he actually said “hey, I don’t really work at Citi …… Uhhhhh I mean, I’m on the executive committee but….” – perhaps we don’t have much to worry about?

If Citi is really serious about becoming a leader in solutions, not pollution (to steal a line from Van Jones) there really is only one way forward. Stop bankrolling climate change. Say no to new coal plants and say yes to clean power instead.