Two posters for HSBC, seen on bus stops in Bristol and London in October 2021:
a. The first poster featured an aerial image of waves crashing on a shore with text that stated "Climate change doesn’t do borders. Neither do rising sea levels. That’s why HSBC is aiming to provide up to $1 trillion in financing and investment globally to help our clients transition to net zero”.
b. The second poster featured an image of tree growth rings with text that stated "Climate changes doesn’t do borders. So in the UK, we’re helping to plant 2 million trees which will lock in 1.25 million tonnes of carbon over their lifetime".
The ASA received 45 complaints, including from Adfree Cities, who challenged whether ads (a) and (b) were misleading, because they omitted significant information about HSBC’s contribution to carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions.
HSBC UK Bank plc said it had been making the claim in ad (a) since 2020 and aimed to meet the ambition to provide financing and investment globally to help some of its clients transition to net zero by 2030. They explained the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Sixth Assessment Report stated that to avoid the most significant effects of climate change, and in order to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C, global greenhouse gas emissions must be halved by 2030, and net-zero emissions must be achieved by 2050. The United Nations (UN) was also encouraging countries to set short-term interim 2030 targets ahead of 2050. A report by the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) outlined that financial institutions needed to align financing with a 1.5°C net zero by 2050 pathway and set interim 2030 targets, and HSBC said their Climate Strategy was consistent with those aims, including their 2030 financed emissions reduction targets for high-emitting sectors. They explained that their policies for phasing-down fossil fuel financing were also aligned with the approach recommended by the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ), the UN Principles for Responsible Investment, and the International Energy Agency (IEA). The GFANZ had a number of membership criteria, including setting 2030 interim targets for decarbonisation, taking immediate action to begin decarbonisation, setting and publishing a net zero strategy, and adhering to strict restrictions on the use of offsets.
HSBC said that the financing of greenhouse gas-emitting industries was required during the transition to net zero, and so their continued financing of those industries was not in conflict with the aims of a transition to net zero. They highlighted that the IEA’s 2021 report on net zero by 2050 outlined that at that stage the world would still need 20% of current natural gas production, and 25% of current oil production. Fossil fuels would play a critical role in a secure energy transition up to 2050 and would require financing. HSBC preferred a phase-down and industry engagement rather than divestment, an approach that had been drawn from the UN’s Principles for Responsible Investment. The SBTi had also recommended engagement with fossil fuel companies to adopt net zero targets and action plans, with divestment as a final resort for companies that were unable, or unwilling, to provide a credible transition pathway by 2040. As a business, they targeted a 34% reduction in absolute oil and gas financed emissions, and a 75% reduction in financed emissions intensity for the power and utilities sector by 2030. In 2022 they would extend their financed emissions analysis and targets to coal mining, aluminium, cement, iron and steel, and transport, and in 2023 they planned to report on the agriculture, commercial and real estate sectors. They planned to phase-out their financing of thermal coal by 2030 in the European Union and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, and by 2040 in the rest of the world. They said that aim was consistent with the IEA’s report and the UN’s guidance in the area.
With reference to the claim in ad (b), HSBC had entered into a four-year partnership with the National Trust, worth £4 million, to create 2,000 hectares of carbon-rich woodland. Under that partnership it endeavoured to plant two million trees by 2025, which according to the Woodland Carbon Code, and based on the average 100-year lifespan of a tree, would lock in 1.25 million tonnes of carbon. The trees would be at various sites, and 90,000 had already been planted since the partnership’s inception.
HSBC believed the claims in ads (a) and (b) highlighted two tangible and specific short-to-medium term initiatives, capable of quantifiable measurement, and would not be seen as commenting, in a broader sense, on their green credentials or environmental contribution. Furthermore, the ads had appeared in the run up to the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), which they believed would have affected how the average consumer understood the claims made. Not least because there was a period of heightened media and corporate engagement on climate change leading up to, and during, the Conference, attended by debate about the role of banks in combatting climate change. The ads therefore did not mislead about HSBC’s total environmental impact and invited consumers to find out more about the initiatives through a call to action - “Search HSBC Sustainability”. They said that consumers who searched for those terms on the Internet would find a link to a page on HSBC’s website where they could access a detailed summary of climate change initiatives which had been, and would be, introduced by HSBC. Consumers could further access HSBC’s Climate Strategy on that same website.
The CAP Code required that the basis of environmental claims must be clear and that unqualified claims could mislead if they omit significant information.
We considered consumers would understand the claims “HSBC is aiming to provide up to $1 trillion in financing and investment globally to help our clients transition to net zero” in ad (a), and “we’re helping to plant 2 million trees which will lock in 1.25 million tonnes of carbon in their lifetime” in ad (b) to mean that HSBC was making, and intended to make, a positive overall environmental contribution as a company. As part of that contribution, we considered consumers would understand that HSBC was committed to ensuring its business and lending model would help support businesses’ transition to models that supported net zero targets. Additionally, they would understand that HSBC were undertaking an environmentally beneficial activity by planting trees which would make a meaningful contribution towards the sequestration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We considered that the use of imagery from the natural world, and in particular ad (a)’s image of waves crashing on a beach, contributed to that impression.
The ads appeared on high streets in October 2021, in the run up to COP26, and we acknowledged HSBC’s comments that COP26 had received widespread national media coverage around the time the ads were on display. However, we did not consider that meant that consumers would understand the intricacies of transitioning to net zero, and would not expect that HSBC, in making unqualified claims about its environmentally beneficial work, would also be simultaneously involved in the financing of businesses which made significant contributions to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions and would continue to do so for many years into the future.HSBC’s commitment to invest $1 trillion globally to help its clients transition to net zero in 2020 formed one of the main strands in its 2021 Group Annual Report and Accounts (the Annual Report). The Annual Report indicated that HSBC intended to invest between $750 billion and $1 trillion in helping its clients transitioning to net zero. However, it also indicated that its current financed emissions – emissions related to the customers it financed – stood at the equivalent of around 65.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year for oil and gas alone based on the information available at the time the report had been prepared. We understood that figure was likely to be much higher once other carbon-intensive industries such as power and utilities, construction, transport, and coal mining had been analysed and included. We also understood from the Annual Report that HSBC intended to continue funding thermal coal mining and power production – a type of fuel that emitted high levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses – to some degree until 2040 (or 2030 in the OECD).
We acknowledged HSBC’s comments concerning the level of natural gas and oil production required in 2050, as stated by the IEA, and understood that some level of financing would be required for those activities. However, notwithstanding the reasons given for the continued financing of those industries, we considered that meant, despite the initiatives highlighted in the ads, that HSBC was continuing to significantly finance investments in businesses and industries that emitted notable levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses. We did not consider consumers would know that was the case, and we therefore considered it was material information that was likely to affect consumers’ understanding of the ads’ overall message, and so should have been made clear in the ads. We concluded that the ads omitted material information and were therefore misleading.
Ads (a) and (b) breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules
Marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so.
Marketing communications must not mislead the consumer by omitting material information. They must not mislead by hiding material information or presenting it in an unclear, unintelligible, ambiguous or untimely manner.
Material information is information that the consumer needs to make informed decisions in relation to a product. Whether the omission or presentation of material information is likely to mislead the consumer depends on the context, the medium and, if the medium of the marketing communication is constrained by time or space, the measures that the marketer takes to make that information available to the consumer by other means. (Misleading advertising), and 11.1 11.1 The basis of environmental claims must be clear. Unqualified claims could mislead if they omit significant information. (Environmental claims).
Ads (a) and (b) must not appear again in the form complained of. We told HSBC UK Bank plc to ensure that future marketing communications featuring environmental claims were adequately qualified and did not omit material information about its contribution to carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions.