NOVEMBER 13, 2023

Most top MENA banks have introduced ESG strategies

MUSCAT: Nearly three-quarters of the MENA banks analyzed have developed ESG strategies, showcasing the growing recognition of the significance of ESG factors in the region's banking sector and underscoring the commitment of MENA banks to sustainability and responsible financial practices, according to the inaugural EY ESG MENA Bank Tracker report Bridging the gaps: ESG governance to climate action,.

The inaugural EY ESG MENA Bank Tracker, which has been released in advance of the opening of COP28 in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on November 30, tracks the collective progress of the top 20 banks across the MENA region in the GCC.

The study aims to provide analysis that can help banks benchmark themselves against their peers. It is also designed to inform policymakers and regulators across the region on what changes may be required to help banks play an active supporting role in the region’s numerous net zero commitments.

The findings show that more than 80% of the banks surveyed have not issued a climate commitment statement, while just 60% say that they carry out materiality assessments. The report also highlights that less than 20% of the banks have developed climate risk policies, and only a fifth have created robust ESG frameworks backed up by key performance indicators.

The findings from the EY ESG MENA Bank Tracker also suggest that most MENA banks are not embedding sustainability considerations – particularly climate change – into their overall strategies.

Charlie Alexander, EY MENA Financial Services Leader, says: "Prioritizing climate risk mitigation is crucial for banks, and the integration of ESG risk frameworks and policies into their risk management strategies needs to be accelerated. Moreover, it's essential to bridge the gap in implementing ESG strategies at the board level. There's an opportunity for banks in the region to make significant progress by adopting fully transparent ESG practices with clear responsibilities, accountability, and robust measurement tools. While there's room for improvement in aligning with global best practices, the MENA region can take advantage of proactive support from regulatory bodies to enhance and evolve their ESG strategies."

Sustainable finance offerings on the rise

The report shows that those banks that are already making progress in aligning ESG climate risk into their commercial strategies are also ahead in the development of sustainable finance products and services. Of the banks surveyed, 45% have established sustainable finance frameworks, which are typically linked to environmental and social considerations. Many of these frameworks are backed by international standards such as the International Capital Market Association’s (ICMA) Green Bond Principles (GBP), Social Bond Principles (SBP) and Sustainability-Linked Bond Principles (SLBP).

The survey shows that MENA banks compare favorably to global banks in the provision of sustainable financing products to corporate and institutional clients. A full 70% of banks lend to renewable energy projects, and 65% issue green, social or sustainability bonds. Furthermore, 40% also provide sustainability-linked loans, and 15% are involved in green repo financing.

In contrast, there is less emphasis on sustainable retail bank products. The most popular is the green or hybrid vehicle loan, provided by 35% of banks. Additionally, 25% of banks extend solar loans and 10% green mortgage loans.

Jessica Robinson, EY MENA Sustainable Finance Leader, says: "It's inspiring to see many banks in the region expanding their offerings of sustainable finance products, particularly in key markets where product innovation is thriving. Nevertheless, given the MENA region's heightened vulnerability to the effects of climate change, it's imperative that banks act swiftly to incorporate climate risk assessments into their comprehensive risk management frameworks. The ESG MENA Bank Tracker emphasizes that there is room for improvement among major financial institutions in fully grasping, managing, and seamlessly integrating climate risk assessments within their governance structures and commercial strategies."

Imperatives for meaningful ESG integration

As part of its analysis, EY has leveraged the findings of the survey to formulate seven priority areas that can assist banks and guide regulators in the development and integration of ESG policies.

ESG Strategy and governance

Banks should focus on ESG strategic thinking and direction by embedding ESG into broader commercial strategies and business plans. They should back this with robust governance and oversight covering ESG’s risks and opportunities, as well as progress on ESG implementation. To establish an effective governance structure or framework, there needs to be clear roles and responsibilities and accountability across business lines supported by a well-resourced sustainability team with the right capacity and skills.

Stepping up sustainable finance

Banks in the region should look to expand their product offerings for corporate clients by providing ESG advisory and underwriting services, sustainable trade and supply chain finance, sustainable repos, and carbon-specific tools. Meanwhile, they can offer retail clients sustainable cards, green deposits, sustainability-linked loans and ESG risk tools. Banks will have an important role to play once a voluntary carbon market is established in the region.

Climate risk management

Financial institutions will play a critical role in the fight against climate change, which starts with assessing climate-related risks and opportunities. Climate risk assessments are an iterative journey, taking several years to develop and integrate. The sooner MENA banks begin this journey, the faster they will understand the risks they face. Additionally, the banks leading in this area will find opportunities to increase profitability by developing new products.

ESG risk integration

Further action is required to fully integrate ESG risks into enterprise risk management frameworks. Many leading banks in MENA are still exposed to environmental and social risks, as over half of the banks assessed do not undertake an ESG risk assessment or frame an ESG risk policy or statement. To address this, banks should prioritize the integration of ESG risk assessment and management into their overall risk management frameworks.

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