Such rephrasings mark a departure from earlier statements that referred to joint industry efforts to reduce emissions in order to fight climate change. Though seemingly innocuous, the adjustments follow a wave of threats from the GOP, with Republican lawmakers, governors and state attorneys general alleging that climate alliances represent a form of collusion that warrants antitrust lawsuits. In New Hampshire, GOP lawmakers have gone so far as to seek to criminalize ESG investing.
Climate alliances are now "acting to reduce perceived risk under U.S. antitrust law because of the politically polarized environment," Maurits Dolmans, a senior counsel at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP, said in an interview.
And with elections ahead, the political context "will only become more toxic," he said.
The drumbeat against environmental, social and governance investing strategies has reached fever pitch, with GOP lawmakers in New Hampshire now seeking up to 20 years imprisonment for those who "knowingly" incorporate ESG in investments.
GOP threats have already resulted in a mass exodus from a net-zero alliance for insurers. And insurance companies still inside the coalition have been at pains to state that they're not coordinating their emissions reductions with other members.
In November, the Net Zero Asset Managers Initiative, which counts Amundi, BlackRock and UBS Asset Management among its more than 300 members, published a disclaimer on its website that said members were "committed to complying with all laws and regulations that apply to them, including antitrust and other regulatory laws." NZAMI stressed that signatories won't be asked to disclose strategic or competitively sensitive information and won't act in a way that could restrict competition between them.
A spokesman for the asset management group said the disclaimer was added "to provide clarity about our operations and processes." He also said there's no change to the original commitment or overall goals and ambition of the initiative and its signatories.
The Net Zero Banking Alliance, a collation of lenders including HSBC Holdings, J.P. Morgan and Bank of America, also made linguistic changes last year, removing a reference from its governance document that said signatories would push for "collective, aligned" progress.
A spokesperson said the core principles of the NZBA's commitment and guidelines haven't changed, and that adjustments to its governance document clarify that member banks "make their strategic and commercial decisions independently."
A spokesperson for PAAO said the updates on the group's website "only serve to reiterate and further clarify the foundational principles of the initiative." He also stressed that there "is no change to the original commitment statement" or the "overall goals and ambition of the initiative and its signatories."
PAAO, NZAMI and NZBA are all subgroups of the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero. GFANZ is co-chaired by Mark Carney, who is chair of Bloomberg and a former Bank of England governor, and Michael R. Bloomberg, the founder of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP. A spokesperson for GFANZ declined to comment.
Dolmans of Cleary Gottlieb said that signatories to net-zero alliances would likely have little to fear should such cases ever make it to a court of law.
"In reality, the U.S. antitrust risk to these types of associations is greatly exaggerated, and if basic guardrails are applied, no such concerns exist," he said. "There's a whole body of research pointing to climate tipping points and cascading risks that warn that business-as-usual will lead to devastating outcomes. It's inconceivable that U.S. antitrust laws could stand in the way of cooperation to reduce that catastrophic risk."