Can Man Become Superman? A Challenge For Noel Quinn.

Updated: Jul 21

I first met Noel Quinn in the early 90s because he attended a number of training courses I was leading. He’s a great guy. He was genuinely caring and sincere individual who exuded decency and integrity. I’ve no reason to imagine he’s changed. I’d like to imagine that I played a small part in him having achieved his current stellar role as CEO of HSBC, one of the world’s largest banks; but the reality is that I probably made no difference to someone who was already a naturally skilled and effective leader.

One could not dispute that he has already achieved greatness in the business world. But right now Noel is in a unique position to go one step further. He is poised upon an opportunity to be a global hero. He’s one of those rare people who has not only the platform, but (apparently) also the willingness to try and make a difference to the prospects for our planet. He’s doing so through HSBC's climate strategy, which includes unbounded support for the Net Zero initiative (look it up if you’ve not heard of it). It’s brave and it’s bold.

However, I believe he can do more. A lot more. Noel Quinn can change the whole world for the better. But does he recognise this? I’ve written an open letter challenging him to do just that.

Hi Noel,

I wanted to write and congratulate you on the bank’s farsighted climate strategy and your sponsorship of/participation in the Net Zero initiative. Making it such a high-profile priority for HSBC and taking a stand in the business community requires a certain bravado, when there are still those who will pour scorn upon the idea of global warming and climate change. I admire both your personal courage and the integrity behind what you are doing. I have seen cynics dismiss the bank’s involvement as a shrewd political move, or even a publicity stunt. But if you are half the person I remember, I have no doubt whatsoever that you are wholly sincere and committed in your determination to make a difference for good in the world.

Yet it is precisely because of this fact that I have found myself wondering if you have fully explored other ways in which HSBC could/should conceivably impact upon the causes of climate change? In other words, are you actually doing enough?

I am sure you are well aware that in 2006, the United Nations declared:

“The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.” And then four years later, they warned that “a global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from hunger, fuel poverty and the worst impacts of climate change”.

I am sure you are equally aware that the new ‘food strategy’ for England, commissioned by the government, lays out in stark detail the damage the current food and farming system wreaks on the environment, as well as our health. “It is the biggest destroyer of nature and a major source of climate warming”, it says.

Most people may read this information and ask how this can be the case? The knowledgeable amongst us will be aware that greenhouse gas emissions, the subject of the Net Zero initiative, are not predominantly caused by animal agriculture. Indeed, only around 14% are attributable to this source, so what’s the problem? For brevity’s sake, here’s a much-simplified answer.

Whilst we may seek to reduce the outputs of harmful poisons that are damaging the atmosphere, we are simultaneously shooting ourselves in the foot by massive deforestation and land use change that removes our most powerful natural allies in combatting global warming, trees. We chop them down because it frees up land. The land is used for industrial scale production of crops. The crops are almost entirely used as fodder for the animals that we eat. Their slaughter requires additional industrial processes to process their dead bodies. This in turn creates more greenhouse gases.

In other words, as highlighted by the UN and the UK government, our dietary choices, (even at a time when there are so many alternatives becoming available) are a primary culprit in wreaking havoc upon our environment.

Your whole climate strategy and support for Net Zero is great. The degree of emphasis on it in your Linkedin communications speaks volumes about your level of commitment. HSBC’s support of businesses transitioning is simply awesome. The bank’s involvement may embolden lesser organizations and you personally may inspire other leaders with more limited foresight to change their approach to the problem.

But it’s not enough. It attacks one component of the problem, while something else much larger and damaging is going on that undermines your initiatives at every step. Regrettably, your climate change strategy will not bring about the alteration in global mindset that is needed right now. It doesn’t incorporate an element that brings the problem to the individual’s door, when that's where it should rightly be. It makes it a corporate issue, rather than something we should all feel obligated to be involved in. It ignores the fact that we’re all complicit in screwing up our own world, when something as simple as how we eat could make all the difference.