The Standard Bank building in Rosebank, Johannesburg. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA
The Standard Bank building in Rosebank, Johannesburg. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA

Standard Bank shareholders this week voted down a resolution that would have required it to report climate risk in its activities, though they passed another ordering it to disclose its coal financing policies.

It was the first time a South African company had tabled a resolution on climate-related issues, according to shareholder group Just Share, which supported the motion.

But the bank advised investors not to back the proposal and just over 60% of shareholders voted against it at the annual general meeting in Johannesburg on Thursday.

Just Share executive director Tracey Davies said the motion had received far more support than expected.

"It's fair to say South African shareholders are pretty conservative and not very vocal on climate issues," she said.

"It shows there is a lot more awareness and understanding of climate risk in our investment industry than might be apparent from what's publicly available."

A number of big institutional investors backed the proposal, she said, among them Old Mutual Investment Management. However, some of the lender's most significant shareholders, including its third-largest, fund manager Allan Gray, did not.

The resolution was put forward as climate activism increases. Recent high-profile protests from environmental groups have paralysed parts of major cities such as London, and a wave of school strikes saw children and teenagers accuse adults of failing to tackle the issues.

SA is one of Africa's worst polluters, home to a number of big, listed firms in carbon-intensive industries such as mining. Like many of its peers on the continent, it is still reliant on fossil fuels to meet its energy needs.

Earlier this week the long-delayed Carbon Tax Act was signed into law by President Cyril Ramaphosa, but campaigners say it doesn't go far enough.

The resolution would not have required Standard Bank to change any of its policies, but the bank would have had to report on how its lending, financing and investment activities expose it, and in turn its shareholders, to climate risks.

Shareholders did however pass a resolution, with 55% of the vote, to compel Standard Bank to disclose its policies on coal financing.

The bank has published some information on the parameters guiding its financing of coal projects, but Davies said this did not amount to a comprehensive, board-approved policy and also did not cover its approach to coal mining.

A number of big international banks have released comprehensive information on their coal financing policies, but it is still unusual among South African lenders.