Climate scientists trade their fieldwork for high-paying financial jobs

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Environmental scientist Laura Garcia Velez cut her teeth on projects to help Ethiopian farmers secure their crops against drought and connect isolated Colombian communities to the electricity grid before working for WWF conservation activists.

She is now an analyst for Lombard Odier, responsible for improving the green credentials of the $ 350 billion Swiss bank.

“Funding for science recruits is really important,” said Velez, one of the many activists and scientists who have turned to the bank, which she hopes can play a role in “greening polluting industries “.

Activism and finance can seem like an unlikely pair of two relentless enemies.

Yet banks, asset managers and private equity firms, facing strict regulations to decarbonize portfolios and loan portfolios, are competing to attract people with the right green expertise, according to data on jobs and interviews with financial companies, recruiters and universities.

“Working in sustainability was like trying to bring down walls,” said James Close, climate change manager at NatWest, former climate change director at the World Bank.

“Now they’re dragging us from the street by the front door.”

Many environmentalists, for their part, argue that the only way to save the planet is to force big companies to drastically reduce their carbon emissions, and they see the world of finance that finances them as one of the best levers.

Some charities and activists argue, however, that “green laundering” is rife in the finance industry. Many new hires, they say, are used as a marketing tool and often lack the power to drive real change.

Double the salary

Nevertheless, the green rush is on.

The number of vacancies for ‘sustainability’ positions nearly doubled to over 1,000 in the year through February, compared to the previous 12 months, according to global finance recruiting specialist eFinancialCareers. Positions range from junior level analysts to new managerial roles such as responsible for sustainable development or climate change.

Green recruiting specialist Acre said its finance hires have grown by more than a quarter year-on-year every year since 2017. The top positions now offer salaries above £ 750,000 ( $ 1 million), or roughly three times as much over the period. .

LinkedIn data shared with Reuters shows a steady increase in the number of finance jobs listed as requiring at least one “green skill,” such as pollution prevention or ecosystem management, especially in the United States.

“There is a race for talent right now, there is no doubt about it,” said Elree Winnett Seelig, global head of ESG for Citi markets, adding that demand was particularly strong in fixed income. .

Indeed, banks, asset managers and private equity firms have bolstered their climate teams over the past year, increasing salaries by 30-50%, said Jon Williams, sustainability partner and climate change at PwC UK.

One of his team recently doubled his salary by joining an asset management company, he added.

Employees of environmental groups who move to a bank are usually able to at least double their pay after bonuses are factored in, recruiters say.

“A different race”

Leading universities with specialist centers that combine climate science and finance say they have seen companies push their way to their doors to recruit graduates.

Charles Donovan, executive director of the Center for Climate Finance and Investment at Imperial College London, which is jointly managed by the Grantham Institute climate science center, said there had been an “incredible” increase in interest of its students among financial sector employers over the past 18 years. month.

Banks such as HSBC and Standard Chartered are looking for potential hires under climate research partnerships, while some companies are offering scholarships, he added.

While London’s financial district may be diverting some talent from government and advocacy roles, Donovan was not worried, saying many of those targeting the financial sector were “a different breed of students” who recognized the value expertise in areas such as climate change to stand out. other graduates seeking employment in finance.

Chase Hurricanes

Some of the most established environmental experts who have made the switch to finance say the rewards aren’t just financial.

Rob Bailey, director of climate resilience in the research unit at consultancy Marsh & McLennan, previously worked for Oxfam and the international affairs think tank Chatham House.

“I can deploy the knowledge in a different way and working with different stakeholders is quite invigorating,” he said.

Some specialists are also drawn to the demanding and often very technical nature of the work.

For example, quantitative analyst Velez, who moved to Lombard Odier last year, is developing a tool that connects assets with near real-time environmental and geospatial data tracking hurricane and pollution risk.

Swiss bank UBS, meanwhile, has recruited people for its Evidence Lab team of analysts with experience in a wide range of disciplines, including geomodelling and hydromodeling in recent years.

“We had to adopt new recruiting strategies and methods to find people with these skills who were not looking for a job in financial services,” said Barry Hurewitz, Global Head of UBS Evidence Lab Innovations.

Finance companies across the board have said they are expanding their science and sustainability teams.

Asset manager Schroders said he has more than 10 people with scientific backgrounds on his insurance-related titles team, including people with doctorates in climatology. Its sustainable investment team has grown from four to 22 over the past year and is planning further expansion.

Britain’s largest national bank, Lloyds, more than doubled the number of employees in core sustainability roles in a year, to over 40, while Zurich Insurance said it has expanded its research team on modeling of risks related to wind, floods, cybersecurity and climate, to seven from one in five years.

“Part of the machine”

The demand for green expertise is driven in part by the tightening of climate regulations on financial services companies in Britain, Europe and beyond.

Eurozone banks will be required to take climate change into account when granting loans or investments, for example. EU funds will have to disclose the sustainability of their products, while UK lenders could face stricter capital requirements for polluting assets held on their books.

Yet while companies say they are making progress, some charities say they are continuing to catch up.

“In my experience, finance companies don’t have in-depth knowledge of the trail. Their skills are heavily focused on the past, ”said Charlie Kronick, Senior Climate Advisor at Greenpeace UK.

Better hiring must come with strategy changes at the top, according to charities. While many large financial services firms have pledged to decarbonise their loans and portfolios in the coming years, most remain exposed to fossil fuels in one way or another, they say.

“If you just have a bunch of sustainability officers who are kind of left out and actually there to help with the green-washing, that won’t really change the results,” said Ben Cushing, campaign manager for finance. advocacy with the American environmental group Sierra Club.

And not everyone with an environmental background finds high finance fulfilling.

Ian Povey-Hall, director of green recruiting firm Acre, said while most had no regrets, some had become disillusioned.

“ESG becoming more of a business goal has made a difference for some people who say their work has become a product because it’s more of the machine,” he said.

Lombard Odier’s Velez says he’s happy with his decision and happy not to be part of a green-washing problem.

“We are working a lot on how companies are going to reduce their emissions,” she adds. “Of course, I want these changes to happen faster – I’m a little more a realist than an optimist.”

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