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‘They are the necessary heroes’: Love Actually director Richard Curtis on bankers’ starring roles in the climate crisis

Richard Curtis, creator of some of the best-loved romantic comedies of all time - Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting HillBridget Jones's Diary and Love Actually - is back with a new film. This time, there’s little to laugh about.

The Bafta winner, 63, features in Our Planet: Too Big To Fail, a documentary released on Friday from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Silverback Films, the team behind Netflix series Our Planet and David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet.

The film, which includes Sir David and former governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney, is a sweeping look at the global climate crisis and the flawed financial system which has played a significant role in bringing the planet to the brink of catastrophe.

Scientists have warned for decades that fossil fuels are driving global heating. And yet since the Paris Climate Accords were signed in 2016, banks have financed the fossil fuel industry with $2.7 trillion (£2trn) globally.

Finance has played a "major role" in the crisis, Mr Curtis told The Independent. The screenwriter, who founded Comic Relief with Sir Lenny Henry and Live 8 with Bob Geldof, has more recently set up Make My Money Matter, a campaign aimed at raising awareness among British pension holders that their combined £3trn pot often ends up invested in harmful places - from fossil fuels and arms, to tobacco and gambling.  The hope is to pivot those investments to more sustainable causes, amid calls to "build back better" following the Covid-19 pandemic.

Or, as Mr Curtis puts it: “There’s no point inheriting a pension in a world on fire.

"Finance has helped create the problem, but it also has the power to be the solution."

He added: “There is a growing movement calling for change in the financial sector. What I hope for is that business people now see that they are the necessary heroes here – and they can be heroes without sacrificing profits.”

Curtis, who is one of 2020’s UN Sustainable Development Goals advocates, recently put his money where his mouth is to combat climate change.

“This year, I’ve moved my savings into investments that have a positive impact on the world, and I also now have an account with a sustainable bank – even their debit card is bio-degradable," he noted.

If Too Big To Fail opens with a bleak view of the state of the world, it later offers up something of a plot twist: where bankers are presented with the chance to go from villain to victorious by re-engineering capital markets to invest in projects that are both socially conscious and environmentally sound.

“Do we invest money in the practices that take us deeper into this crisis, or in the solutions that could get us out of it?” David Attenborough asks in one scene of a speech he made earlier this year to some of the most powerful figures in finance.

And, as the film suggests, you don’t even have to appeal to the finance world’s better angels: an improved economy which supports the planet is in its own self-interest.

For example, over the next decade, it will take an estimated $95trn to adapt global infrastructure in the race to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. And as the food sector shifts from methane-intensive livestock production, alternative proteins are expected to make up 10 per cent of the $1.4trn meat market by 2030.

“The financial sector needs to listen to us and the science – and the evidence of their own eyes - and make these shifts," says Curtis. 

"At the same time, if the financial sector doesn’t make these shifts, they’re eventually going to lose money. I was once in a room where someone said that the insurance business as a whole will collapse when the temperature rises by 3.5 degrees. 

"The future of business and investment is about sustainability – they would be wise to support the businesses of the future. If your money is in coal, oil and gas, these are the industries of the past and you’re going to lose.”

The documentary presents solutions for shifting away from toxic investments and backing more resilient, long-term ideas that work with the natural world rather than deplete it. 

“The finance sector must drastically raise its ambition and move away from funding the destruction of natural systems towards a more resilient, low-carbon future. The solutions exist – now we just need to embrace them,” said  Tanya Steele, chief executive at WWF.

To not succeed, draws out dire predictions in the film, even from leading figures in a profession that is known for calculated and measured tones.

Mr Carney, who stepped down from the Bank of England in March and is UN Special Envoy for Climate Change and Finance, described it as a “Minsky moment” – a banking term for an abrupt and catastrophic crash following an unsustainable run. 

“The biggest risk is inaction today. If we continue to downplay the scale of the transition that needs to happen across the entire economy, across all economies around the world, then the adjustment when it comes will be much more severe," he said. 

Others were even more blunt about the outcomes if the financial world fails to change. “If they do not succeed, the economies will collapse and civilization itself is at risk,”  said Steve Waygood, Chief Responsible Investment Officer, at Aviva Investors.

Mr Curtis says that individuals, and particularly young people, can create an enormous amount of pressure on the financial system to change.

“I find that people I know, especially younger people, are really beginning to think – “what can I actually do, in my own life?”  And they are forcing these shifts across all sorts of businesses – in the choices they make about the clothes they wear, the cars they drive and the way they travel, the food they eat, the use of plastics. We need to do the same with finance,” he said.

Perhaps it’s down to a career in rom-coms, but the director says that he is “by nature, an optimist”. 

This optimism extends as far as a post-Brexit UK’s ability meet its climate goals – net zero in carbon emissions by 2050 – and globally in the face of a wave of populist leaders, like President Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, whose denial of the crisis has hampered change that is becoming more urgent by the day.

Mr Curtis pointed to the UK’s role in 2021 as host of the G7 Summit and UN Climate Change Conference, COP26.

“This really is a moment when the UK could demonstrate world-changing leadership,” he said. 

“The British public want action on the climate and environment emergency, so the government has their backing to do more.” 

He added: "The rise in movements this year has been remarkable – on climate, on gender justice, on all the issues raised by Black Lives Matter. The texture of conversation is changing, the level of awareness is changing, and people’s sense of personal responsibility is growing.

“The combination of business and grassroots movements is a very potent combination to tackle the climate and environment crisis.”

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