A public bank is good for the planet

More needs to be done to address the many global environmental crises the world is facing. (Courtesy photo)

The days around Earth Day are always full of environmental announcements.

ROBYN PURCHIA (SFExaminer.com)

Apr. 24, 2019


The days around Earth Day are always full of environmental announcements. It’s an exciting time. But it’s hard to feel that it’s enough.

Our planet is in crisis. We need to do more to address the many global environmental crises we’re facing, such as climate change, plastic pollution, toxic proliferation and mass species extinction. As San Francisco acknowledged earlier this month, we’re in a state of climate emergency.

“We are declaring emergency because simply put there is no time to waste,” Supervisor Rafael Mandelman said at a press event introducing the resolution. “The emergency is upon us.”

To address crises fully, we must radically change our culture of over consumption and predatory capitalism. San Francisco should use every tool it can toward this endeavor, including a public bank. While it’s not a promise to go green, a public bank could serve people and the environment better than traditional, profit-motivated financial institutions.

It could enable developers to build more affordable housing near jobs, which can also reduce traffic, air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and suburban sprawl. It could fund more solar panels and green infrastructure projects, which would create more jobs. The City could also use a public bank to incentivize small businesses that help San Francisco meet ambitious environmental goals, such as stores that contract with sustainable suppliers and avoid single-use plastic items.

A large public bank with capacity to manage San Francisco’s banking needs could offer even greater environmental benefits. The City would be able to divest from large, Wall Street financial institutions that have profited by preying on vulnerable communities and financing destruction.

“A public bank can better direct capital to align with our values,” Kurtis Wu, an advocate with the SF Public Bank Coalition, told me. “It can promote clean energy, zero waste and public transit. It can even support agriculture.”

For years, advocates like Wu have pushed San Francisco closer to establishing the first municipal bank in the country. While the idea was first floated by city officials in the 1970s, it gained traction in the wake of the Occupy protests and movements to divest from fossil fuel corporations. Last month, after over a year of analysis, the Treasurer’s Office released a report analyzing different types of public banks The City could establish.

At first glance, the numbers in the report seem daunting. Startup and operating costs are significant under models that consider a large bank capable of managing San Francisco’s funds.

If The City limits the scope to focus only on direct loans to affordable housing and small businesses, establishing a bank is cheaper. But profitability under this more limited model may never happen.

It may be possible to mitigate these challenges using a phased-approach. Under this scenario, the bank would hold some city funds that are not required for daily operations. The money would allow the bank to provide low-cost lending for affordable housing and small businesses, as well as serve as a foundation for the bank to gradually manage City money.

“It’s very doable,” Molly Cohen, a senior policy analyst with the Treasurer’s Office, said about the approach. “It could make it cheaper in the short term and make profitability happen faster.”

The Treasurer’s Office is expected to present the report to the Board of Supervisors in early May. It’s an opportunity for San Francisco’s legislators to ask questions and offer their thoughts. It’s also a chance for public bank and environmental advocates to push The City toward a solution that will address city needs and concerns. For Wu and other advocates, that means supporting a phased-in approach for a public bank with clear guidelines.

“We have to keep clear benchmarks and timelines to make sure we get to where we need to be,” he told me. “We still have the sense of urgency we’ve always had.”

Quick and powerful action is necessary given the environmental emergency at hand. As activists across the county work to raise environmental awareness and demand action on climate change, a public bank must remain part of the conversation. We need a tool that will help us dismantle a culture that is harming people and the planet.

You’ve got sorting questions. I’ve got answers. Email me at bluegreenorblack@gmail.com

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com

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