The cause of climate change has been an unlikely winner from the coronavirus pandemic. The health crisis has proved a wake-up call to governments and companies of the perils of ignoring external risks and undervaluing resilience. Experts have long warned of the consequences of global warming and there is hope that 2021 will be a pivotal year in the fight against it. The past few months have seen an explosion in the number of companies promoting their environmental, social and governance standards. Big money, too, is driving this ESG agenda. Larry Fink, the chief executive of BlackRock, used his annual letter to business leaders last month to warn that the world’s largest asset manager would push companies to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.
The rise in corporate rhetoric, however, hides a significant gap in how companies account for the risk of climate change. Recent analysis by Britain’s Financial Reporting Council found that while an increasing number of companies were providing “narrative reporting” on climate-related issues, just six out of the 24 that it reviewed made any reference to climate change in their financial statements. The accounting industry may be an unlikely ally in an environmental fight, but a growing body of climate-conscious investors rightly argues that unless companies make clear the potential impact on their earnings, investment in carbon-intensive activities is likely to continue, with tragic consequences for the planet.
In reality, there is no shortage of sustainability standards. The Amsterdam-based Global Reporting Initiative was created more than two decades ago to measure companies’ external impact on a range of things, including society and the environment. The Sustainability Accounting Standards Board meanwhile provides 77 industry metrics that track the impact of environmental issues on company accounts. More recently, Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of England, launched a voluntary framework, the Task Force for Climate-related Financial Disclosures system. No wonder that investors complain that the proliferation of what are largely still voluntary standards stops them from being able accurately to assess risks across different sectors.
The good news is the accounting profession has woken up to the challenge. The Big Four auditors last September announced a new set of ESG metrics designed to bring together the efforts of the five leading independent standard setters. The end goal: a comprehensive corporate reporting system. The bad news is that achieving a uniform accounting framework is no easy task. A common standard should not just penalise those companies on the front line of climate change, whose business is in fossil fuels. It should also be able to tease out the climate sensitivities of those that would not automatically be regarded as vulnerable.
One pathway against which to measure companies’ risk is the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate. There is merit in a recent investor proposal to ask companies to ensure their financial statements are consistent with the agreement’s aim to keep the global temperature rise since pre-industrial times well below 2C. And just as companies estimate the future cost of capital, so finance directors should have to take into account the future cost of carbon. A carbon price may be uncertain, but so is the time value of money. The audit profession alone will not change the course of global warming; that is up to governments and regulators. But accounting standards that accurately reflect what risks companies are taking have a vital role to play in speeding up the transition to cleaner energy.