Expanding Public Debates About the “What” & “How” of Corporate ESG Disclosure

by Hank Boerner – Chair & Chief Strategist – G&A Institute

March 2, 2021

Corporate sustainability / ESG reporting — What to disclose? How to frame the disclosures (context matters!)? What frameworks or standards to use?  Questions, questions, and more questions for corporate managers to consider as ESG disclosures steadily expand.

We are tuning in now to many more lively discussions going on about corporate ESG / sustainability et al public disclosures and structured reporting practices — and the growing complexity of all this disclosure effort, resulting often in disclosure fatigue for corporate practitioners!

Corporate managers ponder the important question:  which of the growing number of ESG frameworks or standards to use for disclosures? (The World Economic Forum (WEF) describes some 600 ESG guidelines, 600 reporting frameworks and 360 accounting standards that companies could use for reporting.  These do vary in scope, quantity, and quality of metrics.)

In deciding the what and how for their reporting, public companies consider then the specifics of relevant metrics and the all-important accompanying narrative to be shared to meet users’ rising information needs…in this era of emergent “stakeholder capitalism”.

Of course, there is the question for most companies of which or what existing or anticipated public sector reporting mandates will have to be met in various geographies, for various sectors and industries, for which stakeholders.

We here questions such as — how to get ahead of anticipated mandates in the United States if the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) does move ahead with adoption of new rules or at least strong guidance for corporate (and investor) sustainability reporting.

The European Union is today ahead in this area, but we can reasonably expect the USA to make important moves in the “Biden Climate Administration” era.  (The accounting standards boards are important players here as well as regulatory agencies in the sovereign states.)

Company boards, executive committees, professional staff, sustainability team managers wrestle with this complex environmental (for ESG disclosure) as their enterprises develop strategies, organize data flows, set in place data measurement protocols, and assemble the ESG-related content for public disclosure. (And, for expanded “private sharing” with ESG ratings agencies, credit risk agencies, benchmark/index managers, to meet customer ESG data requests, and more).

The list of issues and topics of “what” to disclose is constantly expanding, especially as institutional investors (asset owners and their managers) develop their “asks” of companies.

Climate change topics disclosure is at the top of most investor lists for 2021. Human Capital Management issues have been steadily rising in importance as the COVID-19 pandemic (and spread of variants) affects many business enterprises around the globe.

In the USA, SEC has new guidance for corporate HCM disclosures.  Political unrest is an issue for companies.  Anti-corruption measures are being closely examined.

Diversity & Inclusion (including in the board room and C-suite) is growing in importance to investors.

Also, physical risk to corporate assets in the era of superstorms and changing weather patterns – what are companies examining and then reporting on?  Exec compensation with metrics tied to performance in ESG issues is an area of growing interest.

We are monitoring and/or involved in multiple discussions and organized initiatives in the quest to develop more global, uniform, comparable, reliable, timely, complete, and assured corporate sustainability metrics, and accompanying narrative.  And, to provide the all-important context (of reported data) – what does the data mean?  It’s a complicated journey for all involved!

This week we devote the content of this week’s Highlights newsletter to various elements of the public discussions about the many aspects of the journey.

Here at G&A Institute, our team’s recommended best practice:  use multiple frameworks & standards that are relevant to the business and meet user needs; these are typically then disclosed in hybridized report where multiple standards are harmonized and customized for the relevant industries and sectors of the specific company’s operations and reflect the progress (or even lack of) of the enterprise toward leadership in sustainability matters.

This approach helps to reduce disclosure fatigue for internal corporate teams challenged to choose “which” framework or standard and the gathering of data and other content for this year’s and next year’s ESG disclosures.

We shared our thoughts in a special issue of NIRI IR Update, published by the National Investor Relations Institute, the important organization for corporate investor relations officers:


Here are our top selections in the content silos for this week that reflect the complexity of even the public debates about corporate ESG disclosure and where we are in early-2021.

TOP STORIES

The ever-evolving world of ESG investing from a few different points of view. What are the providers of capital examining today for their portfolio or investable product decision-making?  Here are some shared perspectives:

Looking Back at 2020 and Into 2021-Disruptions, Changes, But Consistency in Climate Change Challenges

January 11 2021

by Hank BoernerChair & Chief StrategistG&A Institute

Seems like just yesterday we were celebrating the great promise of the 21st Century – the Paris Accord (or “Agreement”) on climate change. Can you believe, it is now five years on (260 weeks or so this past December) since the meeting in the “City of Lights” of the Conference of Parties (“COP 21”, a/k/a the U.N. Paris Climate Conference). This was the 21st meeting of the global assemblage focused on climate change challenges.

For most of us the calendar years are neat delineations of time and space – helps us remember “what” and “when” in near and far-times. But often important trends will not fit neatly in a given year. There is for example so much uncertainty in 2020 that continues in 2021.

As we cheered and toasted each other on 31 December 2019 around the world (with tooting horns, fireworks, lighted spheres dropping on famed Times Square in New York City and fireworks on the Thames in London) we probably were looking eagerly into the new year 2020 and the promise of things to come. Oh well.

Now here we are embarked into new year 2021, starting the third decade of the 21st Century, and groping our way toward the “next normal”.  What ever that may have in store for us.

The next normal for when the Coronavirus, now taking many lives and infecting hundreds of millions of us…at last subsides. For when the economies of the world stabilize and everyone can get back to work, in whatever the workspace configurations may be. For when the long-term issues that are generating civil unrest and widespread – and now very violent! — protests can be addressed and we can begin to resolve inequality et al.

Our world has certainly been dramatically interrupted as the calendar changed in both 2020 and now as we begin year 2021.

One consistency, however, has been in our business and personal lives in all of the recent years and is accelerating in 2021: the effort to address the challenges of climate change, with all sectors of our society engaged in the effort.

There is greater effort now to limit global warming and the impact on society in the business sector (especially for large companies); in the public sector (at local, state, and national levels, among the almost 200 nations that are parties to the Paris Agreement); for NGOs; leaders of philanthropies; and we as individuals doing our part.

We all have a role to play in the collective striving to limit the rising temperatures of seas and atmosphere and forestall worldwide great tragedy and cataclysmic events if we fail.

And so now on to 2021. The Top Stories we’ve selected for you, and additional content in the various silos, focus our attention on what has been accomplished in 2019 and 2020 — and what challenges we need to address the challenges of 2021 and beyond.

As we assembled this week’s G&A Institute’s Highlights newsletter, we learned from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that the year 2020 just ended was a period (neatly marked in “2020” for our historical records) of historic weather extremes that saw many billion-dollar weather and climate disasters…smashing prior records.

There were 22 separate billion-dollar events costing the United States of America almost US$100 billion in damages in just the 12 months of 2020.

And this troubling news: in 2020 Arctic air temps continued their long-term warming streak, recording the second warmest year on record. (Since 2000 Arctic temperatures have been more than twice as far as the average for Earth as a whole). When air and sea continue to warm, massive ice fields melt and ocean seas rise, ocean circulation patterns change, and more. Learn more at climate.gov.

Our selection of news and shared perspectives here bridge 2020 and 2021 trends and events. We can expect in the weeks ahead to be sharing content with you focused on climate change, diversity & inclusion, corporate purpose discussions, risk management, corporate governance, ESG matters, corporate reporting & disclosures, sustainable investing…and much more!

Best wishes to you for 2021 from the G&A Institute team. We’re beginning the second decade of publishing this newsletter as well – let us know how we are doing and how we can improve the G&A Institute “sharing”.

If you are not receiving the G&A Institute Sustainability Highlights(TM) newsletter on a regular basis, you can sign up here: https://www.ga-institute.com/newsletter.html

 

TOP STORIES

A year in review and looking ahead to 2021:

SCARY STUFF: The Fourth Official “Climate Science Special Report” by the U.S. Government’s “Global Change Research Program”

by Hank Boerner – Chair & Chief Strategist – G&A Institute

November 2018 commentary – with updates (see end)

If you were aware of the mandated National Climate Change assessment of the Federal government of the United States of America…here is what you need to know.

Whether you are an investor, company executive or board member, or an issue advocate, or civic leader, these “high probability” outcomes should keep you up at night:  more superstorms; more drought; increased risk of forest fires; more floods; rising sea levels; melting glaciers; ocean acidification; increasing atmospheric water vapor (thus, more powerful rainstorms)…and more.

How about a potential drop of 10% in the U.S.A. Gross Domestic Product by end of this century?

These are some of the subjects explored in depth in the fourth “Climate Science Special Report” of the U.S. Global Change Research Program.  That is a collaborative effort of more than a dozen Federal departments, such as NOAA, NASA, US EPA, and executive branch cabinet offices of Commerce, Agriculture, Energy, State, Transportation, and Defense; plus the OMB (Office of the President).

The experts gathered from these departments of the U.S. government plus a passel of university-based experts, reported last week (in over 1600 pages of related content) on the “state of science relating to climate change and its physical impacts.”

The CSSR (the Climate Science Special Report) serves as a foundation for efforts to assess climate-related risks and inform decision-makers…it does not include policy recommendations.  The results are not encouraging – at least not in November 2018.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is the lead agency working with NASA and other governmental bodies to develop the report – which analyzes current trends in climate change and project major trends out to the end of this 21st Century.  The focus of the work is on human welfare, societal, economic, and environmental elements of climate change.

Each chapter of the report focuses on key findings and assigns a “confidence statement” for scientific uncertainties. There are 10 regional analyses of recent climate change (such as the Northeast, and Southern Great Plains).

Some highlights:

(1) This period is now the warmest in the history of modern civilization.

2) Thousands of studies have documented changes in surface, atmospheric and oceanic temps;

(3) glaciers are rapidly melting;

4) we have rising sea levels;

5) the incidence of daily tidal flooding is accelerating in more than 25 Atlantic and Gulf coast cities.

The various findings, the authors point out, are based on a large body of scientific, peer-reviewed research, evaluated observations and modeling data sets. In this report, we should note, experts and not politicians speak to us in clear terms.

Global climate is projected to change over this century (and beyond) – the report is replete with “likelihoods” of events) and the experts state that with major effort, temps could be limited to 3.6°F / 2°C or less – or else.  Without action, average global temperatures could increase 9°F / 5°C relative to pre-industrial times – spelling disaster at the end of the 2100s.

The Financial Stability Board’s  (FSB) Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (the “TCFD”) strongly recommendations that the financial sector companies and (initial) four business sectors begin to test scenarios against (to begin with) 2-degrees Centigrade (3.5°F) temp rise and increase from there.

The four industry groups in the Financial Sector are:  Banks, Insurance Companies, Asset Owners, Asset Managers.

The four non-financial business sectors are:  Agriculture. Food & Forest Products; Buildings & Materials; Transportation; Energy (Oil & Gas).

This new national assessment from the Federal government should be a valuable resource for investors, bankers, insurance carriers and a wide range of companies in their scenario planning (content related to alternative scenarios is in the report).

Click the links below for:

TCFD information is here: https://www.fsb-tcfd.org/

Our Top Story in Sustainability Highlights this week is The Washington Post’s take on the report and its issuance by the Federal government on what some officials considered to be a slow Thanksgiving Friday news period.  The news coverage that followed was anything but “slow”!

Washington Post – Climate story by Brady Dennis and Christ Mooney
Major Trump administration climate report says damage is ‘intensifying across the country’

(Friday November 23, 2018) Source: The Washington Post – Scientists are more certain than ever that climate change is already affecting the United States — and that it is going to be very expensive. The federal government on Friday released a long-awaited report with an unmistakable message: The effects of climate change, including deadly wildfires, increasingly debilitating hurricanes and heat waves, are already battering the United States, and the danger of more such catastrophes is worsening.

* * * * * * * *

The critical work of the U.S. Global Change Research Program is ongoing.  Consider these cautions (warnings!) issued by the organization in March 2020 — looking at the Southwest region of the U.S.A.

  • Water for people and nature in the SW has declined during droughts.
  • Southwest forests and other ecosystems’ ability to provide natural habitat, clean water, and economic livelihoods has declined.
  • Many coastal resources in the region are affected with sea level rising, ocean waters warming, reduced ocean oxygen, and ocean acidification.
  • Indigenous peoples in the region are more and more affected by drought, wildfires, and the changes in ocean waters.
  • Hydropower – so vital in the region – it is now harder and harder to meet energy demands, that is, along with fossil fuel powers as well. The population has been increasing (the rush to the sunbelt and job centers in the region).
  • Food production is vulnerable to the water shortage situation in different places.
  • And of course with all of this there are now rising health risks — think about the impact of heat waves, ozone days with poor air quality, and with warming, pathogen growth, both nasty things always there and with warming, now buggies of all sorts coming in (vectors) along with the diseases they carry.

The Global Change team shares these kinds of findings on an ongoing basis – not waiting for the periodic full reports to be published.

Like to help?  Expert assistance is being requested, with open period to April 26, 2020 – as the Sixth Assessment is in the process.  Information at the Open Sources page: https://www.globalchange.gov/notices?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_campaign=1a2b149f07-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2020_03_25_03_00&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_00fda1a12d-1a2b149f07-296853117

We’ll continue to update this post from time-to-time.  Let’s not lose track of the critical work of this arm of the U.S. government — even as people in high power continue to deny that the climate is changing…or that humankind has a hand in things as the planet warms (with disastrous results for many people).