The United States of America Moves Forward with the Biden-Harris “Climate Crisis Agenda” for Federal Government Actions

March 2021

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

As he assumed the post of the highest elected public officer of the United States, President Joseph Biden characterized his [as the] “Climate Administration” — and immediately (the fabled Day One actions) set out a very ambitious “climate crisis” policy agenda for action by the many arms of the Federal government agencies under his control. (Notably, all cabinet offices with their great reach into all corners of the American Society.)

As a current commentary in the influential Harvard Business Review explains: “Biden put the environment squarely at the heart of U.S. federal policy, and for good reason. The future competitiveness of the U.S. economy is at stake, and climate action is an effective way to boost jobs, prevent future systemic shocks, and secure a prosperous future.”

In the commentary by Maria Mendiluce, CEO of the We Mean Business coalition, she posits at least seven important implications for corporate sector and other business leaders:

  • Climate regulation is coming (with a “net zero emissions” goal envisioned by 2050). Climate-focused regulations are being adopted around the world and we can expect to see some in the near term in the United States of America. The U.K. is an example – 2030 is the end date for sales of gasoline-powered autos.
  • Corporations will be in the vanguard in moving society in transitioning to the net zero ambitions (companies can help to scale up solutions for de-carbonizing society). Examples cited include Amazon, Apple, Ford, Microsoft, Walmart, Uber, and Verizon.
  • There’s risk for companies that delay climate action. Watch out if your enterprise is not “de-carbonizing” and transitioning from “black-to-a-green” energy company.
  • As we are seeing, investors are looking with favor on companies that taking action on climate matters – portfolio managers are moving away from high polluting firms. Asset managers like BlackRock are leading the way in pushing corporate leaders to adopt net zero targets. Capital is “looking” for greener businesses to invest in.
  • Soon, we can expect climate risk disclosures and reporting on GHG emissions to become mandatory. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) has warned that financial regulators must recognize climate change poses risk to the U.S. financial system. The head of that federal agency is now talked about as prospective Chair of the Securities & Exchange Commission in the Biden-Harris Administration.
  • While there has been discussion about carbon pricing schemes, and a bit of action in Europe, we can expect to see that discussion to increase in tempo and a price put on pollution.
  • Public sector investment in clean energy is on the rise (look at the volume of “green bonds” in recent months). In the United States, the new administration pledged to invest US$2 trillion in clean energy and infrastructure and the many Trump-Pence Administration rollbacks of environmental regulations are being put back in place by Biden-Harris actions.

We can expect to see more presidential Executive Orders, more administration, corporate and public sector pledges and commitments, and more Biden-Harris administration policy definitions related to climate action in 2021.

President Biden plans to convene a Leaders Summit for Earth Day and have the U.S. government back at the table at COP 26, the global confab for climate negotiations. “The USA is back” is the theme for 2021.

Concludes Maria Mendiluce: “This is a turning point for the U.S. and the world. It’s not too late for companies to adapt to the new net zero economy and support a green recovery. There is also no time to lose.”

We have selected her essay in HBR for the Top Story category of the G&A Newsletter this week, along with relevant developments in the “Climate Administration” of President Joe Biden and VP Kamala Harris.

The “We Mean Business” coalition has 1,596 companies involved with collective market cap of almost $25 trillion; these firms have made 2,000-plus “bold action climate commitments” to date. There is more information at: https://www.wemeanbusinesscoalition.org/

TOP STORIES

Federal Policymakers & Regulators Embrace or Reject ESG / Sustainability Factors – a Complicated Story of To & Fro

March 23, 3021

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

Federal policymaking and regulation with respect to investor risk and opportunity in the United States of America is a complicated story played out over almost a century. 

The modern era of laws passed/rules adopted to implement got underway in earnest in 1933 and 1934 following the October 1929 “Black Tuesday” stock market crash and subsequent failure of Wall Street firms and banks.

The Securities Act of 1933 and The Exchange Act of 1934 are the solid foundations of most of the investor protection laws and rules that have followed.

For example, the comprehensive package of changes and reforms that comprised the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (assembled as “Public Companies Accounting Reform and Investor Protection Act” in the US Senate [and] “Corporate and Auditing Accountability, Responsibility, and Transparency Act” in the House of Representatives, with 11 separate “titles” in what we today call “Sarbanes-Oxley”) was in part constructed on the solid foundation of the 1934 legislation.

An important driver for SOX moving ahead in the Congress were the collapse of Enron and WorldCom and other firms – dramatically impacting many investors who clamored for change.  (Ah, such crisis events – quicken the pulse and move legislators do the their job.)

The passage of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA” for shorthand) following collapse of some retirement plans and reports of negative practices at others was intended to protect plans and participants and address fiduciary duties; included was provision for greater transparency for (private industry) retirement and health plans and those who manage them.

Part of ERISA provides fiduciary responsibilities for managers / those who are in control of plan assets. The agency responsible for enforcing the rules:  The U.S. Department of Labor, a cabinet office of the Executive Branch. And subject, of course, to the political winds of the day.

It’s important to note that the critical elements of the above sweep of Federal government policymaking (enacting laws, assigning responsible arms of government, developing rules, procedures, interpretations & guidance for players involved) are protection. 

The independent Securities & Exchange Commission, as example, was established in 1934 under The Exchange Act to enforce both the ’33 and ’34 acts — essentially to protect investors.

Protection – Guidance:  All good and well.  But these important creations of political bodies are subject to the politics of the time, the era, the whims of people elected to high office and the people they in turn appoint to manage regulatory agencies.

And so, we come to today’s sustainable investing and corporate sustainability topics.

We ask:  are the operating rules, guidance, enforcement, agency management philosophies…keeping up with important changes? Like the emergence of investor preference for sustainable products, including in their retirement and health plans?

Many eyes are on the SEC these days with the Biden-Harris Administration putting forth an aggressive “climate crisis” agenda; with the Federal Reserve System adopting climate change-related policies; and a few days with the easing-off-leading-to-reversal policy of the US DOL with regard to guidance on consideration of ESG in investment decision-making by fiduciaries of plans.

The last is in focus for our Top Stories in this issue of the G&A Institute weekly newsletter.

As a brief example of the to and fro of political positioning by regulatory agencies – from Trump-era decision to Biden-era decision (reversal).

The changes moved quickly at Labor (November 2020 to March 2021).  The decisions to be made at the SEC, sought by many investors to address both ESG risk (protection) and opportunity for investors is a much more complicated story.  No doubt in weeks to come there’ll be welcome news there to share with you in the newsletter.

The sturdy foundations of the ’33, ‘34’ ’74, ’02, and 2010 and other laws and rules can be built on to address both corporate and investor ESG needs & wants in 2021.

For now – take a look at the to and fro of current ESG policies at the US Department of Labor ERISA situation.

TOP STORIES

Picking Up Speed – Adoption of the FSB’s TCFD Recommendations…

January 21 2021

by Hank BoernerChair & Chief StrategistG&A Institute

Countries around the world are tuning in to the TCFD and exploring ways to guide the business sector to report on ever more important climate related disclosures.  Embracing of the Task Force recommendations is a key policy move by governments around the world.

After the 2008 global financial crisis, the major economies that are member-nations of the “G20” formed the Financial Stability Board (FSB) to serve a collective think tank and forum for the world’s leading developed countries to develop strong regulatory, supervisory, and other financial sector policies (guidance, legislation, regulations, rules).

Member-nations can adopt the policies or concepts for same developed collectively in the FSB setting back in their home nations to help to address financial sector issues with new legislative and/or adopted/adjusted rules, and issue guidance to key market players. The FSB collaborates with other bodies such as the International Monetary Fund (the IMF).

FSB operates “by moral suasion and peer pressure” to set internationally-agreed to policies and minimum standards that member nations then can implement at home. In the USA, members include the SEC, Treasury Department and Federal Reserve System.

In December 2015, as climate change issues moved to center stage and the Paris Agreement (at COP 21) was reached by 196 nations, the FSB created the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures, with Michael Bloomberg as chair.  The “TCFD” then set out to develop guidelines for corporate disclosure on climate change-related issues and topics.

These recommendations were released in 2017, and since then some 1,700 organizations endorsed the recommendations (as signatories); these included companies, governments, investors, NGOs, and others.

Individual countries are taking measures within their borders to encourage corporations to adopt disclosure and reporting recommendations. There are four pillars -– governance, strategy, risk management, and metrics & targets.

A growing number of publicly-traded companies have been adopting these recommendations in various ways and publishing standalone reports or including TCFD information and data in their Proxy Statements, 10-ks, and in sustainability reports.

The key challenge many companies face is the recommendations for rigorous scenario testing to gauge the resiliency of the enterprise (and ability to succeed!) in the 2C degree environment (and beyond, to 4C and even 6C),,,over the rest of the decades of this 21st Century.

Many eyes are on Europe where corporate sustainability reporting first became a “must do” for business enterprises, in the process setting the pace for other regions.  So – what is going on now in the region with the most experienced of corporate reporters are based?  Some recent news:

The Federal Council of Switzerland called on the country’s corporations to implement the TCFD recommendations on a voluntary basis to report on climate change issues.

Consider the leading corporations of that nation — Nestle, ABB, Novartis, Roche, LarfargeHolcim, Glencore — their sustainability reporting often sets the pace for peers and industry or sector categories worldwide.

Switzerland — noted the council — could strengthen the reputation of the nation as global leader in sustainable financial services. A bill is pending now to make the recommendations binding.

The Amsterdam-based Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) is backing an EU Commission proposal for the European Financial Reporting Advisory Group (EFRAG) to consider what would be needed to create non-financial reporting standards (the group now advises on financial standards only). The dual track efforts to help to standardize the disparate methods of non-financial reporting that exist today.

The move could help to create a Europe-wide standard. The GRI suggests that its Global Sustainability Standards Board (GSSB) could make important contributions to the European standard-setting initiative.

And, notes GRI, the GSSB could help to address the critical need for one global set of sustainability reporting standards.  To keep in mind:  the GRI standards today are the most widely-used worldwide for corporate sustainability reporting (the effort began with the first corporate reports being published following the “G1” guidelines back in 1999-2000).

The United Kingdom is the first country to make disclosures about the business impacts of climate change using TCFD mandatory by 2025.

The U.K. is now a “former member” of the European Union (upon the recent completion of “Brexit” process), but in many ways is considered to be a part of the European region. The UK move should be viewed in the context of more investors and sovereign nations demanding that corporations curb their GhG emissions and help society move toward the low-carbon economy.

In the U.K., the influential royal, Prince Charles — formally titled as the Prince of Wales — has also launched a new charter to promote sustainable practices within the private sector.  He has been a champion of addressing climate challenges for decades.

The “Terra Carta” charter sets out a 10-point action plan designed to reduce the carbon footprint of the business sector by year 2030.  This is part of the Sustainable Markets Initiative launched by the prince at the January 2020 meeting in Davos, Switzerland at the World Economic Forum gathering.

Prince Charles called on world leaders to support the charter “to bring prosperity into harmony with nature, people and planet”. This could be the basis of global value creation, he explains, with the power of nature combined with the transformative innovation and resources of the private sector.

We closely monitor developments in Europe and the U.K. to examine the trends in the region that shape corporate sustainability reporting — and that could gain momentum to become global standards.  Or, at least help to shape the disclosure and reporting activities of North American, Latin American, Asia-Pacific, and African companies.

It is expected that the policies that will come from the Biden-Harris Administration in the United States of America will more strenuously align North American public sector (and by influence, the corporate sector and financial markets) with what is going on in Europe and the United Kingdom.  Stay Tuned!

TOP STORIES FOR YOU FROM THE UK AND EUROPE

Items of interest — non-financial reporting development in Europe: