Can accountants save the planet?

The heroes in pinstripe.

One striking thing that happened at the 2012 UN Earth Summit in Rio was hearing that it was the accountants that will save the planet. It also resonated in one of the most important themes I heard at Rio: valuation, measurement and disclosure. This speaks to the huge role accountants have to play in the creation of a more sustainable world - and it was great to see the profession at Rio in the form of IIRC, the Prince of Wales’ Accounting for Sustainability Project and ICAEW.

This theme was one of a number of that buzzed at the summit and side events including: natural capital; the discussions around articulating a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs); and the much more prominent role business had this time (so different from 1992). There also seemed to be a tacit question floating around about what the role of governments is; for this was not the world uniting in common cause for a higher purpose, this was c.190 separate nations gathering with very different agendas and interests.

These governments are struggling to address global issues that require them to aspire to an international public interest and yield a certain amount of sovereignty. It requires not compromise, a descent to the lowest common denominator, which is what we got, but consensus. This involves giving up some national interest for a greater good. Are the institutions of government and international governance capable of delivering that? The public doesn’t think so. We are witnessing a collapse in public trust in such institutions.  Just look at the latest Edelman Trust report where the most trusted of our institutions commands only 50 per cent of public trust. Respected commentators such as Naill Fergusson and Diane Coyle have written and spoken convincingly on the need for institutions that are fit for purpose.

But the success of any sustainable programme is predicated on successful measurement, valuation and disclosure. If we cannot measure the impact organisations are having on the natural environment then we certainly won’t be able to do anything about it. We need to value that impact not to put a price on nature in order to put it up for sale, but to show its value to stop it being economically invisible. This is the language of business and to engage business we need to speak its language. Reporting is important not just as disclosure to stakeholders and shareholders but, more importantly, in as management information to enable managers to make informed decisions. These are the functions that I would argue are the domain of accountants.

The management and public accounts create an image of the business that shapes perception and decision-making. Like any representation, these are not an unimpeded view; they include certain information and leave other things out, presenting a certain reality. So including other information, about environmental impact for example, will drive different understanding and a new reality and other decisions. That’s why accountants are important.

Richard Spencer is the Head of Sustainability for ICAEW

Accountants are important. Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Spencer, Head of Sustainability ICAEW

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The government has admitted it can curb drugs without criminalising users

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity