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

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.