Sustainability and business - how many planets are enough?

For boards, climate change needs to be made meaningful not in terms of “did we do a good thing”, but in terms of “what are the dangers and opportunities this company faces in the years ahead?”.

I watched a TV programme this week on how to create a new planet. It was light scientific stuff but it reminded me of the WWF statement that “If everyone in the world consumed natural resources and generated carbon dioxide at the rate we do in the UK, we’d need three planets – not just one − to support us.” Our populations and consumption are growing at exponential rates supported (or not) by a finite resource. This is not sustainable.

Natural capital is the value of the earth’s resources and the Natural Capital Coalition, of which the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales is a founding member, commissioned a study of 26 leading early-adopter businesses on “natural capital management”. Companies included the likes of Dow, PepsiCo, Nestle and Rio Tinto.
 
Asked what their resource concerns were for the next three to five years (not a long period) they put the top four as fresh water, climate change regulation, food and fibre, and were clear that delayed action on these was a substantial business risk. Asked what their challenges were likely to be, they identified a lack of harmonised methods to assess impact, a lack of government regulation and consumer demand.
 
So what does this all mean? Well, I think for those of us advising boards, it means that we need to start thinking about environmental issues not as things we’d like to have but as sources of risk we need to address - and with some urgency.
 
A great example is climate change. One very quick way to make a big dent in this one would be to end the $1.4trillion spent in energy subsidies. This is the figure the IMF calculates as the cost to society and the environment (so-called "externalities") in the form of air pollution and climate damage caused by fossil fuels, and argues that this figure should be levied in taxes. This is based on a modest cost of carbon of $25 per tonne, but even at this modest estimate it is still 2.5 per cent of global GDP. If the IMF is saying this - the issue is now out of the fringes and into the mainstream. This could well mean additional taxes and lots of them.

October saw the introduction of regulations requiring UK companies to report their greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). This represents about 1,100 companies. The regulations require these companies to disclose annually, in either their Directors’ or Strategic Reports, the greenhouse gas emissions for which they are responsible, the methodology they used to calculate the data, at least one intensity ratio and the information disclosed in the previous year. The regulations came into force on 1 October 2013 for financial years ending on or after 30 September 2013.
 
But what is the point of this disclosure requirement? From Defra’s perspective it is to help the government reach its climate change objectives: based on the belief that public disclosure will drive behaviour change and efficiencies, thereby lowering the country’s emissions. As the Directors’ and Strategic Reports are aimed primarily at investors there is also clearly the hope that they will use this information in their investment decisions.

This of course depends on investors, and businesses, actually wanting to use this information. Investors have seemingly been reluctant to use such information to date and, if companies simply produce the footprint and intensity ratio, then one wonders how it will be meaningful or useful information for investors. Indeed those businesses that regard these regulations as yet another costly burden will presumably wonder at their value.

For GHG information to be valuable it needs to be linked to an assessment of physical and regulatory risk as well as to strategy. The Climate Disclosure Standards Board (whose Technical Working Group ICAEW is a member of along with other accounting bodies around the world and the leading accountancy firms) has developed guidance along these lines and I urge you to read it.

For boards, climate change needs to be made meaningful not in terms of “did we do a good thing” or a public relations home-run, but in terms of “what are the dangers and opportunities this company faces in the years ahead and are we ready to steer this organisation through them?”.
 
As board members and advisors we cannot continue to ignore this thing called sustainability.

A volunteer lights a candle during Earth Hour in Berlin. Photograph: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR