August 02, 2007
Many Sustainability Reports Upbeat, Ignoring Climate Change Risks
by Anne Moore Odell
A new study from GRI and KPMG on sustainability reports notes that companies highlight new business
opportunities created by climate change and shy away from risks associated with climate change.
In most countries, companies have no legal responsibility to issue sustainability reports that
focus on the social, environmental, and governance ramifications of their business activities.
However, more and more companies are responding to internal and external demands to create these
reports with, for example, almost half of the S&P 100 corporations writing sustainability reports
The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), started in 2000 as non-profit organization that has
created a sustainability reporting framework for businesses, published the third version of its
Sustainability Reporting Guidelines in 2006. Now GRI has partnered with KPMG's Global Sustainability Services to study the
information found in a sampling of sustainability reports from 50 companies that follow GRI's
The newly released research, entitled "Reporting the Business Implications
of Climate Change in Sustainability Reports" notes companies, more often than not, point to the
positive outcomes of climate change with the creation of new business opportunities and avoid
discussion of business risks related to climate change.
"Since sustainability reporting is
still relatively young and (for the most part) completely optional, we shouldn't expect to see a
lot of serious reporting on risks and liabilities in sustainability reports," said Dr. Julie Gorte,
Senior Vice President for Sustainable Investing at PAX World, a provider of SRI mutual funds. "Only when
there is a requirement to report this information, and a protocol governing it, would we begin to
see serious reporting on risks by a majority of companies."
GRI-KPMG's report broke the
sustainability reports down by five global regions: US and Canada, Europe, Japan Asia Pacific, and
South America and Africa. The report observes that sustainability reporting is most often found in
the energy and financial sectors. Japan stood out from other areas of the world, as all of the
Japanese reports covered in the GRI-KPMG report mentioned climate change and often included a
statement from their CEO or chair discussing climate change.
The report finds that 90% of
surveyed reports include climate change. However, only 20% of the studies reports mention any risks
to their businesses from climate change. This lack of information on risks is in spite of evidence
from a number of sources, including the UK government's Stern Report on the Economics of Climate
Change, that say that climate change has serious ramifications for the world's economy,
Carbon emissions trading and credits, the report concludes, are the most focused on as new
businesses opportunities created by climate change. Other opportunities from climate change vary
widely from sector to sector, and include hybrid cars to energy efficient detergents.
risk that was mentioned in the reports most often is the increase of energy costs, with about 20%
of sustainability reports mentioning rising energy bills. Very few companies mentioned the risk of
increased legal action, such as the risk of class-action lawsuits with regard to climate change.
"Possibly because climate change impacts cannot, for the most part, be pinpointed in time
the added difficulty of mentioning climate risk in a financial context is just overwhelming," Gorte
"But I suspect there could be a somewhat more concerning reason
behind companies' unwillingness to link current or past events (like dreadful hurricane seasons or
Wagnerian weather) to climate might have something to do with their wishing to report all
catastrophes below the line that separates the everyday from the unusual and extraordinary. If one
admits that climate change is behind the recent flood/fire/drought/hurricane/whatever, then one
might have to put such things above the line, because climate change will be with us for awhile,"
Interestingly, 14 out of the 50 reports mentioned climate change as a
stakeholder issue, highlighting the importance of external pressure on companies to deal with
climate change. One reason for awareness of stakeholders concerning climate changes, the report
suggests, is because of the European Union's Emission Trading Scheme with European companies in the
energy sector leading the way.
As this new report notes, as more regulations and laws on
climate change are signed into effect, disclosure will also probably increase as well. Disclosure
will also increase with GRI's newest guidelines that include the indicator, "Financial implications
and other risks organization's activities due to climate change."
However, following GRI's
guidelines in order does not a useful report make, Gorte said. "There are a lot of reports done by
the numbers, or by methodically ticking off each GRI protocol in order. That's the bean-counter's
way to go about it, and while beans should at times be counted, that's no substitute for strategic
judgment," Gorte concluded.
Climate change is happening now, but its implications are not
easily apparent or understandable using pre-climate change risk analysis models. At the same time,
sustainability reports written solely on the opportunities created by climate change do not provide
all the information investors need to make informed decisions.
Investors need to know
what are the short, medium and long-term risks for a company regarding climate change. At very
least, investors have to know that companies are working to better understand these risks and
report on what these risks might be.