British lawmakers want to force big companies to report on their climate-change risks

A new way of doing business.
A new way of doing business.
Image: Reuters/Russell Cheyne
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When it comes to climate change, the phrase “ignorance is bliss” couldn’t be further from the truth, at least not anymore. British lawmakers want to end ignorance—willful or not—by big companies and asset managers when it comes to the risk climate changes poses to them.

A report by the British parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee, published yesterday (June 4), calls for mandatory public reporting by large companies and asset managers, particularly pension funds, on their exposure to climate change by 2022.

Right now, there are no such requirements. The closest thing is probably the reporting guidelines established by the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), an international organization that includes Bank of England governor Mark Carney and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. But these disclosures are voluntary, and while the UK government supports them, the committee argues no action has been taken to actually see them used.

Were the UK to make climate-change disclosures mandatory, it would follow the lead of France, where investors have been required since 2016 to disclose how they integrate environmental, social, and governance criteria into their investment policies and specify the risks posed to them by a transition to a low-carbon economy. French banks are now considered to be some of the global leaders in sustainable finance, particularly because several have decided to stop or restrict business with oil and gas companies.

A KPMG report late last year found 72% of large- and mid-cap companies worldwide didn’t acknowledge the financial risks of climate change in their annual reports. However, these risks are clearly high. Insurance company Swiss Re estimates the global economic cost of natural disasters, including those caused by human-induced climate change, in 2017 was $337 billion, and that climate change is likely to increase the frequency and severity of such events.

In the UK, the 2006 Companies Act is supposed to make companies disclose meaningful financial risks. But these requirements could be improved to specify use of the TCFD framework, the Environmental Audit Committee said. In addition, the committee wants to expand the government’s reach on the issue to include large asset managers, particularly pension funds. Last month, the committee published a report finding that less than half of the UK’s 25 largest pension funds, which combined manage £550 billion ($733 billion) in investments, had pledged to use the TCFD’s reporting guidelines.

The committee argues there needs to be clearer laws requiring pensions funds to think about long-term sustainability, not just short-term returns. “We need to fix the incentives in our financial system that encourage short term-thinking,” says Mary Creagh, the committee’s chair. This echoes a concern of the UN, which said in April that the finance industry needed to be transformed if the Sustainable Development Goals are to be met. When companies and investors prioritize short-term profits, they inhibit development. The UN suggests pay shouldn’t be linked to short-term performance and more countries need to require companies to disclose financial risk.

If the MPs in this committee get their way, within four years there would be mandatory climate-risk reporting and a clarification in law that pension-fund managers have a duty to consider long-term sustainability. This may relieve the pressure activist shareholders have been applying to companies, especially in the oil and gas industry.