From Sustainability & CSR to ESG

First published on Pro Bono News

ESG vs Sustainability

You’ll often hear environmental, social and governance (ESG) and sustainability in the same sentence — in some cases, you might even see them used interchangeably. But they are not the same thing. When it comes to disclosing and benchmarking data, there’s actually a remarkable difference between the two. Though the larger discussion among industry leaders began with sustainability, ESG’s scope, practices, and relevance to capital opportunities have led to a substantial shift in the way companies measure and disclose their performance.

ESG and Sustainability have some similarities in that they address the environmental and social aspects. However, there are some differences; while sustainability may mean different things to different entities, ESG is about the specific set of criteria denoting environmental, social, and governance.

While sustainability keeps a business accountable, ESG helps make its efforts measurable.

ESG vs CSR

CSR, which stands for “corporate social responsibility,” has been on the business radar for decades and refers to “softer,” qualitative issues. As time went by, social issues came into focus, and technology advanced, it has become possible (and desirable) to quantify a company’s use of natural resources, conflict minerals, social composition and impact, and good governance. ESG data elevates these issues to the investor position, while technology has made it possible to gather more granular reporting data.

ESG is the quantifiable measure of a company’s sustainability and societal impact, using metrics that matter to investors. Advances in technology – both in data collection as well as analysing and reporting on that data – have made detailed ESG reporting easier.

In the past, CSR was about telling a story. Today, ESG offers analytical, actionable data.

Graduating from Sustainability and CSR to ESG

ESG has become the preferred term for capital markets. That type of data is often used to identify superior risk-adjusted returns. But ESG has recently become a familiar acronym throughout many industries, including commercial real estate, and is frequently making headlines. This shift in vernacular has felt sudden to some. However, the emphasis placed on all three of these pillars along with the time involved in planning and implementing necessary changes tells us it’s time for companies to collect, report, and act on ESG data.

The transition from sustainability and CSR to ESG performance indicates a maturation of business practices to a more precise measurement of a portfolio’s performance. As the industry becomes more sophisticated, we need to improve the way we collect and track metrics to build ESG management accordingly.

Key trends shaping ESG

First published on Pro Bono News

ESG is a strange beast because what it means to the average person in the street and a fund manager is not the same thing.

Despite a growing enthusiasm for impact investment, many asset owners are constrained because of a baffling array of unverified, opaque and incompatible measurement frameworks.

If you’re a portfolio manager and you’re looking at ESG you incorporate all those factors into the decision-making process for your assessment of the future value of that investment. And that’s completely legitimate, but for most people in the street that’s just doing the job properly. Most normal investors think about how ESG risks pertain to them and their society, their country or their children’s future. So they’re looking at it through a much broader prism.

At a meeting of the UN General Assembly in 2015, member states went some way in mapping out a blueprint to achieve sustainable peace and prosperity for people and the planet, both now and into the future. Underpinning this plan, 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted, which are a call to action for the public and private sectors to end poverty and tackle climate change.

But how do we get to a world where there is zero hunger, good health, and economic growth? The United Nations Development Programme estimates that $6trn of annual investment is required to achieve the SDGs. It’s a sum equal to the GDP of both the UK and France combined, but a drop in the ocean compared with the $88.5trn in assets under management worldwide.

A recent survey from OnePoll has shown that around 62% of us would opt to put our pensions and other savings to work in investments that positively impact both society and the environment. Amongst millennials, 86% say that sustainability is a priority when it comes to their investments.

Key trends in ESG

Looking back on 2020, I see these key trends shaping ESG data and ratings:

Corporate Disclosure

  • One of the most reported facts is the rate of overall sustainability reporting within the S&P 500, the key large-cap US benchmark. Indeed, 90% of index constituents issued a sustainability report in 2020, a massive increase from 20% in 2011.
  • Sustainability reporting will be more common throughout broader equity benchmarks. Within the S&P 500, issuing a sustainability report is already basically standard practice. The quality and assurance of these reports will continue to steadily improve, driven by increased use of common frameworks like SASB, TCFD, and others. Look to mid- and small cap companies, private from companies, and other issuers for signals of true growth in corporate disclosure. Formalised ESG reporting will quickly expand in companies outside the large-cap equity benchmarks.

Regulation

  • In 2010, a few voluntary frameworks guided companies reporting ESG data, which was then gathered by investors and specialized data services. In 2020, there’s an abundance of detailed guidance and tools for corporate reporters and other market participants.
  • Regulatory schemes mandating more detailed corporate ESG disclosure will continue steadily expand. ESG standard setting done outside of formal government agencies is aligning and becoming more detailed. These soft and hard forms of regulation tended to be optional guidance and phrased broadly, but are increasingly formal and required.

Investor ESG Uptake

  • Morningstar tracked a 4x increase in ESG assets from 2018 to 2019 alone, from $5.5 bn to $20.6 bn. Participation in the UN Principles for Responsible Investment has soared as well, from 700+ signatories with $21 trillion AUM in 2010 to 3000+ signatories with over $100 trillion AUM in 2020. ESG investing has entered the mainstream in asset management.
  • ESG investing has moved from niche equity products to an approach embedded in all segments of the capital markets. Broader ESG investor interest will amplify trends in ESG data volume and help drive quality improvements ahead of regulatory trends.

Does this mean that ESG data will quickly become as standardised as traditional corporate accounting? Of course not. Similarly, the ESG ratings that are commercially available will continue to have meaningful differences, causing consternation from many. For those who can look beyond this, there are opportunities in this significant expansion in the detail, volume, and overall quality of ESG data.

Companies once had only vague guidance, but now have more information and tools to guide their technical and strategic work on ESG management for businesses. Investors who can step beyond the ratings to assess the wider set of ESG information can deepen their investment analysis through smart ESG integration and compete for assets better in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Finally, the regulators and others who seek to understand important ESG trends will have a far richer set of data to inform actions and research.

The push for consistency will continue, both by market-led efforts and regulatory mechanisms, driving standardisation in ESG data slowly but surely. However, when it comes to ESG ratings, the most interesting immediate trend will not be alignment, but democratisation. ESG ratings that used to be only available through expensive subscriptions are now more available to those who wish to find them for free. Investment firms are also building out ESG capacity and will be more able to develop ratings internally. It won’t be long before ESG data firms need to adjust their business models.

I expect a few specific issues to develop quickly in 2021, such as climate, impact metrics, and diversity. Corporate risk disclosure may also be quickly transformed by COVID response. However, at this time next year we would not be surprised to find transformation in currently nascent datasets in biodiversity, water, diversity, and human rights. The convergence of these trends may make one year seem like a decade.

The 1st Week at COP26 – ‘News’worthy or ‘Noise’worthy

The United Nations has held the “Conference of the Parties,” or COP, for almost three decades, including the landmark 2015 Paris climate summit. This year is the 26th meeting. In that time, urgency has ramped up over greenhouse gas emissions, global warming and human-caused climate change. Some key statistics driving the conversations include:

  • Earth has already warmed about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 1800s according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Current projections from a wide range of climate model simulations show that Earth’s average temperature could be between 2 and nearly 10 degrees warmer in the year 2100 than it is now.
  • Based on a NOAA analysis, the 10 warmest years on record have all occurred since 2005, with seven of the 10 since 2014.
  • Scientists say warming is fuelling sea level rise, drought, heat waves, more intense heavy rainfall, a record number of billion-dollar disasters and a host of other wide-reaching impacts.

The UN and other global bodies are imploring nations to take strong action to reduce emissions, with the hopes of mitigating the worst effects.

“Our addiction to fossil fuels is pushing humanity to the brink” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said on the first day of the summit. “It’s time to say: enough.”

At the end of Week 1, here’s a wrap up of some of the biggest announcements that emerged from COP26 during the last few days:

1. Over 40 Countries Pledged to Phase out Coal Power

More than 40 countries, including some of the world’s most coal-reliant nations such as Canada, Ukraine, Indonesia, and Vietnam, committed to phasing out coal power to reduce national carbon emissions.

The plan is that larger economies will gradually end their use of coal-powered electricity in the 2030s, and smaller economies aim to do so in the 2040s

Does it matter? Burning coal, natural gas and oil for electricity and heat is the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

2. Countries Pledge to Stop Funding Overseas Fossil Fuels

The US and 20 other countries announced a new fossil fuel-curbing strategy at the conference’s “energy day” on Nov. 4. Starting next year, participating countries plan to stop financing overseas fossil fuel projects and reallocate nearly $18 billion in spending toward clean energy, although this is a non-binding agreement

Does it matter? Direct finance and public finance toward energy in developing countries around the world has to be in the clean and green area.

3. Pledge to End Deforestation by 2030

The Global Forest Finance Pledge has been signed to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030 by 110 countries representing 85% of Earth’s forests. The Pledge is supported by US$12bn of public and private finance.

Does it matter? The world’s forests are significant carbon sinks and valuable source of biodiversity. Halting deforestation can address climate change, species extinction and food insecurity. Brazil is one of the most important countries to sign on to this deal, being home to the Amazon rainforest.

4. The Global Methane Pledge

The Pledge is a commitment to cut methane emissions 30% by 2030 led by the US and EU and signed on to by almost 100 countries, though Australia, India, China, and Russia were notably absent.

Does it matter? Methane is responsible for 30% of climate change observed to date and has a global warming potential 28 times larger than carbon dioxide over a 100 year period. Methane emissions continue to grow globally, and their reduction is critical to curbing the worst impacts of climate change. Scientists predict that by cutting methane emissions by 30% by 2030, the world can avoid 0.3 degrees Celsius of warming by 2040.  

5. Countries and Funders Pledge $1.7 Billion to Indigenous Peoples

A commitment to provide financing for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities providing $1.7billion from 2021 – 2025 in recognition of IPLCs central role in protecting key forests and ecosystems.

Does it matter? Indigenous people make up 5% of the world’s population yet protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity. Securing land rights and tenure is central to ensuring IPLCs continued leadership in ecosystem management & protection. Governments and funders, including the Ford Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Bezos Earth Fund, the Rainforest Trust, and more, will start releasing the $1.7 billion this year, continuing on to 2025. 

6. US Rejoins 1.5 Coalition

The US rejoined the High Ambition Coalition (HAC) on Nov. 2, reaffirming the world’s second largest emitters’ commitment to the Paris agreement and keeping the earth’s temperature rise within the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit.

Does it matter? The decision by the world’s biggest economy and second biggest emitter, after China, to return to the High Ambition Coalition group of countries marks a significant boost to attempts to focus the summit on limiting temperature rises to 1.5C, the tougher of the two goals of the Paris agreement.

7. New body to oversee global sustainability disclosure standards

There will be a consolidation of sustainability disclosure standards through the formation of a new International Sustainability Standards Board to develop a global baseline for sustainability disclosure.

Does it matter? This will provide increased consistency and comparability between company disclosures allowing financial markets to direct capital to more resilient and sustainable companies.

8. $130 Trillion Global Finance Pledge

The Pledge is a commitment to provide US$130 trillion in global capital that aligns to the Paris Agreement, through the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero.

Does it matter? This figure, which has grown from US$5trillion at the beginning of the COP26 Presidency, represents the commitment of 450 financial firms across 45 countries to a science-based transition to net zero.

9. The Global Energy Alliance Launches $10.5 Billion Fund for Emerging Economies

The Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet (GEAPP) pledged $10.5 billion toward helping emerging economies adapt from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Does it matter? The alliance, formed of philanthropic organizations, governments, and development finance institutions, aims to raise $100 billion in total to provide 1 billion people with renewable power, prevent 4 billion tons of carbon emissions, and drive economic growth.

10. India Announces a New Net Zero Target

The prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, used the opportunity to announce his country’s pledge of reaching net zero emissions by 2070. 

Does it matter? India is home to 17% of the planet’s population and is the world’s third largest emitter of global warming gases.

11. Jeff Bezos Pledges $2 Billion to the Environment

The founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, addressed the COP26 conference on Nov. 2 and announced a $2 billion pledge toward restoring nature and improving food systems.

12. Nigeria Announces Commitment to Cut Emissions to Net Zero by 2060

Nigeria’s President announced that Africa’s most populous country has developed an energy transition plan and roadmap to cut the country’s emissions to net zero by 2060.

Does it matter? Nigeria is Africa’s largest producer of crude oil and earlier in 2021, Buhari said the country will need up to $400 billion to meet its net zero emissions goals.

13. UK’s Financial Hub and Big Businesses Told to Reach Net Zero by Treasury

By 2023, the UK’s biggest firms will need to submit public plans on how they plan to achieve emissions targets — in line with the UK’s nationwide target of reaching net zero emissions by 2050.

Does it matter? Sunak’s announcement for the UK correlates with a wider net zero pledge made by 450 financial institutions including banks and investment funds, from 45 different countries, at the summit.

14. Pledges for Smallholder Farmers Reach Nearly $1 Billion

The CGIAR global research partnership received a $575 million pledge to help farmers in low-income nations adapt to climate change and prevent hunger and poverty.

Does it matter? There are 500 million smallholder farmers and livestock keepers in low-income countries—the majority of whom are women—facing a rising tide of climate threats that impede their ability to support their families and provide food for billions of consumers.

15. Finland’s Capital City Won’t Serve Meat Anymore

Officials in Helsinki, the capital of Finland, announced that meat will no longer be an option at city functions where food is served, in an effort to lessen the city’s carbon footprint. Vegetarian dishes and sustainable local fish will be served instead.

Does it matter? This is part of a larger effort which aims to reduce the climate impact of food and reduce the amount of natural resources used by the city.

While the announcements so far are a step in the right direction, they are not yet enough to save our planet from disastrous levels of warming — making next week’s continued discussions key to an outcome that could actually make a real difference.