Simple Tools for Effective Climate Reporting

With the fiscal year drawing to a close for many companies, it’s writing season for corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports.

As usual, reports provide a medium for communicating to investors who want to see companies creating value, customers who want to know which companies and products are leaders versus laggards, and watchdogs looking for inconsistencies.

In 2010, these groups will be particularly interested in how companies report on climate. This is due to several developments:

  • Last year’s treaty negotiations in Copenhagen, which prompted major economies to start their own, independent negotiating process (additional to the consensus-oriented UN framework), and resulted in the understanding that there is much more work to be done
  • The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to allow spending on political campaigns
  • The Carbon Disclosure Project’s (CDP) increased emphasis on climate policy efforts in its 2010 Investor Questionnaire (PDF, due May 31), which asks companies to detail their climate policy efforts (question 9.10), as well as how those efforts fit into overall company strategy (question 9.1)

To date, however, companies have lacked direction on how to report on climate policy engagement. BSR’s new report, “Communicating on Climate Policy Engagement: A Guide to Sustainability Reporting,” (PDF) provides some of the first guidance available for companies.

12 Top Reporting Themes
• Acknowledgment of climate change as a problem and importance of climate policy for business 

• Advancement of industry standards through working groups

• Advocacy to national-level policymakers for climate legislation

• Demonstration of how the industry — especially ICT and finance — are poised to be solutions providers

• Disavowal of support for trade bodies that pursue inconsistent or regressive objectives

• Joining of coalitions and signatory initiatives

• Launching of carbon market or other quasi-government institutions

• Leadership of voter-education initiatives

• Participation in U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other government partnership programs

• Publicity of unintended consequences or re-framing issues

• Sponsorship or provision of research

• Testimony to national or state law-making bodies or filing court amicus briefs

What follows is an overview of what companies are reporting on today, what we recommend that companies focus on going forward, and how companies can approach reporting on climate policy engagement.

What Companies Are Saying Today

To learn what companies today are saying about their approach to climate policy, we recently conducted an assessment of more than 150 companies’ sustainability reports and related materials such as their websites, their responses to the CDP questionnaire, and their submissions to the United Nations Global Compact Communication on Progress.

We found that most large companies report one or more of the following:

1. Public policy is a main pillar of their climate approach, largely because climate change may not be solved without it.

2. Climate change is a main focus area of public policy efforts, in part because it is one of the single greatest issues of this generation.

3. Climate policy is a strategic issue, in that it is both likely to happen and likely to disrupt fundamental business drivers—for better and worse.

What to Cover

In general, managers should include three themes in their climate reporting:

  • Greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts: First, companies should report on their impact on climate change in terms of GHG emissions and efforts to reduce them. This is probably the longest-standing climate reporting topic, and it is more important than ever as increasing attention is focused on the impacts of the world’s largest companies. Companies should report on absolute and intensity figures using the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, and try to include impacts from their supply chain and other networks. One emerging best practice is to report figures in terms of the company’s share of planetary climate boundaries, as do British Telecom and Autodesk.
  • Risks and opportunities: Second, companies should communicate the business risks and opportunities created by climate change, such as the effects spurred by new regulations and/or changing physical environments. This area has followed closely behind development of reporting on GHG impacts, and is now not only expected by investors, but required in new guidance issued by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Risk and opportunity reporting should include the impact of legislation and regulation, international accords, indirect consequences of regulation or business trends (such as risks driven from legal, technological, political, and scientific developments), and the relevant physical impacts of climate change.
  • Climate policy engagement: Third, companies should report on climate policy engagement. Companies are expected to show what they are doing to address climate change, and many stakeholders see policy engagement as one of the most direct ways to do it. According to this view, effective climate policy is an important instrument for creating business value, and companies can build trust with stakeholders by leading more meaningful discourse.
This means companies should communicate about all policy efforts, including those that go beyond traditional lobbying, such as: 

1.    Calling policymakers to action by promoting specific legislation or endorsing the key objectives and parameters contained in them, as Johnson & Johnson has done in its 2008 sustainability report

2.    Informing policymakers through the provision of research and other technical insights on how specific policies could be most effectively implemented, as in IBM’s 2009 CDP response

3.    Enabling policy solutions by shaping the inputs to decision-making, such as by enhancing the state of knowledge among voting constituents, as Aspen Skiing Company is doing through its “Save Snow” website

4.    Setting the stage by advancing standard approaches to measurement and other processes that enable more meaningful dialogue about issues, as groups such as the Clean Cargo Working Group and the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition have done

An Effective Approach

Company managers preparing the climate-related sections of their reports should detail the governance around how climate policy engagement decisions are made, the strategy describing the broad outline of their companies’ objectives and approach, and their companies’ activities aimed at addressing climate change.

We also advise that leading reporters take the following approaches:

Be explicit. Use clear statements of position and objectives to focus the message. For example, Dow Chemical Company says that it will be “fearlessly accountable” in the pursuit of climate change solutions. This clarifies the company’s aims for stakeholders, who are, in turn, more likely to appreciate the commitment and support company efforts. Vale, one of the world’s largest mining companies, takes a different approach in its document, “Corporate Guidelines on Climate Changes and Carbon,” which acknowledges the scientific evidence of climate change and provides provisional guidelines subject to change based on the state of science.

Be the first to the punch. Aim to be straightforward about the company’s climate policy involvement. Head off potentially difficult questions by taking the time to answer them in advance. For example, let’s say a company is well known for lobbying — perhaps it’s on the Center for Public Integrity’s top 100 list or is prominently involved in a major trade association. That firm should be as detailed as possible about what it is doing and why. According to a recent study, this is especially important for companies in industries such as media, information and communications technology (ICT), oil and gas, transportation, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, and mining and extractives, which tend to be heavily involved in policy engagement because governments either play a strong role in shaping their markets’ structure or substantially regulate them.

Use diverse reporting channels.
Climate policy engagement is a public affair, but company managers shouldn’t count on the public seeing the message if it’s only in one place. Some companies with compelling ideas and initiative aren’t saying much about their efforts, and others aren’t communicating very widely. Still others mention work in their CDP reports or websites, but omit it from their sustainability report. At the very least, companies should communicate a comprehensive and consistent message through their own websites and sustainability reports, and through the CDP. They should also consider reaching key audiences through customized channels as needed.

It’s also important to remember that communications happen not only through formal reporting, but through events such as trade association committees or government advisory groups. At such gatherings, the messenger is part of the message, so it is crucial that representatives know all the key points and have the authority to speak those messages on behalf of their company. As Matthew Bateson of World Wildlife Fund told us, “Having the wrong people at meetings is a barrier. If they are unable to listen, to contribute, and to be constructive — that won’t work.” So, when opportunities to collaborate or speak arise where climate policy efforts might be addressed, aim to send senior and prepared leaders.

First posted at GreenBiz.

10 Climate Trends That Will Shape Business in 2010

As 2010 begins, there are looming questions about climate change action: Will the political agreement made in Copenhagen in 2009 be developed by the next “COP” meeting to include detailed targets and rules? Will those targets and rules be binding?

What will happen with the U.S. Senate’s vote on cap-and-trade? Will U.S. public opinion about climate change — which has a major impact on how the Senate votes — ever begin to converge with science?

There’s no doubt that the year’s most interesting stories could turn out to be “black swans” that we can’t currently foresee. But even amid the uncertainty, there are some clear trends that will significantly shape the business-climate landscape.

1. A Better Dashboard

Carbon transparency isn’t easy — it takes science, infrastructure, and group decisions about standards to allow for more accurate information. We have started moving in that direction. Web-based information services provide illustrations: country commitments needed for climate stabilization, indications of where we are now, and the critical path of individual U.S. policymakers.

Meanwhile, more attention is being paid to real-time atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations, remote sensing technology that tracks atmospheric GHGs, and a new climate registry for China. As these data tools become more available, business leaders should begin to see — and report on — a clearer picture of their company’s real climate impacts.

2. Enhanced Attention to Products

There are signs that more consumers will demand product footprinting — that is, a holistic, lifecycle picture of the climate impacts of products and services ranging from an ounce of gold to a T-shirt or car. Fortunately, a new wave of standards is coming. The gold-standard corporate accounting tool, the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, aims to issue guidance on footprinting for products and supply chains late in the year, and groups like the Outdoor Industry Association and the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition plan to publish consensus-based standards for their industries in the near future.

3. More Efforts to Build Supplier Capacity to Address Emissions

With more attention on products comes an appreciation of product footprinting’s limitations. Many layers of standards are still needed, from the micro methods of locating carbon particles to time-consuming macro approaches defining common objectives through group consensus. Accurate footprinting that avoids greenwashing requires statistical context, especially related to variance and confidence levels, that companies often think stakeholders don’t want to digest.

Progressive companies such as Hewlett Packard, Ikea, Intel, and Wal-Mart are therefore pursuing partnerships with suppliers for carbon and energy efficiency, and they are focusing their public communications on the qualitative efforts to build supplier capacity–as opposed to pure quantitative measurements, which can imply more precision than really exists.

4. Improved Literacy About the Climate Impacts of Business

The bulk of companies’ climate management falls short of directly confronting the full scale of effort required to address climate change. That’s partly because organizational emissions accounting tends to treat progress as change from the past, as opposed to movement toward a common, objective planetary goal. But companies are becoming more aware of the need to be goal oriented. Firms such as Autodesk and BT have begun bridging this gap by illustrating that there is a common end–which is measured in atmospheric parts per million of emissions–and that company metrics can be mapped to their share of their countries’ national and international policy objectives toward them.

5. More Meaningful Policy Engagement

Related to the previous item, more companies realize that pushing for the enactment of clear and durable rules to incentivize low-carbon investment is one of the most direct things they can do to stabilize the climate. Therefore, more companies are engaging earlier — and in more creative ways — in their climate “journey.” There is growing realization that you don’t have to “reduce first” before getting involved.

There is also a general awakening to the fact that strong climate policy is good for jobs and business. Already, more than 1,000 global companies representing $11 trillion in market capitalization and 20 million jobs (PDF) agree that strong climate policy is good for business. There has never been a better time to get involved, especially in the United States, where the Senate is expected to vote on domestic legislation by Easter. Effective corporate action can help fence-sitting senators (PDF) gain the support they need by educating the public in their districts about the importance of strong climate policy.

6. Higher Stakeholder Expectations

As climate management enters the mainstream, stakeholders expect companies to do more, and watchdogs will find new soft spots. Companies should be prepared for new stakeholder tactics, such as the profiling of individual executive officers, who are perceived as having the greatest impact on company positions, and heightened policy advocacy efforts. The media’s role in promoting public climate literacy will continue to rank as an important part of stakeholder expectations. Currently, the U.S. public, which plays an important role in the critical path to a global framework, has far less confidence about the importance of acting on climate than scientists do, and the media can help educate them.

7. Increased Power of Networks

Economists see energy efficiency as a solution to 40 percent or more of climate mitigation, and with the technology and finance already available globally, companies can play a significant role in accelerating progress. While the price makes the energy market, and policy helps to set the price, companies like Walmart have shown that creating expectations for performance improvement, while providing tools and training, can help suppliers and partners clear the economic hurdles they need to get started. After this initial “push,” experience shows that suppliers take further steps on their own. As more companies take on supply chain carbon management, watch for lessons on how to do it effectively.

8.    More Climate Connections

Energy efficiency, which constitutes the core of many companies’ climate programs, offers a platform for broader resource-efficiency efforts. We expect to see many companies expand their programs this year to address water. Given that this is the “Year of Biodiversity,” we can also expect more movement related to forestry and agriculture. The nexus between climate change and human rights is also likely to become a hot topic, building on momentum developed during the run-up to Copenhagen.

Finally, watch for the climate vulnerability of mountain regions to gain attention, due to increased environmental instability, disruption of natural water storage and distribution systems, and stress on ecosystem services in regions near human populations.

9. Greater Focus on Adaptation

Climate management has already broadened to include adaptation, and this will receive increasing attention in 2010. This is already evident in company reporting, as evidenced by responses to the Carbon Disclosure Project (see answers to questions 2 and 5 about physical risks and opportunities). Companies are addressing many adaptation-related issues, including insurance, health, migration, human rights, and food and agriculture. It is important to note that adaptation efforts can–and must–also support mitigation, as in the case of resource efficiency.

10. More Political Venues Up for Grabs

The Copenhagen Accord (PDF) was produced only during the last few hours at COP15, as part of a last-ditch “friends of chair” effort involving around 25 countries. This nontraditional process proved to be an effective way to move swiftly in getting broad support, yet still failed to achieve consensus in the general assembly, with a small handful of nations vetoing due to a few apparently intractable disputes. In consideration, there are growing calls for additional forums beyond the regular United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process, to offer more responsive action in developing the global climate agreement needed.

Most notably, attention is on the G-20 countries, a group that comprises the vast majority of emitters and has shown that it can move efficiently, even while avoiding the troublesome distinction between developed and developing nations. Country associations are also changing. For example, instead of “BRIC” (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), we are more often hearing about BASIC (BRIC minus Russia plus South Africa) and BICI (BRIC minus Russia plus Indonesia). The point is, before Copenhagen, most thought updating Kyoto meant developing a global treaty through the formal U.N. structures. Now there is growing appreciation of the opportunity for complementary efforts, and new countries are coming to the fore in multilateral engagement.

In 2010, business leaders will be considering their best next steps after Copenhagen. At the same time, as BSR President and CEO Aron Cramer has written, while an overall framework agreement is important, we need to look beyond forums like Copenhagen for real results on climate — and that means looking to business. Business is important for two reasons: By engaging in policy, business can help increase the likelihood that policymakers will develop a strong framework. And by innovating and committing to progress, business will help a treaty achieve desired results.

At BSR, we will be tracking the opportunities related to these trends and working with business to focus on innovation, efficiency, mobilization, and collaboration for low-carbon prosperity. For more information about how your company can contribute, contact me at rschuchard@bsr.org.

First posted at GreenBiz.