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It’s time to set a global ESG standard for investors

October 6, 2021, 9:00 AM UTC
“For investors to get behind businesses that are serious about reducing their carbon footprint,” the authors write, “they need reliable data and tools to differentiate between virtue signaling and real impact.”
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There are no jobs on a dead planet,” our B Team colleague and cochair Sharan Burrow often says.

Alarm bells are ringing in the wake of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report, which sounded a “code red for humanity.” Scientists’ predictions for climate impact on our global ecosystems and livelihoods are startling. Natural catastrophes, extreme weather, and sea level rise will continue, even if the global economy decarbonizes quicker than projected today.

That is why investors, customers, and regulators expect companies to deliver on the 1.5-degrees-centigrade target stipulated in the Paris climate agreement, and to report on their progress. Those who are adapting well will be rewarded by the financial markets: Integrated business models have boosted companies’ performance even when times get tough, like during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As current and former executives of the world’s largest insurer and the world’s largest asset owner, respectively, we have grappled with the challenges of integrating environmental, social, and governance (ESG) measures into portfolios. For investors to get behind businesses that are serious about reducing their carbon footprint, slowing biodiversity loss, and advancing a regenerative economy, they need reliable data and tools to differentiate between virtue signaling and real impact. A key obstacle facing these investors is the lack of meaningful and comparable data, based on a global standard for corporate ESG reporting.

An opportunity to reset our course has now presented itself. COP26, the United Nations climate conference taking place in Glasgow this November, will not only address the national emission reduction targets of governments, but also pave the way to making sustainable business activities more identifiable to investors. The International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) Foundation plans to launch a body dedicated to developing a global baseline sustainability reporting standard. This International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) will seek to build upon the existing foundations set by established standard-setting organizations.

As a result of the enormous urgency, it is likely that the ISSB will adopt a climate-first approach. With the highest priority, companies should disclose their adaptability to climate risks as well as their progress toward science-based emission reductions. The framework of the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) should be the core of the new standard, with momentum building after the G7 and G20 voiced support.

Ambition on environmental factors, however, should not neglect the social and governance dimensions, which are more difficult to evaluate but are meaningful to a company’s future competitiveness. Other key ESG reporting standard setters, which have been consolidating and collaborating, provide a foundation from which the ISSB can develop global standards. There are many streams of goodwill, but what we need is a river.

The ISSB could be a game changer for sustainable investment, providing capital markets with reliable and consistent ESG data to enable cross-company comparisons. We hope the new board will act ambitiously and embrace the concept of “dynamic materiality,” which recognizes that what is material to investors will change over time.

We encourage the board to establish robust mechanisms for multi-stakeholder consultation. The ISSB’s remit will be to establish sustainability reporting standards on issues that are material to investors. This is understandable, but investors are not the only group with a legitimate interest in corporate ESG performance. Through collaboration and multi-stakeholder engagement, reporting standards that are interoperable with wider reporting expectations across jurisdictions—including reporting that speaks to customers, employees, and civil society—are within reach.

We are emboldened by the G7 and G20’s unified endorsement of mandatory climate-related financial disclosure. And to accelerate a holistic shift toward sustainable investment and business, we need common ESG reporting standards with truly global support. If governments around the world can unite behind a global ESG reporting system in Glasgow this November, they will be making an immeasurable contribution to the future of generations to come.

Oliver Bäte is chairman of the board of management (CEO) of Allianz and a member of The B Team. Allianz is a founding member of the Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance.

Hiro Mizuno is UN Special Envoy on Innovative Finance and Sustainable Investments, former chief investment officer of the Government Pension Investment Fund of Japan, and a member of The B Team.

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