New SEC proposal would make it harder for companies to skimp on climate pledges
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) introduced a landmark proposal today aimed at regulating the way companies report greenhouse gas emissions and how climate change affects their businesses.
If the proposal is adopted, “it would provide investors with consistent, comparable, decision-useful information for making their investment decisions” along with giving companies “consistent and clear” requirements for reporting, SEC Chair Gary Gensler said in his statement of support.
There is no standard procedure in place for companies to report climate-related risks and emissions, though investors have shown growing interest in recent years. “Climate risk is investment risk,” BlackRock CEO Larry Fink wrote in his 2020 letter to fellow CEOs.
Today’s proposal is important “because it shows that the federal government is paying attention and wants to make [emissions reporting] a regular part of doing business,” says Rolf Skar, a special projects manager at environmental advocacy nonprofit Greenpeace USA. “It provides some baseline level of transparency.”
In a statement accompanying today’s proposal, the SEC wrote that “the proposed disclosures are similar to those that many companies already provide based on broadly accepted disclosure frameworks.” Companies that opt to voluntarily report emissions do so through various avenues, including the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), the Value Reporting Foundation, and the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), an environmental disclosure nonprofit.
The SEC’s proposal has the potential to “standardize and raise the bar, or at least set a new floor, for those kinds of reporting,” says Skar.
It’s not uncommon for companies to pair their voluntary reporting with public-facing emissions reduction campaigns. Last week, one such campaign known as The Climate Pledge, an initiative co-founded by Amazon and climate advocacy firm Global Optimism, reached over 300 signatories including Salesforce and HP.
Companies that sign The Climate Pledge commit to achieving “net zero” emissions by 2040 – 10 years ahead of the timeline established by the Paris Agreement. They are required to regularly report their emissions and to “implement decarbonization strategies” alongside purchasing carbon offsets.
“It’s easy to sign up for a pledge if the target date for that pledge is 10 to 20 years out, because you’re signing up for something that you likely won’t be around to be held accountable for,” argues Tim Mohin, chief sustainability officer at Persefoni, an environmental reporting software company.
Still, such public displays of commitment to mitigating the effects of climate change imply that companies are taking the subject seriously. But Mohin is looking for accountability.
“There’s nothing wrong with a bunch of companies in the private sector working together to increase their collective ambition to reduce emissions,” says Skar. “But with any of these pledges, the details really matter. Net zero can be a good thing, or it can also be straight-up greenwashing.”
It’s also possible the plans outlined in The Climate Pledge and similar campaigns are not robust enough to hit net zero emissions on their proclaimed timelines. A recent report by the New Climate Institute, an organization devoted to supporting climate solutions, found that the plans outlined by 13 companies that made public net zero pledges would reduce emissions by an average of 40%, not 100%.
The SEC’s proposal could help keep these companies on track to meet their stated goals by enforcing reliable disclosures – what Mohin sees as the main problem with public climate pledges.
The SEC proposal would hold companies accountable to lofty emissions reduction plans, requiring that once they declare public targets that they also outline how they hope to achieve them, using regularly reported data to show progress. According to its proposal, the SEC would require updates every fiscal year.
Among the companies that have signed The Climate Pledge is the small, environmentally-focused software firm Pachama, which leverages data and satellite imagery to improve carbon markets. Pachama’s emissions are already net zero.
It used to be that you could “make a pledge and paint your website green and think that you did your job” says Diego Saez Gil, Pachama’s founder and CEO. Gil says that over the past several years, companies have encountered increased scrutiny from all stakeholders — investors, board members, and consumers — to stick to their climate plans.
The SEC’s proposal would just add another dimension to that scrutiny, elevating what exists now as amorphous pressure to that of a federal mandate.
Gil sees Amazon’s involvement as a positive indicator of how companies are approaching carbon reporting and emissions reduction. High profile companies have the opportunity to lead entire industries in terms of sustainability. “I think we need to applaud them and push them and hold them accountable. Hopefully, they’re then followed by the entire economy.”
Now that the SEC has formally proposed the rules, the public has 60 days to weigh in. Among the questions it faces is that of jurisdiction: Does the SEC have the power to establish such wide-ranging rules? In its proposal, the federal agency notes that it has sought for decades to provide information on the environmental risks facing public companies. In 2010, it issued a release “to provide guidance to public companies regarding the Commission’s existing disclosure requirements as they relate to climate change matters.”
“While the existence of human generated climate change itself isn’t particularly contentious, how best to measure and solve the problem remains in dispute,” said commissioner Hester Peirce in opposition to the proposal. “The Commission, which is not expert in these matters, will be drawn into these disputes.”
Along with SEC Chair Genseler, Commissioners Allison Lee and Caroline Crenshaw expressed their support of the proposal in their respective statements.
“I believe the SEC has a role to play when there’s this level of demand for consistent, comparable information that may affect financial performance,” said Genseler.
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