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The SEC is helping refine standards on reporting climate risk. Not everyone is happy about it

March 23, 2022, 10:47 AM UTC

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) released a landmark proposal on rules governing corporate climate change disclosures Monday, potentially providing a uniform framework for U.S.-listed companies to follow when reporting climate risk.

“I am pleased to support today’s proposal because, if adopted, it would provide investors with consistent, comparable, and decision-useful information for making their investment decisions, and it would provide consistent and clear reporting obligations for issuers,” SEC Chair Gary Gensler said.

The world of climate disclosures is fractured, with little centralized oversight on how corporations count and report greenhouse gas emissions. The SEC is well-positioned to provide some uniform instruction to many of the world’s largest and most influential companies.

But not everyone believes the financial regulator should take advantage of its central standing and expand its remit into policing climate risk.

SEC Commissioner Hester M. Pierce says the proposed rule change, filed as the Sunshine Protection Act, “turns the disclosure regime on its head” and distorts markets by creating a framework that “forces investors to view companies through the eyes of a vocal set of stakeholders” that value climate risk above all else.

“We are not the securities and environment commission,” Pierce said in her formal statement of objection. Despite its detractors, the SEC voted to move the proposal forward to its public consultation stage, giving third parties 60 days to provide feedback.

One note of interest that may be picked up in the months of public discussion is the proposal’s “safe harbor” clause for Scope 3 emissions or greenhouse gas emissions produced by a company’s customers, rather than by the company’s own actions.

Under the SEC’s rules, all companies will be required to report Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions, which cover pollution produced as a result of a corporation’s own operations, including consuming electricity to keep the office lights on. But the SEC will only require disclosure on Scope 3 emissions if the company has publicly declared a Scope 3 target or if its Scope 3 emissions are “material.”

So when do Scope 3 emissions become material? Well, I pulled that thread.

The SEC’s proposed rules take guidance on when Scope 3 emissions become ‘material’ from frameworks created by the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), a corporate advisory panel chaired by Michael Bloomberg and created off the back of the Paris Agreements.

In turn, the TCFD takes its guidance on Scope 3 emissions from the Science Based Target Initiative (SBTi), which builds its frameworks on the guidance of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The SBTi says Scope 3 emissions become “material” if they account for more than 40% of a company’s total emissions or if the company concerned is involved in oil and gas. That actually sounds like pretty decent coverage, leaving potentially few companies exempt from reporting Scope 3 emissions to the SEC.

But after digging out all of the above, the benefits of streamlining guidance on disclosing climate risk are clear to me.

Eamon Barrett
-eamon.barrett@fortune.com
@eamonbarrett49

CARBON COPY

Fairy dust

ESG funds are heading for a “shakeout” over the next five years, says Paul Clements-Hunt, the investor who coined the acronym for environmental, social, and governance risks. ESG investment has boomed over the past five years, creating a $40 trillion market and bringing fears of greenwashing with it. Clements-Hunt says financial markets have usurped the ESG acronym and “sprinkled ESG fairy dust” on products that do little for ESG standards. Bloomberg

Snake oil

Occidental Petroleum plans to sell “net zero oil” to South Korea’s largest refiner once the crude major opens a new carbon capture plant in 2024. So-called net zero oil is a product dreamed up by oil giants in which, typically, the company offsets carbon emissions generated by oil production. Net zero oil doesn’t usually account for the carbon released when that oil is burned. But Occidental says its direct air carbon capture plant—which sucks carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere—will remove enough atmospheric carbon to offset the entire life cycle of its “net zero oil.” Bloomberg

Power down

Tokyo has asked households and industries in Japan’s northern region to conserve electricity during a current cold snap, warning that the country could suffer power outages after powerful earthquakes knocked 10 power plants offline last week. The government has never issued such a warning before, urging residents in Tokyo and Tohoku—Japan's Northeast regionto limit power usage between 3 p.m. and 11 p.m. daily. Nikkei

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CLOSING NUMBER

6,200 tonnes

The sacred Ganges river in India is one of the most populous river basins on Earth, supporting over 400 million people. But it is also one of the world’s most polluted rivers. Besides pollution caused by industrial runoff, the Ganges is teeming with plastic pollution, ferrying 6,200 tonnes of plastic into the sea each year. The numerous tributaries to the 1,560-mile-long Ganges feed the river a stream of trash, that flows into the Bay of Bengal during monsoon season. Stopping the tide of requires a nationwide effort and that task, the National Geographic writes, seems sometimes Sisyphean.

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