The Anthropocene – 3 Reasons Why It Matters to Your Business

 
David Pope, Scratch Media, https://www.scratch.com.au/

Introduction to the Anthropocene

In a wonderful new book, professors Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin at London University College, make a convincing case that the Earth has entered the Anthropocene (combining the Greek words for ‘human’ and ‘recent’). Humans have literally become a force of nature. Meaning that human activity changes the Earth from one state to another. To define the Anthropocene, these scholars define a framework in three parts:

  1. Is there evidence that human activity has begun to push the Earth in a new state? In short, yes. GHG emissions are delaying the next ice age and human actions are influencing evolution. Both will show in future fossil records.
  2. Is the new state marked in geological deposits? Again, the answer is yes. Changes in carbon dioxide levels are stored since the expansion of farming. Pollution of the Industrial Revolution shows in swamp sediments, and trees recorded nuclear fallout.
  3. When did the switch occur? From four candidates, the authors settle on the Columbian Exchange and the resulting Orbis spike (a lowest point in CO2) as the start of the Anthropocene:

(..)following Columbus’ 1492 arrival, approximately 50 million people in theAmericas perished and farming collapsed across a continent. (..) Vast areas ofland grew back to forest, removing billions of tonnes of carbon out of theatmosphere and into the new trees. This is seen as a dip in levels ofatmospheric carbon dioxide (..), with the lowest point being at 1610, capturedin Antarctic glacier ice [i.e. the so-called Orbis spike].

How Lewis and Maslin lead us towards these conclusions is a fascinating read. If you loved Guns, Germs and Steel, Sapiens, The Mating Mind, and The Origins of Political Order, you will love this book. (All of these books are highlighted in another post by the way, you can read that post here.) Below is a nice info-graphic that shows (some) of the topics they will run you through:

Source: UCL, https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/2018/jun/scientists-propose-changing-rules-history-avoid-environmental-collapse

Why Should Managers Care About the Anthropocene? 3 Reasons.

I can almost hear you think: “All well enough that this is a great read, but why is this also a great read from a business perspective?”. Here are my 3 reasons:

1. The Anthropocene has found its way into mainstream vocabulary in relation to externalities of the firm. The term Anthropocene is a matter of huge debate (whether or not we should officially use the Anthropocene as a new geological time scale that follows the Holocene, that is). The debate itself is of little consequence for business. What is of consequence, however, is that it entered mainstream vocabulary. The link to externalities of the firm are easily made, and that’s why you should familiarize yourself with the term. [An externality is, as you know, a negative consequence of an economic activity experienced by unrelated third parties.] Like climate change entered the mainstream vocabulary in the nineties, the Anthropocene is popping up more and more. Leading newspapers, journals and organizations have already picked up on it, see for example: Nature, Wall Street Journal, the World Economic Forum, and the Guardian. There’s even a multi-media project consisting of a movie, a book, exhibitions and an interactive website that is getting a lot of media attention. This paves the way for systems thinking and more and more people and organizations will start asking questions how your business operations (as an integral part of the Anthropocene) affect the Earth’s systems. Do you already have an all-encompassing answer to this question? Do you have innovative sustainability strategies in place that take into account the Anthropocene is a central concept? Do you have the reporting processes in place to tackle this question?

2. The Anthropocene is central to the rise in ESG-pressures on your firm. Understanding the Anthropocene will answer the question where the ever increasing ESG-pressure on firms is coming from. Since more and more people will understand that the Earth is a closed system (see reason number 1), you can expect that every impact your business has on that system will, sooner or later, be under scrutiny. I argue that putting the era in which we live, i.e. the Anthropocene, as the all-encompassing force on Earth’s systems and, in turn, on people’s well-being, gives you a model to understand why there’s a proliferation of social movements and NGO’s pushing for changes in laws, regulations, reporting practices and business models. A possible depiction of how the Anthropocene ̶  through its pressure on physical and social systems  ̶  sets off pressures all the way down to the level of the firm to change business models, business processes and business practices, could look like this:

sleemanconsulting.com

3. The Anthropocene can be used as a super-structure for all ESG-related topics. If you, like me, have struggled how all different topics in the ESG-realm fit together, the concept of the Anthropocene can be used as a helpful tool. By plotting both social and natural/physical topics in the figure above, you have a super-structure where you can find all ESG-topics that might influence your firm’s business model, strategy and processes. This might be a useful addition to tools that you already have in place (e.g. a materiality or priority matrix) and can be used to track and make sense of topics as diverse as the Paris Agreement, Planetary Boundaries, the SDGs or radical transparency. I plotted a number of well-known concepts in the figure above to end up with the figure below:

sleemanconsulting.com

Why to read “The Human Planet – How We Created the Anthropocene”

The Anthropocene, with all that it entails (just a few of the topics, covered in the book, you should know about are: humans as a force of nature; positive feedback loops; complex systems; utilization of ever more energy; generation and processing of more information; increase in collective human agency) is a handy super-framework to connect ESG-topics that might have been considered separately without such a framework.

Even if you do not see the connection to your firm’s ESG-efforts, strategy or processes, and even if you do not see the need for defining a new geological time scale (I couldn’t care less; also see this article in Scientific American), this is a book worth reading. As the reviewer in the Guardian wrote:

‘Brilliantly written and genuinely one of the most important books I have ever read.’

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The Most Surprising Thing I Learned from Finishing a Climate Change Course

There’s a lot of good knowledge packed into the SDG Academy’s Climate Change course. You learn about the science behind climate change, what the Paris Agreement entails, and which multi-stakeholder initiatives try to combat climate change. The one thing that was maybe lacking was a chapter on how climate change poses threats to individual businesses; in the form of reputational risk, funding risk and any direct consequences of climate change. (For a comprehensive discussion of these risks, please refer to Climate Smart Business Decision-Making.) The biggest eye-opener for me, though, was the realization that most IPCC scenarios include a form of carbon capture to keep the planet well below 2°C warmer than pre-industrial levels.

It is time to start the debate on capturing carbon directly from the air, now that the price of capturing a ton of CO2 has fallen considerably. Of course, there are numerous arguments against capturing CO2, such as:

  • it promotes coal-fired energy plants;
  • it distracts from a move towards renewable energy;
  • there is little support for storing CO2;
  • it’s better to stop producing CO2 than to capture and store it.

But the most persuasive argument that I can think of in favor of capturing CO2 is the realization that most of the IPCC scenarios include it to be able to limit warming to 2°C. Add to that a growing number of jurisdictions that either implement a carbon tax or a cap and trade system (and a falling price for carbon capture), and you have a possible business case for companies to start capturing CO2.

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Five Ways to Introduce Climate Smart Business Decision-Making

 

Source: COSO and WBCSD, based on risk assessment World Economic Forum

 

As a follow-up on last month’s post on business risk stemming from climate change, this post shows you how to incorporate thinking on climate change in your business processes and decisions. The list of ideas is by no means intended to be exhaustive, but it contains a number of ideas I stumbled on while following the excellent Climate Action course by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network of the United Nations.

1.   Include climate change risk in Enterprise Risk Management (ERM)

Now that climate change risks in particular – and ESG-risk in general – are increasingly becoming mainstream for the business community, the calls to integrate these risks in existing frameworks are getting louder. The survival of your business may be at risk according to the WBCSD (World Business Council of Sustainable Development):

Businesses are facing an evolving landscape of emerging environmental, social and governance (ESG)-related risks that can impact a company’s profitability, success or even survival.

The leading organization for ERM, or Enterprise Risk Management, COSO, has teamed up with the WBCSD to update the COSO-framework with ESG-related risks. This is as much proof as you will ever need to convince your fellow management team members that it’s time to start integrating ESG-risk in your business processes. The joined COSO-WBCSD team published an executive summary on how to best integrate ESG-risk into an existing ERM framework. High-level steps include:

  • Establish governance for effective (ESG) risk management.
  • Understand the business context and strategy.
  • Identify ESG-related risks.
  • Assess and prioritize ESG-related risks.
  • Respond to ESG-related risks.
  • Review and revise ESG-related risks.
  • Communicate and report ESG-related risks.

Please note that all actual mitigation strategies, such as moving production locations, switching to different raw materials and preparing for extreme weather, are the outcomes of your risk management process. In other words, by updating your ERM with climate (and other ESG) risks, you lay the groundwork to be able to mitigate those risks. For more on risk mitigation for the different risk categories stemming from climate change, see last month’s post.

2.   Disclose climate change related risk using an existing framework

The Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), chaired by Michael Bloomberg, is rapidly emerging as the standard for core elements and recommendations to report on climate-related financial risk. The task force is part of the international Financial Stability Board, and the TCFD principles are backed by some of the leading firms in the world, such as ABN AMRO, Akzo Nobel, BlackRock, Coca-Cola, KPMG, Olam, Philips, Shell, Suez, Tata, Tesco and Unilever.

The recommendations of the TCFD revolve around a number of key features:

  • Adoptable by all organizations.
  • Included in financial filings.
  • Designed to solicit decision-useful, forward-looking information on financial impacts.
  • Strong focus on risks and opportunities related to transition to a lower-carbon economy.

Core elements of climate-related financial disclosures, as drafted by the TCFD, are:

  • Governance. The organization’s governance around climate-related risks and opportunities.
  • Strategy. The actual and potential impacts of climate-related risks and opportunities on the organization’s businesses, strategy, and financial planning.
  • Risk Management. The processes used by the organization to identify, assess, and manage climate-related risks.
  • Metrics and Targets. The metrics and targets used to assess and manage relevant climate-related risks and opportunities.

While the COSO-WBCSD recommendations on risk management mainly focus on internal risk management for the company itself, the TCFD recommendations should be taken to heart because it tells your company what your external stakeholders are seeking in terms of climate related disclosures. It is advisable to use an existing framework for your disclosures (e.g. GRI or IIRC) and, as an add-on for the climate related disclosures, make sure you integrate the TFCD’s recommendations to make it more relevant for your stakeholders.

3.   Use internal or shadow price for carbon in business decision

The mitigation strategy to prepare for a world where there’s either an emissions trading system (ETS) for carbon or a carbon tax, is using an internal (or shadow) price for carbon. An internal price puts a monetary value on all of your carbon emissions (or indeed on all GHG emissions), which you then use in investment decisions. The idea is that this helps your company prepare for times when policies are put into place that restrict or tax your carbon or GHG emissions. In the post on climate change risk, a number of big firm are mentioned that already adopted this practice. Among them are Microsoft, DSM, AkzoNobel, Carrefour and Sainsbury’s. How this works is revealed by The Economist in a recent article titled Low-carb diet:

Investors increasingly demand that companies take that possibility [of carbon taxes] seriously – 81 countries mention a carbon cost in their national pledges to limit global warming under the Paris climate agreement of 2015. Plenty of the Paris promises remain just that for now, but bosses ignore them at their peril, cautions Feike Sijbesma, who co-chairs the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, which groups green-minded governments and business under auspices of the World Bank. In his day job as chief executive of Royal DSM, Mr Sijbesma has made the Dutch food producer examine all proposed ventures to check whether the sums still add up if a ton of carbon dioxide cost €50, well above the going rate of €6 or so in the European Union’s emissions-trading system (..). Where they do not, alternative feedstocks or cleaner energy suppliers must be found. If a project still looks unprofitable, it could be discarded altogether.

A third way to introduce climate change thinking in your business decisions would therefore be to adopt internal GHG prices into your investment and operational decisions.

4.   Join industry initiatives

Setting public goals, and reporting against those goals, might be one of the most powerful communication tools towards your stakeholders. If you want even more credibility, you can opt for tying these goals to science-based measures or work together with other companies in industry initiatives. The last option gives you the obvious advantage of learning from others, and you thus do not have to re-invent the wheel. Credible industry initiatives engage with important NGOs, think tanks and research organizations to set climate or sustainability related targets and implementation plans. Thus, proactive membership gives you an invaluable ‘line of defense’ in the sense that your company can always refer to the industry initiative to explain the decisions taken on action plans, goals or metrics used. This blog post is obviously not the place to give an exhaustive list of all industry initiatives for mitigating climate change. However, as an example, the WBCSD is (again) a good place to start:

  • Through the Rescale project, leading energy and technology companies are working together on solutions to accelerate the deployment of renewables and the transition to a low-carbon electricity system. Companies that signed up to the Rescale project are, among others, Unilever, Nestlé, DSM, Enel and ABB.
  • Sustainable fuels. The below50 project works towards sustainable fuels that emit at least 50% less as compared to traditional fuels. Some of the organizations involved are United Airlines, Audi, UPS, Arcelor Mittal and the Port of Rotterdam.
  • Climate Smart Agriculture. Through the three pillars of Climate Smart Agriculture (productivity, resilience and mitigation), this initiative is contributing to increasing the resilience and productivity of farmers in our food system to make 50% more food available and strengthen the climate resilience of farming communities, whilst reducing agricultural and land-use change emissions from agriculture by at least 50% by 2030 and 65% by 2050. Major names that signed up are Starbucks, Walmart, FrieslandCampina, Olam, Pepsico and Kellogg’s.

More of these initiatives under the auspices of the WBCSD exist (i.e. for the cement, freight, chemicals, buildings and forest products industries), and importantly, your organization might be more effective by joining an industry initiative with an agreed upon implementation plan, than creating climate strategies from scratch.

5.   Follow the debate(s) on climate change

A lot is written on climate change. There is still a lot of controversy over climate change, though we leave climate change naysayers in the same category as people who deny the link between smoking and lung cancer.  One of the main points of controversy that you may not yet heard of, is literally the sucking of carbon out of the air. This is one of the lesser known, but needed, strategies to reduce CO2 particles in the atmosphere according to The Economist:

Fully 101 of the 116 models the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change uses to chart what lies ahead assume that carbon will be taken out of the air in order for the world to have a good chance of meeting the 2°C target.

There are many arguments put forward by the opponents of carbon capture (different technologies exist: carbon capture and storage (CCS), carbon capture and utilization (CCU), bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS)), but the reality is the IPCC argues that we need a fair amount of it if we want to have a chance of living in an under 2°C world. Without taking a position here (just check the articles with the tag ‘slippery slope argument’ for some thoughts on that), it’s advisable to follow debates such as the one on carbon capture. It will raise awareness of the different viewpoints and from which angles your firm can expect criticism once you opt for a certain climate mitigation strategy (e.g. carbon capture). Maybe not so much a direct pathway to integrate climate change into your business processes, but by following the debates on climate change and disseminating information in your management’s risk meetings, you will create awareness of the controversies about mitigation strategies and, in turn, you will create a platform for further discussion.

By way of conclusion

From last month’s blog we’ve learned that climate change poses risks for your business, and how you can mitigate those risks. In this post, five ways for introducing climate change in your business lexicon have been put forward:

  • update risk management with climate risks;
  • disclose climate risks;
  • use internal carbon prices;
  • join industry efforts;
  • follow the climate change debates.

By adopting these strategies, climate change risks will be more easily identified and, in turn, more creative thinking on mitigation strategies in your organization will take hold.

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Could You Be Wrong in Thinking Climate Change Does Not Affect Your Business?

Credit: Takver via Flickr

Introduction: what The Economist has to say about climate change and business

More than a year ago, we started off a series of blog posts on mandatory non-financial disclosures with a post on climate change. At that point, four risk groups of climate change were identified and suggestions were made on how to integrate climate risks in your overall risk management strategy. It is time to revisit and update the story on climate change, as climate science is advancing and impacts are becoming clearer.

As a heuristic (always a good idea, see this post), we gathered that the number of times The Economist, a weekly current events newspaper, wrote an article on ESG-related topics (i.e. risks stemming from environmental, social or governance aspects) would be a proxy for how serious firms should take ESG-risks. Climate change was the topic of the most articles by far in the period from roughly the end of 2015 to the end of 2017. We counted the following number of articles on ESG-topics:

  • Climate change: 38 articles.
  • Renewable energy: 18 articles.
  • ESG-risks: 12 articles.
  • Natural resource depletion and pollution: 11 articles.

Here’s how we think these topics fit together:

Please note we don’t claim any scientifically established causal relationships here; just a framework to put different topics loosely together and offer a way to think about interrelations. If you are looking for a scientific take on this, please visit the excellent report A Guide to SDG Interaction: from Science to Implementation from the International Council for Science.

Since climate change as a topic has the highest count in articles, is central to other topics such as the worldwide push for renewables and natural resource depletion (see schematic above), and climate change is advancing rapidly, we felt it was time to update our previous post on climate change risk. The importance of climate change risk is echoed by The Economist:

Ignoring the climate issues altogether looks like the biggest risk of all.

We will therefore revisit the four business risks already identified earlier (i.e. asset and infrastructure risk, yield and price risk, regulatory risk and reputational risk), and will propose a number of new risk groups that we found by reading recent articles by The Economist on ESG-topics.

Climate change and business risk, updated

In the table below, you will find all the business risks stemming from climate change found in The Economist. New risks (compared to our earlier blog post) are shown in bold italics. First, there are two additional business risks added to the risk group ‘external stakeholder actions to curb climate change’. Second, we found an entirely new risk group: ‘funding risk’.

For every business risk identified, we will now briefly describe the risk, give the examples found in The Economist, and offer a way to mitigate the risk.

Regulatory risk. More and more jurisdictions are introducing cap and trade schemes or carbon taxes. This inevitably means that firms have to take into account (future) carbon prices in investment decisions. According to the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition (a World Bank funded outfit that puts together business and governments to advance carbon pricing), ‘as of 2017, 42 national and 25 subnational jurisdictions are pricing carbon’. That already accounts for more than 20% of global CO2 emissions. In Canada, the announcement of a national carbon price puts high emitters at immediate risk. The province of Quebec in Canada, for instance, is lobbying to funnel $1 billion to Bombardier, an aircraft-maker, to make up for its payments of carbon taxes under a nationwide introduction of a carbon tax. Even if your own government is not imposing a carbon tax, there is increased risk that other governments start installing an import tax for every ton of CO2 emission in the making of a product. Indian steel makers, for example, will have to take into account a carbon tax when exporting to the EU, even though they do not currently face a carbon tax in India. What to do? More and more firms are using a price for carbon emitted in their long-term investment decisions. Putting a price on carbon in decision-making – and using a realistic price, say in the range of €50-60 per ton – will take into account any future carbon tax or cap and trade system. The Economist lists a number of companies that already use such internal carbon prices: Microsoft, DSM, AkzoNobel, Indian cement manufacturers ACC, Ambuja & Dalmia, French building materials producer Saint-Gobain, and supermarket chains Carrefour and Sainsbury’s.

Reputation risk. The sectors that face reputational risk include an obvious one and a, maybe, not so obvious one. To start with the obvious sector, the fossil fuel industry, it is not only CO2 emissions that are the target of environmentalists, but also methane leaks. That leaves companies like Shell, BP and ENI vulnerable to reputational risk even if they pledge to switch more and more to natural gas (infamous for methane leaks). Already, NGOs such as the Environmental Defence Fund are drawing attention to methane emissions in the production of natural gas that ‘now surpasses cow burps as a source of [methane] emissions’ according to The Economist. A sector that, as of yet, has not attracted the attention of environmental campaigners, is the cement industry. That might be about to change however, as more and more NGOs draw attention to an increasing number of industries now that it becomes clear that humanity is unlikely to keep temperatures less than 2°C warmer than pre-industrial times. Cement, together with steel, makes up a large part of the CO2 footprint for any building. And as firms try to lower their CO2 footprint, buildings, and thus cement, is another link in the chain in trying to reduce emissions. Firms that are exposed to this type of risk (i.e. reputational) are, according to The Economist, especially the major players in the cement industry, e.g. Heidelberg Cement Group and Cemex. Examples for mitigating these risks, as listed by the same newspaper, include setting publicly available targets (and reporting against those targets), carbon capture and storage, and using higher internal carbon prices for long-term investment decisions.

Shareholder pressure. An unlikely pressure group that turns its attention to climate change, are shareholders. Unlike environmental groups, who strive for direct reduction in emissions, shareholders would like to see that companies identify the impact of climate change regulations and policies on business plans. Again, the industry where shareholders are, at the moment, most active is the fossil fuel industry. The Economist refers to Shell, Total, Chevron and Exxon as firms where shareholders are particularly active to push towards pricing in carbon in investment decisions as the preferred mitigation strategy. Total goes further: ‘It plans to set out its ambition to develop an energy mix by 2035 consistent with Paris-style global-warming limits, including a pledge to invest $500m a year in renewables, and a “symbolic objective” to raise their share to 20% of its portfolio, from 3%. In an effort to complement its acquisition of a solar-energy company, it launched an offer to acquire a battery-maker, which will bolster its expertise in electricity storage’. Hidden in this mixture of Total’s plans, are a plethora of mitigation strategies that would please many shareholders pushing for just that: increasing the stake in renewable energy, taking head of broad international movements like the Paris agreements and adjusting strategies accordingly, and setting publicly available targets. Do this, and add to the mix internal carbon prices for investment decisions, and your firm will have a good policy mix to satisfy shareholder demands.

Lawsuit risk. In an article dubbed ‘Lawsuits against climate change’, The Economist points out that the number of lawsuits where the negative effects of carbon emissions are central, are rising. The targets are both governments and big energy firms. Ironically, governments also sue energy firms: San Francisco is taking BP, Chevron, Exxon and Shell to court. All of this is made possible by improved climate science: ‘Scientists are increasingly confident that they know roughly what shares of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere were emitted by individual countries, and even by the biggest corporate polluters. (..) just 90 belched out 63% of all greenhouse gases between 1751 and 2010.’ In a fascinating report by the Carbon Majors Database, all these companies are listed. Unsurprisingly, the 90 firms are either big energy firms, mining corporations, or cement manufacturers. Even if your firm is not listed, you might want to check if a similar study is done for your own country, and you may find that your company is listed in that ranking. Climate litigation is on the rise. The focus is on big energy firms for now, but cement manufacturers and mining corporations might be next. The sooner you map your firm’s GHG emissions and estimate the risk that an interest group or government targets you in the near future, the better.

Decreased access to capital markets. The last new risk that we identified as compared to our last post on climate related risk for companies, is a funding risk. As climate change becomes more of an issue, investor demand for green bonds is increasing. At the same time, investors are backing away from industries that run greater risk from climate change (these risks are, essentially, all other risks described here). Moody’s, a rating agency, puts energy firms and car makers, for example, in a higher risk category. This can obviously translate in lower stock prices and higher premiums in bond markets. Big investors are adopting climate strategies rapidly. Allianz, for example, is not putting money in firms that derive more than 30% of their energy from coal; and even the biggest asset management firms like BlackRock have set-up dedicated green-bond funds fueled by investor demand. Another recent development is that rating agencies are threatening cities with downgrades if they don’t do more on climate change mitigation (also see asset and infrastructure risk below). Companies might well be next.

Asset and infrastructure risk. As 2017 proved, with hurricanes Harvey and Irma as horrifying examples, climate change increasingly poses a threat for assets and infrastructure. As wet places get wetter and stormy places get stormier, cities around the world are making plans to raise roads and improve drainages. Your business would be well advised to do the same. As an example, you could use impact models (such as the Inter-Sectoral Impact Model Intercomparison Project (ISI-MIP)) to establish which of your business locations are at risk, and implement a mitigation strategy for those locations accordingly. We could not find any specific examples in The Economist of businesses that have already implemented mitigation strategies for asset and infrastructure risk, however. It mainly refers to cities and governments to take action to protect assets and infrastructure. Your firm should follow the example of cities.

Price and yield risk. What we discussed for asset and infrastructure risk, more or less also holds for price and yield risk. Although The Economist acknowledges the risk (‘by 2050, even if temperature rise is successfully limited to 2°C, crop yields could slump by a fifth’), we could not find any mention of individual firms that are already affected by this. Again, this should not be a reason for a wait-and-see attitude. A good starting point is the Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project (AgMIP). This major international collaborative is an effort to improve agricultural simulation and to understand climate impacts on the agricultural sector at global and regional scales. AgMIP produce highly useful maps for your businesses to gauge the impact of climate change on yields for crops in your supply chain.

Industry climate change risk profile

Reading through the business risks in the previous section, you will have been able to quickly assess if your firm faces a particular risk or not. By deconstructing climate change risk into seven distinct business risks (i.e. regulatory, reputational, shareholder pressure, lawsuit, funding, asset & infrastructure, and price & yield), you now have a tool to help you decide if the – arguably – abstract concept of climate change is relevant to your organization.

By way of summary, we have added specific industries (mentioned in The Economist articles that we consulted) to the individual business risks identified. This isn’t to say that other industries aren’t impacted by each type of business risk. See the table below:

Coming up with the right strategy mix to mitigate these risks might not be easy. Renewable energy, insurance policies, carbon capture and storage, (higher) internal carbon prices, improving drainages, moving production locations: they could all be visited as possible solutions. Keep in mind that the combination ‘climate change’ and ‘business’ does not feel like a realistic combination. We would argue that this is normal human behavior, since climate change is not a risk that has hurt your business in the past. But we hope to have shown with examples taken directly from The Economist, that your competitors and fellow business organizations are already fully taking on business risks stemming from climate change. A final word of caution from Nicholas Taleb:

People in risk management only consider risky things that have hurt them in the past (given their focus on ‘evidence’), not realizing that, in the past, before these events took place, these occurrences that hurt them severely were completely without precedent, escaping standards.

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What every manager should know about (1/5): Climate Change

before-the-flood

As your organization is getting ready for the implementation of EU guideline 2014/95/EU on the disclosure of non-financial information, I hand you a series of blog posts on non-financial topics that business managers might be less familiar with. My aim for this series of posts is twofold. First, to give you insight into concepts that are integral to non-financial frameworks on reporting, such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) framework. Second, to show why and how you should integrate these specific non-financial disclosures into your overall risk management strategy.

The first blog in this series will discuss what climate change is and what climate change has to do with managing business risk. If you are in need of a broader perspective on climate change I recommend Leonardo DiCaprio’s clear and informative film Before the Flood.

Defining Climate Change

Climate Change, according to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary is:

The change in global climate patterns apparent from the mid to late 20th century onwards, attributed largely to the increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide produced by the use of fossil fuels.

In his insightful book Climate Change, A Very Short Introduction, Mark Maslin writes:

Over the last 150 years, significant changes in climate have been recorded, which are markedly different from the last at least 2,000 years. These changes include a 0.85°C increase in average global temperatures, sea-level rise of over 20 cm, significant shifts in the seasonality and intensities of precipitation, changing weather patterns, and the significant retreat of Arctic sea ice and nearly all continental glaciers. (…) The IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] 2013 report states that the evidence for climate change is unequivocal and there is very high confidence that this warming is due to human emissions of GHGs [i.e. greenhouse gases, such as CO2].

To be able to visualize why it’s so hard to combat climate change caused by CO2, consider this illuminating analogy from Climate Shock, by Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman:

Think of the atmosphere as a giant bathtub. There’s a faucet – emissions from human activity – and a drain – the planet’s ability to absorb that pollution. For most of human’s civilization and hundreds of thousands of years before, the inflow and the outflow were in relative balance. Then humans started burning coal and turned on the faucet far beyond what the drain could handle. (…) Inflow and outflow need to be in balance, and that won’t happen (…) unless the inflow goes down by a lot.

Recently, we have learned (see a recent Guardian article) that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million (ppm); that’s 40% higher than pre-industrial levels (280 ppm). In Climate Shock we read why this is a serious problem:

Last time concentrations of carbon dioxide were as high as they are today, at 400 parts per million (ppm), the geological clock read “Pliocene”. That was over three million years ago, when natural variations, not cars and factories, were responsible for the extra carbon in the air. Global average temperatures were around 1-2.5°C (…) warmer than today, sea levels were up to 20 meters (…) higher, and camels lived in Canada.

The conclusion that we must draw from this is not that climate change is new. Rather, for the first time in the earth’s history, climate change is manmade and happens at a rate which would make it impossible for us to re-actively adapt our infrastructure accordingly. Think for example of shifting entire agricultural regions, or moving complete cities from their present-day ocean front locations.

For an illustrated (and witty) example of how extraordinary the current spike in average temperature really is, see A Timeline of Earth’s Average Temperature. Below, only the very last brief time period – with a sharp increase in average temperature – is shown; the full infographic shows much slower changing average temperatures in the last 20,000 years.

temperature

Skepticism towards climate change is like denying smoking causes cancer

Perhaps most of the general public would not see climate change as an urgent problem, as Wagner and Weitzman point out in Climate Shock.  Although the science behind climate change is solid and has been accepted by the scientific community on the weight of evidence of the research, there seems to be an amazing amount of skepticism around the subject in non-science circles. In trying to explain this phenomenon, Maslin writes:

…the media’s ethical commitment to balanced reporting may unwittingly provide unwarranted attention to critical views, even if they are marginal and outside the realm of what is normally considered ‘good’ science. (…) Add to this the greater ease of communication, from conventional media, such as newspapers, radio, and television, to more informal blogs, tweets, etc. Normal private debate among scientists and experts can easily be shifted into the public arena and anyone, what ever their level of expertise, can voice an opinion and feel it is as valid as that of experts who have dedicated their whole lives to studying areas of science. Overall, this contributes to a public impression that the science of climate change is ‘contested’, despite what many would argue is an overwhelmingly scientific case that climate change is occurring and human activity is a main driver of this change.’

Or, maybe skepticism has to do with cognitive dissonance (i.e. a state of inconsistent thought, beliefs, or attitudes), write Wagner and Weitzman:

Whenever science points to the very real potential of these types of catastrophic outcomes, cognitive dissonance kicks in. Facts might be facts, the reasoning goes, but throwing too many of them at you at once will all but guarantee that you will dismiss them out of hand. It just feels like it can’t be true.

Leonardo DiCaprio in Before the Flood echoes this:

We keep being inundated with catastrophic news about the environment every single day, and the problem seems to get worse and worse. Try to have a conversation with anyone about climate change, and people just tune out.

The key point here is that the efforts to understand climate change are a scientific effort. Maslin rightfully states that ‘science is no belief system’. As Armand Marie Leroi points out in his book, this has been true ever since Aristotle invented science:

‘A scientist is someone who seeks, by systematic investigation, to understand experienced reality.’

Being skeptical towards climate change is therefore the same is being skeptical towards the process of scientific discovery itself. It is, Maslin states, to ‘deny that smoking causes cancer, or that HIV causes AIDS’.

Climate Change and business risk management

Integral risk management for your organization should include climate change risks. As the authors of Climate Shock put it: ‘First and foremost, climate change is a risk management problem’.  A risk analysis of climate change would lead to defining business risks that stem from both the direct consequences of climate change (like more severe weather events), and risks that stem from external stakeholders’ actions to curb climate change that, in turn, have an effect on the company’s operations or profitability (e.g. tighter regulations for GHG emissions). Without making any claims of exhaustiveness, as a minimum, your organization’s risk assessment should include the following risks in a risk assessment:

risk-matrix

Asset and infrastructure risk. We already see an increase in extreme weather events that could hurt a firm’s assets and supply chains. In Climate Change, A Very Short Introduction, numerous relevant examples are given:

[I]n recent years massive storms and subsequent floods have hit China, Italy, England, Korea, Bangladesh, Venezuela, and Mozambique. In England in 2000, 2007, and 2013/13, floods and storms classified as ‘once-in-200-years events’ have occurred within 13 years and frequently within a single year. Moreover, in Britain the winter of 2013/14 was the wettest six months since records began in the 18th century, while August 2008 was the wettest on record.

Organizations could use climate forecasting models to show which assets and infrastructure are more at risk because of climate change. A next step would be to develop scenarios that would lessen the impacts on your assets and supply chains (e.g. moving operations to areas less affected by extreme weather events).

Yield and price risk. When climate change starts to affect crop yields, it will also affect purchasing prices. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) brings together key climate research conducted all over the world and provides a consensus of this research. The IPCC, 2014 report found:

Based on many studies covering a wide range of regions and crops, negative impacts of climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts. [S]everal periods of rapid food and cereal price increases following climate extremes in key producing regions indicate a sensitivity of current markets to climate extremes (…).

Your organization should know which commodities are most at risk from the impacts of climate change. This should be a starting point for developing scenarios to mitigate yield and price risks.

Government regulations. Now that the Paris Agreement has come into force, we can see governments stepping up their work to implement policies that will make sure global average temperatures well below 2°C. Barack Obama in The Economist:

[S]ustainable economic growth requires addressing climate change. Over the past five years, the notion of a trade-off between increasing growth and reducing emissions has been put to rest. America has cut energy-sector emissions by 6%, even as our economy has grown by 11%. Progress in America also helped catalyse the historic Paris climate agreement, which presents the best opportunity to save the planet for future generations.

Any policy changes that try to curb climate change will impact business-as-usual. As a mitigation strategy, organizations should try to understand possible policy options and work out the effects on operations and profitability.

Reputation risk. Awareness of climate change in general is on the rise. Whenever the public is of the opinion that the firm’s activities are harmful (this obviously extends beyond climate change), there’s a probability that profitability is at risk. For example, the big palm oil trader IOI was accused of illegal logging recently  ̶  contributing directly to climate change because of loss of rain forest that stores CO2  ̶  , experienced extreme negative publicity (see this article in the Financial Times), and saw share prices and revenues tumbling. As a first step in creating mitigation scenarios, firms should make an effort in understanding external stakeholder’s views and wishes towards the firm’s climate change actions. As the IOI example shows, reputation risk does not only revolve around emissions but also around having supply chains that contribute towards climate change by deforestation (e.g. beef, soy, palm oil, and wood fiber). Your organization should therefore not only know which operations are most at risk from the impacts of climate change (direct risks), but should also know which commodities contribute the most towards climate change (reputation and regulatory risk).

As I already argued in my blog post The Business Case for Non-Financial Reporting, disclosing non-financial information can lead to insights on how to update your business strategy or improve stakeholder relations. Reporting on climate change gives you the opportunity to update your risk management framework. By breaking climate risks down into direct and external stakeholder risks, and putting in place mitigation scenarios, your organization will be well prepared for an age where climate change is at the top of the agenda.

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3 Reasons to Use Science-Based Measures in Your Sustainability Report

planetary_boundaries_2015

In the Guardian, the case is made that current reporting practices on sustainability are a great waste of time. According to researchers, nobody actually reads sustainability reports. One of the main reasons being, that reports are impenetrable: they’re just too thick to get through.  The authors identified a number of issues with current sustainability reporting practices which could be the cause for this.

The main culprit: most companies do not have a good process in place to determine materiality. The outcomes of a materiality assessment determine which aspects are to be included in your sustainability report.

One thing researchers missed, which could address both their worry that ‘sustainability reporting has stalled’ and help further discussions on the materiality issue, is the use of science-based metrics in sustainability reporting. I see a number of frameworks arising that all seem to stem from Johan Rockströms’ famous article in Nature, called ‘A safe operating space for humanity’. The premise is beautifully simple:

To meet the challenge of maintaining the Holocene state, we propose a framework based on ‘planetary boundaries’. These boundaries define the safe operating space for humanity with respect to the Earth system and are associated with the planet’s biophysical subsystems or processes. (…) Many subsystems of Earth react in a nonlinear, often abrupt, way, and are particularly sensitive around threshold levels of certain key variables. If these thresholds are crossed, then important subsystems (…) could shift into a new state, often with deleterious or potentially even disastrous consequences for humans.

In short:  we need boundaries – sufficiently underpinned by science – for Earth’s relevant subsystems and processes to continue using the Earth for our resource needs. Boundaries do have to be properly translated for use in existing models (such as the Global Reporting Initiative’s G4 Guidelines). Also, the boundaries must correspond with a firm’s size – as yardsticks against which to measure a companies’ sustainability effort.  This gives us the ability to benchmark a company’s progress against the reality in which it operates. A number of science-based frameworks are already adopted by some of the world’s leading companies on sustainability, e.g. Science Based Targets (Coca-Cola, Dell and Carrefour among many others), One Planet Thinking (Eneco) and Context Based Sustainability (Ben & Jerry’s).

I give you three reasons why your business should include science-based measures and boundaries in its non-financial or sustainability report.

1.     Make your report more relevant by showing your relative impact

The Guardian argues that most sustainability reports do not really invite us to continue reading. I tend to agree. Just pick-up a random sustainability report and you’ll be sure to get lost in tables, charts, figures, and the ubiquitous pictures of smiling, happy people. You immediately wonder how you should put together all these stats and figures to reach a conclusion on the companies’ sustainability efforts. Or, what I often ask myself: why do the things this company does towards sustainability matter at all? What is their impact if you would compare this to the size and scale of their value chain? By including science-based measures and boundaries, you show what your firm is achieving against objective yardsticks. In turn, it’ll make your sustainability report more relevant and credible to your stakeholders and investors.

2.     Show that your business is not ‘greenwashing’

Sustainability reporting is still often seen as a greenwashing operation. Although a claim of greenwashing is actually almost always too severe an accusation considering the definition of that word – ‘misleading information disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image’ – I hear the term a lot when talking about the sustainability efforts of organizations.

I believe that the term greenwashing is used by the general public, because it is difficult for companies to understand which elements to focus on in their sustainability reporting. This leaves space for stakeholders to wonder about all of the sustainability elements companies chose not to include.

In the article ‘Raising the Bar on Corporate Sustainability Reporting to Meet Ecological Challenges Globally’, the United Nations Environmental Program raises similar doubts about the effectiveness of sustainability reports:

(…) the quality of these reports is insufficient to represent the full impacts of a company’s use of resources and materials on the environment and on communities.

And:

“Corporate sustainability reporting needs to be rapidly elevated from focusing on incremental, isolated improvements to corporate environmental impacts,” said Arab Hoballah, Chief of UNEP’s Sustainable Cities and Lifestyles Branch. “It should instead serve to catalyze business operations along value chains to achieve the kind of transformative change necessary to accomplish the Sustainable Development Goals and objectives by 2030. This is precisely what is needed to encourage countries and companies to act effectively at their respective levels.”

Moving towards more contextual-based reporting – i.e. taking into consideration both boundaries and the impact that is expected from your organization in respect to its size and span of your value chain – will surely make your organization less susceptible to charges of greenwashing and will make your positive impacts (or the steps you take to mitigate negative impacts) clearer to your stakeholders.

3.     Safeguard your business against the Slippery Slope argument

Activist NGOs surely serve a purpose in raising important topics. However, their solutions might go a bit far at times. The way activist NGOs attack businesses often reminds me of something Theodore Dalrymple wrote (on an entirely different topic but the words resonate):

I was still of the callow – and fundamentally lazy – youthful opinion that nothing in the world could change until everything changed.

Hardin, in his magnificent Filters Against Folly, called this the Slippery Slope argument:

The punch line goes by many names, among which are the [The Camel’s Nose,] Thin Edge of the Wedge, and the Slippery Slope. The idea is always the same: we cannot budge a millimeter from our present position without sliding all the way to Hell. (…), the fear of the Nose/Wedge/Slope is rooted in thinking that is wholly literate and adamantly antinumerate.

Hardin goes on to call this the demand for absolute (or extreme) purity:

The greed of some enterprisers in seeking profits through pollution is matched by a different sort of greed of some environmentalists in demanding absolute purity regardless of cost.

And:

When costs are paid out of a common pot, extreme purity in one dimension can be achieved only by impoverishment or contamination of others. Trying for too much we achieve less. Rational limits must be set to every ideal of purity.

Thus, Hardin states that everything that we do will lead to some unwanted consequences. Our actions need to be analyzed with the right terminology (‘literacy’), but, on top of that, we will also need the right measures (called ‘numeracy’; for more on these very useful terms, also see my blog The Business Case for Non-Financial Reporting).

Numeracy doesn’t just mean quantifying things; it means making the numbers relative to certain boundaries that give the numbers meaning. Using science-based measures to show the performance of your business towards certain boundaries or limits makes for a compelling argument to counter any Slippery Slope argument. In a way, what you are doing is making both ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’ more relative. Now, it can be measured and actions can be discussed and taken more objectively.

By way of conclusion: moving closer to a world we want

I have given you three reasons why you should consider moving towards science-based measures and boundaries in your non-financial reporting. As I already argued in a previous blog post, see Beyond Shareholder vs. Stakeholder Value, a firm’s main purpose is to provide maximal value to the economic system, but it should do so by adjusting to changing stakeholder demands. I believe moving to science-based measures and boundaries is the next step in these stakeholder demands and could take non-financial reporting to the next level, benefiting both companies (through the three reasons I gave you) and society as a whole (by introducing planetary boundaries).

Including science-based metrics will not solve everything, but let us see it as the next step and acknowledge that we cannot solve all issues at once. To paraphrase Theodore Dalrymple, moving forward, let us be:

realistic without being cynical, and let us be idealists without sounding like utopians.

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Beyond Shareholder vs. Stakeholder Value

In a recent article in the Economist (Analyse This), shareholder value is still seen as ‘the governing principle of firms’. Despite increasing calls to start running firms for the sake of stakeholders, the influential newspaper sticks to running the firm for shareholders and thus to an idea that was described by Milton Friedman in his seminal Capitalism and Freedom in 1962:

 There is one and only one social responsibility of business — to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it … engages in open and free competition, without deception or fraud.

In contrast to Friedman’s (and The Economist’s) view, there’s an ever increasing movement that calls for running firms for the sake of its stakeholders (e.g. employees, local communities, public interest groups and financiers) instead of its shareholders. Frameworks are being developed that try to capture more than the financial value of a firm (e.g. the Integrated Reporting framework). Even arguably the most famous of the management scholars, Michael Porter, turns his back on shareholder value. In a 2011 Harvard Business Review article he argues:

A big part of the problem lies with companies themselves, which remain trapped in an outdated approach to value creation that has emerged over the past decades. They continue to view value creation narrowly, optimizing short-term financial performance in a bubble while missing the most important customer needs and ignoring the broader influences that determine their longer-term success. How else could companies overlook the well-being of their customers, the depletion of natural resources vital to their businesses, the viability of key suppliers, or the economic distress of the communities in which they produce and sell?

I propose to move away from the confusing discussion about shareholders and stakeholders for two reasons.

First, shareholder value never seems to be properly defined in the general debate. And certainly not when it’s in the hands of stakeholder-theory proponents. It often gets twisted into something that makes the business world look immoral: businesses will do just anything to make a profit at the expense of everything else. This is, however, not the shareholder theory Friedman had in mind. I included his quote at the start of this text to show that the shareholder view actually calls for ‘free competition, without deception or fraud’ (italics mine). The important phrase ‘without deception or fraud’ seems to be left out of the discussion by stakeholder-theory supporters all together. Furthermore, the attack on shareholder value usually includes the argument that shareholders aim for short-term profits. Business valuation theory, however, actually teaches us that the valuation of a firm is an outcome of its long-term operating income (or cash-flow) and not short-term profit (or short-term rise in stock prices). I do not think it is possible to change the general public’s feelings about the shareholder value concept. It has a tarnished reputation that cannot be mended.

Second, the concept of running a firm in the interest of all its stakeholders is flawed. Stakeholders often have conflicting interests. You cannot shut down environmentally damaging operations without cutting jobs (in the short-run at least). Cheap raw materials or supplied goods can keep prices for consumers down, but might fuel bad ethical practices by suppliers. A firm might be able to balance those interests but can never acquiesce to all without hurting the bottom-line.

Some concepts to change the debate

If a stand-off between a stakeholder and a shareholder view is not the answer, what is? First, try to think of businesses as entities that maximize value to the economic system, i.e. long-term positive cashflow that secures jobs and tax income. Second, acknowledge that firms cannot possibly adhere to all stakeholders’ demands instantaneous and simultaneous. That would certainly hurt the long-term positive cashflow, and thus jobs and tax income. Instead, allow firms to balance the interests of stakeholders and their own long-term positive cashflow goal. In fact, firms are increasingly adopting materiality analysis in which the social and environmental impacts are weighed against the impact on the firm’s profitability.

In combining these two aspects – a firm balances the interests of all stakeholders whilst safeguarding long-term positive cashflow – a model arises where a firm can perform its task of providing maximal value to the economic system by adjusting to changing stakeholder pressures. The task of stakeholders (maybe society in general is an even better concept) is to guide behavior of all entities in society to behavior it deems beneficial. Firms can choose to be front-runners by using Environmental, Social and Governance topics (ESG-topics) to craft strategies to gain competitive advantage (maybe even working together with certain groups of stakeholders). Or firms can take a more defensive stance and wait until regulators or market conditions push them to include ESG-topics into their business practices. For most firms, especially SMEs, the latter strategy may seem the only viable option considering available resources anyway.

In other words, if society wants to push sustainable strategies in companies it should not put pressure on companies alone. Society should put pressure on governments and regulators to adopt rules and regulations to develop the world it wants. A model would arise in which society as a whole moves the world in a direction it wants to go, a world that ought to be. (The ultimate guiding principles in this respect could be the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which were put forward by the United Nations recently.) The world that ought to be should be translated in rules and regulations. For citizens. But also for companies.

There will, of course, always be companies that shape the world that ought to be in accordance with stakeholder views. But this is not the corporate world’s main task. A firm’s main task is to create maximum value to the economic system by supplying jobs and generating tax income. It should do so in a context where the rules are set by others.

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