Climate risk disclosure “glaringly absent” in financial statements? Will regulators act to require more?
In one of the illustrative comments in Corp Fin’s just published sample comment letter on climate issues, Corp Fin asks companies to explain what consideration they may have given to providing in their SEC filings the same type of expansive climate-related disclosure that’s in their corporate social responsibility reports. One place in companies’ SEC filings where climate-related disclosure is “glaringly absent,” according to this report from the Carbon Tracker Initiative, is in the financial statements. Although many companies face serious climate risk, and many have even made net-zero pledges, the report “found little evidence that companies or their auditors considered climate-related matters in the 2020 financial statements.” According to the lead author of the report, “[b]ased on the significant exposure these companies have to transition risks, and with many announcing emissions targets, we expected substantially more consideration of climate matters in the financials than we found. Without this information there is little way of knowing the extent of capital at risk, or if funds are being allocated to unsustainable businesses….” Financial statement disclosure was so deficient, the report concluded, investors were essentially “flying blind.”
In February, then-Acting SEC Chair Allison Lee directed the staff of Corp Fin, in connection with the disclosure review process, to “enhance its focus on climate-related disclosure in public company filings,” starting with the extent to which public companies address the topics identified in the interpretive guidance the staff issued regarding climate change in 2010. (See this PubCo post.) In March, the SEC announced the creation of a new Climate and ESG Task Force in the Division of Enforcement. (See this PubCo post.) How else does this new ESG focus play out? On Wednesday, Bloomberg reported, Lindsay McCord, Corp Fin Chief Accountant, in remarks to the Baruch College spring financial reporting conference, said that the SEC staff are also “scrutinizing how public companies account for climate-related risks and impacts to their business based on existing accounting rules.” So, in addition to refreshing their understandings of the 2010 guidance, companies will also need to take a hard look at the how environmental issues could affect their financials.
Non-profit CDP (fka the Carbon Disclosure Project) has released its analysis of the responses to its climate change questionnaire for 2018 from two groups of companies—a large group of almost 7,000 respondents and, analyzed separately, a group of 366 respondents that were among the world’s 500 largest companies (by market cap). The analysis focused on the risks and opportunities presented by climate change and, for the first time, the analysis considered companies’ expectations regarding the potential financial impact of climate risk. In the aggregate, the amount reported was eye-popping, if not exactly surprising, and, given that many companies did not respond at all, is undoubtedly an underestimate. Notably, however, the aggregate amount companies attributed to potential climate-related opportunities was even “bigger than the risks.” The significance of the potential financial implications, together with the imminence of these risks, suggest that companies may need to think hard about climate risks and the associated financial implications in crafting their public disclosures.