In a KPMG survey of 3,300 financial professionals, more than half of respondents indicated climate change-related financial disclosures were an opportunity to demonstrate their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) edge to employees and investors while distancing themselves from competitors. However, only 32% saw these disclosures as mostly a compliance exercise.
Yet, just last year, a KPMG global survey showed that only 40% of firms acknowledged climate change in financial disclosures, with just 1 in 5 reporting in line with the standards from the Financial Stability Board’s Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD).
Why the gap? Companies struggle to move from answering “why” they will embed ESG into their strategy to “how” they will make that happen and “what” they will report in telling their story.
For example, another KPMG survey, of technology leaders, found that 82% wanted to lock in sustainability gains, but more than half said they do not have a decarbonization strategy in place.
Moving from aspiration to reality explains only part of the challenge. For reporting, and in particular ESG issues within financial reporting, the reality is complex. Liabilities may not be recognized, assets may not be written down, and estimates may not be adjusted until the company meets the criteria in the relevant standards. New disclosure requirements may change the level of transparency about a company’s strategy and its actions relating to environmental factors. Fundamental changes will be very challenging, and global standard setters and regulators are still reviewing new disclosure rules.
The strategy some organizations may default to is to wait for regulators to mandate disclosures. The European Union, for example, proposed the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive to put the reporting of sustainability information on par with standard financial information. The Securities and Exchange Commission, meanwhile, is navigating a historic effort to require public companies to release investor-facing climate-related disclosures.
But we believe this wait-and-see approach should be replaced by a mindset of being prepared for three reasons:
KPMG’s recent “Climate risk in the financial statements” handbook focuses on the “E” in ESG, outlining key questions CFOs must ask to (1) understand the landscape of climate risks (2) analyze the potential financial impacts of the organization’s decarbonization actions and (3) consider which information to disclose and how to disclose it.
There are three kinds of climate risks: physical, regulatory, and transition-related. Physical risks include the effects of climate change in flooding, hurricanes, and other weather pattern changes that threaten company infrastructure and supply chains. Regulatory risks include being subject to new policies that limit revenue opportunities or increase exposure to litigation. Finally, transition-related risks reflect potential challenges during a shift to a low-carbon economy, including changing consumer preferences, stranded assets, and capital costs.
While all companies should assess those three risks, the TCFD has spotlighted five industries as high risk: finance; energy; transportation; materials and buildings; and agriculture, food, and forestry products.
As a starting point, CFOs of all industries and sectors should strive for honest insight into the multidimensional pressure points faced by their organization. Beyond typical questions on investor sentiment, CFOs should ask:
Decarbonization is the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions through the use of low-carbon power sources. As companies set decarbonization strategies, CFOs must monitor impacts on existing assets, inorganic growth strategies, and financing opportunities, along with the accounting impacts for financial reporting. Doing so drives discussion across the organization to best embed an ESG lens into the organization’s future.
After understanding the external landscape and formulating the organizational strategy, CFOs should explore and plan for wide-ranging accounting matters. For example, considering environmental factors in testing a wide range of nonfinancial assets for impairment is increasingly essential. Looking at the reporting strategy, CFOs should ask whether current disclosures meet rising demands, including SEC staff concerns about the robustness of disclosures outside the financial statements, and whether the company’s decarbonization strategy affects individual reporting segments.
These assessments may not significantly alter financial reporting today but setting up processes and establishing expectations for the financial statement disclosure committee will enable greater reporting sophistication down the road. Whether it’s new low-cost ways to raise capital, attractive M&A opportunities, or benefits typically outside a CFO’s scope — brand reputation, customer acquisition, and access to talent — companies have the potential to gain an ESG advantage.
Scott Flynn is the audit vice chair at KPMG and Maura Hodge is audit leader at KPMG IMPACT.