The International Conference on ESG and Climate Governance – a collaboration between Sim Kee Boon Institute (SKBI) for Financial Economics at Singapore Management University, the Centre for Climate Engagement (CCE) at Hughes Hall, University of Cambridge, and the Climate Governance Initiative – brought together academic experts, practitioners and board directors from around the world to discuss the latest developments and thinking on board governance of environmental and social issues.
- Boards are facing increasing pressure from a range of stakeholders – in particular regulators and investors – to identify and address the risks and opportunities associated with the impact their businesses are having on society and the environment
- Although there is pressure across the globe, there are regional differences in the drivers:
- In Africa – the focus is on the social aspects of a low carbon and just transition and local entrepreneurs are seeing the benefit of aligning with ESG requirements to attract investment
- In China – top down policy and influence set the agenda for delivering against its ambitious Five Year Plan for Economic and Social Development which includes concrete environmental and efficiency targets
- In Europe – regulation is increasing to ensure real cuts are made to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in line with the Paris Agreement
- In the Middle East – the impacts of climate change have pushed the Middle East into the climate conversation, particularly through hosting COP28. Islamic Law provides an in-built ‘double accountability’ approach that supports ESG considerations
- In the US – political polarity around climate change and the anti-ESG sentiment has slowed progress, but the Inflation Reduction Act provides a clear signal and committed finance to drive investment in low carbon technologies
- In addition to the regional context, there are also differences in corporate board responses to climate change and the broader range of ESG issues that are a result of ownership structure, organisation size and sector.
- Despite these differences, there are good examples of high performing businesses across every sector, region and business type which points to the fact that good governance is possible no matter what the context.
The overwhelming outcome of the conference discussions with academics, practitioners and directors from across the globe was the need to a rapidly scale up board-level understanding of the real businesses risks and opportunities of environmental, social and governance issues. Professor Winston Chow, International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report co-author from Singapore Management University set the tone with a sobering account of the climate crisis and highlighting the need for immediate action. Empowering board directors with knowledge and understanding to confidently ask the right questions of their management team and challenge their fellow board members on sustainability issues is paramount.
H.E. Kateryna Zelenko, the Ukrainian Ambassador to Singapore, provided an inspiring account of true leadership. Ukraine’s commitment and plans to build back from the Russia-Ukraine war with sustainability at the core of its recovery process despite the devastating impacts Ukraine has felt from the Russian invasion are exemplary. The Ambassador was clear in her remarks: ‘for Ukraine, climate mitigation is a plan of recovery, a plan of survival, and a plan of victory’.
The state of ESG around the world
The conference provided rich insights on ESG from around the world with academics and directors from around the globe coming together to share their insights.
Initial findings from the recent survey from INSEAD, Boston Consulting Group and Henrick & Struggles – an update on their 2022 Board ESG Pulse Check (BCG-INSEAD | ESG issues survey series | BCG) provided a helpful backdrop to the conversation. Their preliminary findings indicate an increase in awareness and discussion around ESG issues in the boardroom but a lack of real understanding of the long term financial impacts associated with ESG risks with a minority of businesses truly integrating sustainability considerations into their business strategies.
Perspectives from around the world provided further context of what is happening on the ground:
Climate action and sustainability issues are still not at the forefront of boardroom conversations. Although 55 countries in Africa have signed the Paris Agreement, most of these rely on the exports from carbon intensive extractives industries to drive their economy. The transition to a low carbon economy will take time alongside needing to address energy security.
The ‘S and G’ of the ESG agenda are the priority for most businesses. Corruption, lack of accountability and lack of data are key challenges for businesses. Basic good governance practices need to be in place to allow for more targeted discussions on climate risks and opportunities.
Despite the slow moving incumbents, there is a sense that small and medium sized businesses are making more progress towards net zero goals than the larger corporations. They are looking to expand and recognize that to attract new investment, it is beneficial to align their growth strategies with sustainable development goals.
Regulation is the main driver of climate action in the European Union which has environmental protection at the heart of its constitution. New policies will have ramifications across the supply chain – in particular the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) and the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD).
The rise in climate litigation cases is also having an impact. Even those that have not been successful are shining a spotlight on the duty of care of directors, not only to their shareholders, but to broader society.
New corporate governance principles in the UK, currently open to consultation, will come into place from 2025 making it a mandatory requirement for companies with over 750 employees to tackle ESG principles head on. UK companies will need to report not only on financial resilience, but also resilience across social and environmental issues risks. This is likely to have knock on effects in other countries and regions.
The physical consequences of climate change alongside the commitments from governments around the world to reduce reliance on fossil fuels has pushed the Middle East into the climate action conversation. However, environmental issues are still not as high on the agenda as social and governance issues in the region.
A recent PwC survey on ESG showed an increase from 18% to 64% between 2022 and 2023 in the number of listed companies engaging with ESG strategies in Saudia Arabia and the UAE.
A study conducted by NASDAQ on ESG and sustainability in both North America and Europe, showed European businesses have been tackling these issues for longer than businesses in North America. Despite this increased experience and timescale in Europe, North American businesses have larger teams dedicated to addressing ESG and sustainability issues than in Europe.
In North America, the study shows that supply chain sustainability is the most important ESG and sustainability concern to businesses. The study also found that, although board directors have significant influence approving the business’ ESG and sustainability goals and strategy, they have minimal leverage when it comes to influencing the goals and strategy set.
Corporate climate action in North America has a market-led approach, with less progress seen than in Europe due to the political landscape and anti-ESG trends seen in the US. The Inflation Reduction Act, however, brings a huge opportunity to the US in terms of green investment flows into the region.
Loh Boon Chye, CEO of the Singapore Exchange (SGX) provided an insightful keynote and stressed the duty of board directors in safeguarding the long-term stability of the organisations they steward.
SGX is not only increasing mandatory climate-related disclosures for businesses listed in Singapore, but directors must also attend compulsory training to upskill and increase their climate-related knowledge. Boon Chye highlighted the importance of board directors in leveraging academic knowledge to deliver climate action in their companies by utilising frameworks and tools to integrate ESG processes into decision making.
Other experts highlighted the incredibly diverse and varied levels of social and economic development across the region and the vastly different political regimes and legal frameworks.
A resounding theme of the conference has been that no one-size fits all, and this is abundantly clear in the Asia Pacific region. The drivers of, and approaches to, climate action used in Europe and the US will not be effective in all parts of this region. Climate action in Asia is generally state-driven rather than market-driven, due to the large number of state-owned and family-owned enterprises in the region. Regulation evidencing this in China includes the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration commission (SOASA) which requires all listed state-owned enterprises to disclose their ESG reports.
While climate litigation in Europe and the US is becoming an effective driver for boards paying attention to climate action, such as the case against the board of directors at Shell in the UK, this is less common in Asia, where enforcement by the state is more likely, particularly from securities regulators.
Although the drivers and approaches to addressing climate issues differ around the world, the conference made clear that the laws and regulations in place in the US and Europe will impact companies in Asia and Africa due to the nature of global supply chains and increased regulation on imports. Board directors everywhere in the world need to be paying attention to the business risks and opportunities in the short, medium and long term. Clearly, further capacity building at all levels is needed to ensure that all members of the board are fully aware of the consequences that current environmental and social issues are creating. And underpinning all this is the need for more effective governance that will drive smart decision making for long-term success.