As the conflict and human suffering in Ukraine tragically continue to unfold and European reliance on Russian fossil fuels becomes increasingly untenable, we are reminded of the importance of the shift towards renewable and alternative energy sources. At the same time, the recent UN climate change report highlighted once again not only the environmental cost but also the human toll of unchecked climate change. This reminder of the very real risks associated with climate change gives further credence to the need for regulatory action to shine a light on how corporate behavior can either push us closer to climate catastrophe or drive the positive change needed to build a more sustainable future.
As we near Earth Day, it is crucial for us all to remember that climate change is a human rights and equity issue and that climate justice, in which all people have a safe and sustainable world in which to live, must be our ultimate goal.
In the News
Companies that scored the strongest on environmental, social, and governance metrics saw some of the highest returns in 2021 with help from stocks such as Nvidia, Microsoft and Tesla. This is despite many of the best-performing stocks last year being oil and gas-focused energy companies. The Morningstar U.S. Sustainability Leaders Index, representing the 50 U.S. companies with the best ESG scores as measured by Sustainalytics, returned 33.3% for the year, beating the broader U.S. market by more than 8%. Some analysts note that ESG funds often take on large positions in so-called mega-cap companies that pass ESG screens, which tend to be in the tech sector that has performed particularly well in recent years. However, ESG screens can also eliminate companies like Meta (Facebook) and Amazon due to their societal impacts and labor practices.
Europe is imposing new requirements on how banks report environmental risks and carbon targets to give investors a better picture of the threats that climate change poses to the industry. The regulator said that new rules proposed by the European Banking Authority give banks far less leeway to cherry pick what to disclose or to use exaggerated language to describe what they are doing. While the initial focus of the requirements is focused mainly on climate, banks would also have to explain how they are incorporating ESG into governance structures, strategies and business models, as well as risk management frameworks.
Companies of all sizes are increasingly tying executive pay to ESG goals in response to scrutiny from investors, regulators and activists alike. In 2021, a quarter of U.S. companies included some form of environmental or social metric as part of their executive incentive plans, up from 16% in 2019, according to a study by proxy advisory firm Glass Lewis & Co. The connection between executive pay and ESG considerations is as much about a company’s long-term success as any positive public perception. One important factor – these executive performance metrics only have teeth if companies have concrete goals against which to measure progress.
New York Times
A California law requiring diversity on corporate boards of directors has been struck down in a blow to the state’s efforts to address racial and gender disparities in the workplace. Conservative advocacy group Judicial Watch brought a suit against the state, claiming that the law – which required publicly traded companies based in California to have board members from underrepresented communities including people of certain races and ethnic groups and people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender – was unconstitutional. But it seems clear that regulatory requirements on diversity can have the desired result. Since California passed a law requiring gender diversity on corporate boards, the number of women directors has more than doubled, according to a report from California Partners Project.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has released its latest 3,000-page report on the state of climate change, and the answer is clear – we are not currently taking sufficient action to avoid climate disaster. According to the report, if left unchanged, the world’s current emissions trend could result in warming of more than twice the target limit set forth in the 2015 Paris Agreement of no more than 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The good news is that we know what to do to manage climate change and have the tools to do it. The challenge remains to muster the necessary political and social will to take the required steps.
Wall Street Journal
A coalition of more than 60 groups, that beside private-equity also includes banks, pension funds and others, has signed on to back a new nonprofit aimed at promoting broad-based stock ownership. The nonprofit, known as Ownership Works, will help companies roll out share-ownership programs for employees, most notably including lower-level workers who have historically not been included in stock ownership programs at the same rate as upper management. Coalition member firms that buy control of companies have pledged to institute employee ownership at a minimum of three portfolio companies by the end of 2023. This move aims to tackle rising wealth inequality in the U.S. The wealthiest 10% of Americans held $36 trillion in stocks and mutual funds in 2021, an increase of more than 21 times since 1989, according to Federal Reserve data. That compares with $260 billion and an increase of about 12 times for the bottom 50%.
New York Times
The Securities and Exchange Commission gave initial approval to a much-anticipated climate disclosure rule which aims to provide investors a clearer picture of the risks that climate change might pose to companies, including climate-related events like droughts and wildfires, as well as changes in policies and changes in consumer sentiment about businesses that negatively impact the environment. The rule could have far-reaching consequences. Advocates say that the transparency the rule requires would hold companies accountable for their role in climate change and give investors additional leverage to call for changes to business practices that contribute to global warming. Some industry groups have already signaled their intention to challenge the rule. Those challenges hinge on whether those climate disclosures are material to investors’ ability to make an informed decision about buying or selling a stock.