Why the growth of climate and ESG inside boardrooms gives me hope

By hellebankjorgensen

(This article originally appeared in GreenBiz, December 21, 2021)

There has been a plethora of reports or surveys this year about the ESG and climate competencies of boards of directors around the world. This is definitely a good thing.

Tensie Whelan from the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business set the tone in January with a new study examining ESG competencies in boardrooms. According to the report, U.S. Corporate Boards Suffer from Inadequate Expertise in Financially Material ESG Matters, only 29 percent of the Fortune 100 directors surveyed had relevant ESG credentials, with only about 1 percent having any climate credentials.

The Sustainability Board Report 2021 revealed that only four in 10 directors serving on a board committee that oversees ESG and sustainability were ESG Conscious (defined as “elucidates sustainability, knowingness, attitudes, and behavior”) and only 8 percent had a formal ESG/sustainability certificate showcasing that they had received ESG training. However, that is still an improvement from the 2019 report where only 17 percent of those serving to oversee sustainability matters were ESG Conscious.

A Deloitte Global report published in November surveyed audit committees across 40 countries. It showed that just under half (47 percent) of the board members serving on those committees considered themselves “climate literate.”

Heidrick & Struggles and INSEAD rounded off 2021 by publishing a new study showing that 75 percent of the surveyed 301 board members believe that climate change is very important to their company’s strategic success. “Changing the Climate in the Boardroom” had further nuggets:

  • 72 percent reporting confidence that they will reach their climate change goals
  • 69 percent said climate change knowledge is not a formal requirement for joining their board
  • 65 percent said that knowledge of climate change is not a formal requirement in CEO selection

In a few years, we might shudder at statistics such as this, but this data is a huge step forward from January 2019, when we launched the #CompetentBoardsMovement in Davos during the World Economic Forum. At that point, most board members and executives did not see climate or ESG as a board issue.

Personally, I’m optimistic for 2022. Not only because boards of directors want to get formal training, such as our ESG Certificate and Designation program, but also because asset managers and proxy advisers are leaning that way, too.

On Dec. 7, Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) announced 2022 Benchmark Policy updates relating to climate change and climate risks. Under the headline Board Accountability on Climate, ISS announced:

“For 2022, the new benchmark board accountability policy will focus on the companies currently identified as Climate Action 100+ Focus companies, and will recommend “Against” votes for responsible incumbent directors — usually the appropriate committee or board chair in the first year, dependent on the market — in cases where the company is not considered to have adequate disclosure, such as according to the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), or does not have quantitative GHG emission reduction targets covering at least a significant portion of the company’s direct emissions.”

This was followed swiftly by Bloomberg Businessweek publishing “The ESG Mirage.” This wide-ranging, in-depth report opened strongly: “MSCI, the largest ESG rating company, doesn’t even try to measure the impact of a corporation on the world. It’s all about whether the world might mess with the bottom line.”

We can judge companies on their transition plans, goals and budgets. However, if the board of directors that should provide oversight doesn’t have the insight and foresight to do so, how can investors use the ratings and rankings to assess its ESG governance and value creation?

It will be hard to do any business in an unlivable world.

The ratings and rankings of 2022 need to ensure that board members have the needed ESG and climate insight. They need to ask if they are ESG- and climate-competent.In short, we need the board members of 2022 and beyond to become Stewards of the Future.

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