Governance Is Still At Low Tide
By Jane Moir, Vivian Yau 18 June, 2021
How can companies rethink their ESG to deliver real change? Check out the 6 suggestions from ACGA's Moir & Yau
Hong Kong company directors came precariously close to having to wade through two feet of water to get into the financial district in 2018 when a mega typhoon hit. The prospect of flooded shores—graphically illustrated by China Water Risk at our recent conference on corporate governance—is one of myriad climate issues executives are ill-prepared for.
Ask any company in the region about sustainability and they will agree it is a smart business option. After years of seeming disinterest, Asia’s capital markets are moving quickly to adopt new policies on green finance. Policymakers are putting sustainability concerns high on their agendas as they grapple with the long-term effects of environmental degradation.
Real progress on ESG requires companies to rethink how they operate & govern
Real progress on ESG however requires companies to rethink how they operate and govern themselves. That is our focus at the Asian Corporate Governance Association (ACGA). As a non-profit membership association, we conduct research and advocate at the regulatory and corporate level to improve standards and practices. Our belief is that only companies which are well-run and trade on markets with sound regulatory policy are going to be able to meet the challenges of climate change. Pressure for companies to measure, disclose and ultimately respond to environmental risk is only going to increase. They need to be fit for purpose.
ACGA’s latest research on corporate governance shows that progress is being made in APAC – Japan & Taiwan in particular
The good news is that there is progress being made in the Asia-Pacific, as we reveal in our latest report card on corporate governance for 12 markets in the region, CG Watch 2020: Future Promise. Aligning governance and ESG in Asia. Corporate governance practices are improving; Japan and Taiwan in particular are examples of concerted efforts paying off. How companies report on their sustainability efforts too is becoming broader and deeper.
But it is apparent from our research of these 12 markets that policymakers, regulators and companies need to take a new tack if ESG efforts are to deliver real change. With that in mind, here are a few suggestions:
1. Coordinated efforts by policymakers and regulators
ESG issues may sit high on a public policy agenda but there needs to be a rethink of how corporate governance rules, regulations or codes can best be adapted to fit with this policy.
2. CG Codes need a sharper focus on climate risk…
While many corporate governance codes now reflect modern concerns such as board diversity, lead independent directors and managing stakeholder concerns more effectively, they tend to take only a high-level consideration of the importance of ESG and sustainability.
…and should give practical guidance to companies
Listed companies need support on ESG reporting: it is a new and complex area and getting it right is not easy.
CG Codes tend to lack specifics on how companies should tackle climate risk. Do they need to set up new committees with directors who have specific training in environmental issues? Do directors need to gain new skills? How can boards weave ESG concerns into strategic decision-making?
Unless boards and management are thinking through these questions a company will struggle to respond adequately to these risks.
3. Company boards should set the tone and be accountable for ESG efforts…
While companies are getting better at producing ESG and sustainability reports, they are often silent on the role of the board and the extent of oversight on these issues. A company’s ESG report should set out details of the board’s role, how it identifies climate risks relevant to its business and makes decisions on these issues.
Boards should work with management to ensure they are satisfied with the company’s sustainability governance, including the structure and how it operates at a practical level. The board has ultimate responsibility and any questions raised around its disclosure of sustainability efforts should be addressed.
Some companies are trying to answer these questions by setting up new sustainability committees at board level, while others are consulting experts and non-profits on the adverse impact of climate risk to their businesses.
…and avoid boilerplate disclosure
At ACGA we surveyed 180 large-cap listed companies and 120 mid-caps in the region as part of our CG Watch 2020 report.
Focus reporting on ESG issues that are of most financial relevance to the investors…
We found that less than half of the large caps disclose concrete steps they are taking to address the physical risks of climate change. A further 20% acknowledged the risk but did not explain how they are responding to it. A third of companies ignore it entirely. Companies need to focus their reporting on ESG issues that are of most financial relevance to their investors: explain the data and what it means for your business going forward in the next five to ten years.
…& identify the specific risks & report on the potential impact on the operations & business models
Unfortunately, most CG Codes today only expect companies to make broad statements on material ESG risks and how decisions are made on these issues. Company reports can thus be very formulaic rather than pinpointing the climate risks and response measures unique to their business. Companies need to identify the specific risks and report on the potential impact on their operations and business models.
4. Think about targets
Writing a sensible target is difficult. In our survey of large-cap and mid-cap companies in the region, less than 15% of the 180 firms scored top marks for having targets linked to most of their material issue areas. But it can be done.
5. Don’t just report – hold your company accountable
Unlike a company’s financial statements, most ESG reports are not audited or reviewed by independent third parties. But having these reports assured could boost stakeholder confidence in the quality of a company’s sustainability disclosure. An assurance firm would also make recommendations as to how companies could improve their reporting.
6. Investors need to take companies to task on sustainability…
Investors are getting better at holding companies to account on governance and ESG issues and have a critical role to play. Many CG Codes in the region encourage investors to develop and publicise their “stewardship” policies in this regard, but there is much room for improvement:
….and disclose the results
There is great value in investors disclosing to the market how they have been engaging with companies on ESG issues and what they intend to do in future. Reporting on these policies and practices is still patchy in the region. Investors can shape the debate about CG and sustainability through their words and actions, including attending AGMs and asking difficult questions of directors and auditors.
- Regulators Have A Role To Play In Tackling The Global Water Crisis – Financial regulators must ensure the economic recovery is resilient to climate & water risks. Ceres’ Miller expands
- 2021 Top 10 Trends in Responsible Investment in China – China’s low carbon transition is in full swing. SynTao Green Finance shares their 10 trends for responsible investment in 2021
- ESG Doomsday Preppers – Many laughed at Doomsday preppers but who is laughing now as companies integrating ESG outperform during the crisis? ADMCF’s Lee expands
- Connecting Finance & Water Risk – Natural Capital Coalition’s Mark Gough & Joseph Harris-Confino on their newly launched supplement for the finance sector – see how can this help bankers, investors and insurers alike amidst increasing ESG adoption
- The Future Of Finance – HKGFA’s Dr. Ma Jun believes in post-COVID times, investors & bankers should expect more emphasis on environmental disclosure by regulators, which will pave the way for higher quality green finance products
More on Latest
- 2020 State Of Ecology And Environment Report Review – Has groundwater quality improved? Can the major rivers meet their Water Ten targets? Read our review of the latest 2020 report to catch up on China’s water quality
- 2020 China Marine Ecology & Environment Status Review – Ocean has become a new driving force of economic development in China. How did ocean do in terms of pollution? Check out more from our review on the status of China’s ocean
- Tesla: Pollution Under A Low Carbon Halo – Tesla appears to be the world’s choice to go net-zero. Yet is it truly green? IPE’s Linda Greer & DING Shanshan share the latest report findings on how it is polluting China under a low carbon halo
- Net Zero & Water Security: 3 Bottlenecks In Future Tech – The momentum of global net zero is building yet CWR’s Debra Tan & Ronald Leung see 3 key bottlenecks that could prevent us from achieving both net zero & water security
- HK Businesses Go Circular Via A Digital Marketplace – HK produces >5.5mn tons of waste per year yet the majority of them are not recycled or recovered. Find out from Tamanna Wadhwani how an online platform like Aspire can help businesses to go circular
Read more from Jane Moir →
Read more from Vivian Yau →