Posted on August 3, 2012 by Christopher Davis
In February 2010, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) issued interpretive guidance that clarified corporate disclosure obligations regarding climate change-related risks and opportunities. While the guidance didn’t create any new legal requirements, it indicated that climate-related issues can have a material impact on companies that requires appropriate disclosure. It also offered examples of the ways in which companies may be impacted, including from regulations, international accords, litigation, and physical impacts from water quality and quantity issues.
A recent Ceres report, “Physical Risks from Climate Change: A Guide for Companies and Investors in Disclosure and Management of Climate Impacts,” released in May 2012, highlights the economic impacts of extreme weather events on companies and their supply chains in seven key sectors.
More than two years after the release of this guidance, what is the state of corporate disclosure on climate change issues? Two recent reports by Ceres examined climate-related disclosure in multiple sectors.
“Clearing the Waters: A Review of Corporate Water Risk Disclosure in SEC Filings,” released June 18, 2012, examined corporate disclosure on a key climate-related issue—water risks—to see what impact the interpretive guidance had on disclosure practices. The report analyzes changes in water risk disclosure by more than 80 companies in eight water-intensive sectors: beverages, chemicals, electric power, food, homebuilding, mining, oil and gas, and semiconductors. It found that significantly more companies are disclosing exposure to water risk in 2011 compared to 2009, with a focus on physical risk. For example, 87 percent of companies surveyed now report physical risk exposure versus 76 percent in 2009, with the biggest increases coming from the oil and gas sector. There was also a meaningful increase in the number of companies connecting water issues to climate change as part of a long-term trend.
The report recommends, however, that companies make further efforts to include quantitative data and performance targets in financial filings to clarify how they are actually responding to these water-related risks. Without this level of specificity, as well as more information on water management systems, it remains difficult for investors to incorporate these factors into their decision-making.
Another new Ceres report, “Sustainable Extraction? An Analysis of SEC Disclosure by Major Oil & Gas Companies on Climate Risk and Deepwater Drilling Risk,” released August 2, 2012, examines climate change disclosure in one carbon-intensive industry: oil and gas. The report examined the financial filings that ten of the world’s largest oil and gas companies filed in 2011, a year after the interpretive guidance was issued. While six of the ten companies provided fair disclosure on efforts to manage their own greenhouse gas emissions, the disclosures reviewed in the report were generally disappointing. Particularly on regulatory risks—both direct and indirect—the level of specificity, comprehensiveness, and quality of analysis varied widely across the ten companies’ filings, showing a clear need for further attention and due diligence on material climate risks.
Climate change is a complicated issue for companies to address in their financial filings, particularly with emerging and shifting regulatory regimes and the complexity of modeling the physical impacts of a changing climate. Good climate disclosure that meets the requirements of the SEC guidance and is useful to investors requires the collaboration of a company’s senior legal, environmental, financial and operational managers and advisors. The above-referenced Ceres reports provide a window into the current state of climate-related disclosure and offer recommendations for companies to improve how they address their climate-related risks.