The head of EY’s climate change and sustainability practice explains how they are helping clients to manage one of the world’s greatest-ever challenges and why he believes the recent ESG backlash is a “flash in the pan”
- Global Climate Change and Sustainability Services Leader, EY, present
- UK and Ireland Climate Change and Sustainability Services Leader, EY, 2021 – 2022
- Asia Pacific Managing Partner, Climate Change and Sustainability Services, EY, 2007 – 2021
- Head of Project Office, Defra (UK Department for Food, Environment & Rural Affairs), 2003-07
- PhD, Biotechnology and Genetic, Warwick HRI, 1998-2002
EY’s approach to sustainability has evolved in recent years. The global professional services provider established an environment, health, and safety practice in the 1990s, which was expanded 20 years ago as sustainability and climate change became more important to clients.
Matt Bell, global climate change and sustainability services leader and head of the practice, tells Impact Investor: “This was very much not an attempt by accountants to do something else or a rebranding exercise. This was a targeted commitment by EY to address one of the world’s greatest-ever challenges. We are in this space primarily to drive impact.”
Before joining EY in 2007, Bell worked for Defra, the UK’s government department for food, environment and rural affairs, where he researched better crops in Africa.
His team is now some 2,500 people, though he says “the business feels like a family to me”. He lists five main areas which are covered by the practice. Environment, health, and safety (EHS); climate and decarbonisation; sustainability; non-financial reporting; and digital services.
EHS is still important but is now part of a broader agenda. Bell says it “plays a key role in supporting ESG initiatives” and that EY’s “transformation methodology helps companies to better integrate EHS within the rest of the business”.
In this area, the team is looking not just at safety processes within businesses, but across a much broader landscape including softer safety issues. Most especially, mental health and occupational psychological risk. EY works with its clients to put these issues on digital platforms and measure them. Digital services are interwoven across the practice.
Bell adds: “Today, there is a lot of focus on collecting data and producing ESG disclosures. We guide companies on their digital journey.” This means assessing a client’s current state and developing their digital ESG strategy.
Climate change and decarbonisation
The main focus is clear. “Unfortunately, climate change is poorly understood by most companies” says Bell, adding there is insufficient attention to the risks and opportunities which it is presenting. “I believe the impact will be profound, certainly the largest ever change in our lifetimes. There will be significant changes in the composition of sectors and in the new technology required to ensure energy transition.”
Physical risk is also a particular focus for the team which develops predictive models on the fiscal risks associated with climate change. Clients using these models come from a broad swathe of industries. “It started with the resources, energy and insurance sectors but is now broadening out to financial services more generally.”
EY also does transition risk modelling for investors. It does an annual survey of its investment clients to monitor the extent to which they are considering non-financial information in their portfolios. In the last survey, some 98% of respondents said they are now incorporating ESG criteria in their strategies.
Going forward, Matt expects the real estate sector to also be much more involved in this risk modelling – he has recently been appointed to the board of the World Green Building Council. “You can’t really think about investing in a building without thinking about the physical risks associated with it due to climate change.” The decarbonisation agenda is vital to the building sector as it is one of the biggest contributors to global emissions.
EY also advises corporate clients on their net-zero strategies, helping them to set targets and, more importantly, guiding them on the thinking that goes behind net-zero goals. EY has worked to improve the climate disclosures of major companies such as fashion house Burberry and mining group BHP.
A new and growing area of focus is looking at carbon accounting, an area which Bell says “is becoming much more complex and intricate”.
Regarding EY’s sustainablity services, Bell says the main challenge is to ensure that an organisation’s transformation “is not just a better version of their existing model but is actually a real transformation. Incremental progress won’t be enough”.
Services in this area focus heavily on market trends, including supply chain sustainability, circular economy, and action on human rights. “These are areas where we increasingly see clients needing support.”
“The non-financial reporting part of the practice is an area of increasing focus and importance to our clients” says Bell. “The dramatic changes going on here – the result of a sea change in cross-regional regulatory requirements – are only beginning to be understood by businesses.”
In Bell’s opinion, the CSRD regulations coming out of the EU will lead to some 50,000 companies in Europe changing the way in which they report on sustainability issues and the nature of the assurance currently provided over ESG disclosures.
“Today, almost all companies only get limited assurance. The auditor is required just to say that they’ve taken a look and couldn’t find anything that was disturbing from a sustainability perspective. In the future we will be moving to ‘reasonable assurance.’”
By this Bell means that in the future the objective will be not just to say that there is nothing wrong – the auditor will be required to give investors “reasonable assurance” that the company is meeting the requirements of sustainability disclosures.
“We see the auditing of this information becoming mainstream and it is no surprise that we are a massive recruiter at present. Our biggest challenge at the moment is meeting client demand.”
‘Flash in the pan’
One other challenge is the anti-ESG wave currently going on in the US which Bell believes is partially a “backlash against the SEC proposals to significantly tighten up on ESG reporting by companies”.
“Unfortunately, this ‘anti-woke ESG’ agenda conflates what businesses are doing to prepare themselves for climate change, which will undoubtedly impact their bottom line, with an emotional ideologically-driven agenda. This is really not the case and businesses have no alternative but to respond to climate change.”
Bell says he’s seen this before in Australia and “it didn’t go very far. I don’t believe this will go very far now”. There is such a strong regulatory push from most governments combined with permanently changed investor perceptions. “All countries are now heading in the right direction and investors are way ahead. In summary, I see this as a flash in the pan.”