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Climate risks should be a priority for boards of directors

Illustration by Luisa Rivera
Illustration by Luisa Rivera

Climate risks are risks to businesses and therefore need to be on the radar for boards of directors, David Singleton argues. 

When it comes to climate change and resilience to extreme weather events, we don’t need to look very far to know what out challenges are. As the poem goes, we have ample droughts and flooding plains … and heatwaves and blackouts. These events occur every year, and all indications are they will continue, strengthening in intensity and frequency.

The challenges aren’t, however, solely due to mother nature. They also lie in Australia’s approach to business sustainability. How well do our businesses and their board members really understand the imperatives? How are they structuring their business strategies around climate change? Are they doing it at all? 

As I looked around the globe for good and bad examples to highlight, I couldn’t help but turn tothe crisis in Cape Town. If city-living Australians want to know what a worst case scenario could look like just a few years down the track, this is a fairly frightening – and close to home – example.

Cape Town is one of the most affluent cities in southern Africa and is currently operating under strict water rationing protocols as it faces the near reality of running out of water. In the near future, the water supply to properties will be turned off and residents will have to leave their house and fill a container with water from a stand pipe. For 80 per cent of the population in South Africa, this is how they already live – they don’t have running water or water storage – but it’s become big news as it hits the affluent cities.

At a relatively recent event in Melbourne, led by Dame Polly Courtice, she said, “Dealing with climate/carbon issues is non-negotiable,” and pointed to the Cape Town crisis. In her view, it’s a situation that represents the next step as to where our civilisation will likely head. I’m afraid I must agree. 

As director of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) – which helps to build strategic leadership capacity in business and government to tackle critical global challenges – one of the important points Courtice made was the need to “understand your purpose as an organisation, or an enterprise or an individual”. If you are clear about your purpose, then a lot of the hard decisions required of board directors shouldn’t be hard.

There were many forces at play in the Cape Town situation – such as under preparation via a lack of diversification in water sources (over 95 per cent of the city’s water comes from surface water dams) – and it is governments who are often blamed.

However, we also must consider the role of business and their directors, who undoubtedly have played a role and have had an impact upon the eventual outcome.

Had climate change been on the radar for company boards in Cape Town, would they be facing the current situation? 

It is a timely reminder for businesses that, when it comes to climate change, we are talking about a system connecting a series of events and associated risks, which will inevitably have far reaching implications across the economy and the environment.

We’ve seen the legal opinion released by the Future Business Council, which requires company directors to take climate change into account when making decisions about company strategy, performance and risk disclosure.

Climate risks are risks to businesses and therefore ought to be on the radar for boards of directors. Boards of directors ought to be paying attention to climate change and, if they are not, they are in dereliction of their responsibilities.

Businesses can make immediate, mid-term and long-range changes. Starting to look at decision-making through the climate change lens, I see several links between this approach and the Cape Town situation.

In making strategic decisions about water supply a board ought to be sensitive to the changes that will emanate from our changing climate.  

When we think about investment decisions – for example investing organisation pension funds – we can see a movement to divest from some investments and to focus on more sustainable assets. Instead of looking at investment decisions in terms of asking “where are we going to get the best bang for the buck?”, we start to look at them and ask: “How do we ensure that our community is sustainable in the future?” This should result in a different set of investments.

Lessons from the UK 

While the crisis in Cape Town represents a dim view of the future, a more positive picture can be found in the UK, where many businesses seem to be ahead of those in Australia in terms of understanding the imperatives and structuring their business strategy around climate change.

A terrific speechwas given by chair of the UK’s Environment Agency, Emma Howard Boyd, to the Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport Forum earlier this year. Her speech canvassed challenging issues without being alarmist. Boyd is an environmentalist, but she is also an investor, which in my view gives her ideas credibility.  

One underlying theme of her speech was about making hard financial decisions with regard to how to address and mitigate risk – looking at these decisions as business-based assessments and also environmental-based assessments.

Boyd talked about England’s 25-year environment plan and described how the environment agency has been working towards solutions for some time. Although some of the more dramatic impacts are quite frightening, she said there were things that have been done, and that are being done, and that taking a measured approach can provide real solutions.  

The 25-year plan says, “We will take all possible action to mitigate climate change, while adapting to reduce its impact. We will do this by… making sure that all policies, programs and investment decisions take into account the possible extent of climate change this century.”  

Australia’s lagging

In Australia, there have been attempts to do this sort of thing. It’s not that this doesn’t happen, it’s just not approached with the same rigour or level of importance as in the UK.

In 2013/14 we saw the federal government sponsor a panel (on which I served and which Sam Mostyn chaired) addressing this broad topic. We developed a blue print for the sorts of actions that could be taken.  David Singleton

In 2015, we saw the release of the National Climate Adaptation strategy, which approached the adaptation agenda from a scientific perspective, publishing a range of material based on the work of academics across this sector.  

Although this (and more recent) work is a positive step in the right direction, as Boyd pointed out in her speech: “Experience shows us that the challenges we face cannot be solved by academic documents alone. Collaboration between people – countries, governments, businesses, communities and NGOs – is essential.

When we consider this issue in the context of the role of business, and boards of directors, in Australia, the message is clear.
There is a need to take a more analytical and considered approach to this issue. Board of directors need to make hard choices, they must invest in sustainable approaches, yet at the same time they, and broader society, must learn to live with the ramifications of climate change –
just as the residents of Venice do.

They also must start to understand that climate risks are risks to business and should be a priority for boards of directors. The risks are real and will gather momentum. We must take them seriously.

David Singleton AM is an expert in sustainability and is currently Chairman of Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia and Chairman of Swinburne University’s Smart Cities Research Institute Advisory Board.  He undertakes a number of other roles in relation to cities and infrastructure, seeking outcomes for a better world. He is an alumni of Arup with 40plus years service).

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One Response to “Climate risks should be a priority for boards of directors”

  • Nicholas Loder says:

    Thanks David – looks like many of the big corporates are heeding your message, and yes, we must “learn to live with the ramifications of climate change.” But this burden significantly falls to the very poor, and predominantly poor women. (Professor Kate Auty’s research)

    ‘Big Oil’ was recently schooled by Pope Francis (as reported in The Guardian). There is no such thing as a ‘nice, slow, easy transition’.

    The work of Christoper Wright (University of Sydney) and Daniel Nyberg (University of Newcastle) suggests corporate environmental responsibility is a ‘myth’. When corporates ‘capture’ the solution to the problem, you know its good for business, but not necessarily for civilization.

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