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How the profession can respond to climate change

The climate emergency represents the greatest risk of modern times. The profession must act now to play its part in saving the planet

Last month I attended the most eventful dinner at the Mansion House in years. This was not only because of the invasion of climate change protestors who interrupted the current chancellor Philip Hammond’s speech, but for what he and Bank of England governor Mark Carney had to say. They recognise climate change as the single greatest existential threat we face and both discussed for the first time the need to allocate resources to stop it happening.

Their words resonated strongly with me and, I hope, with other business leaders, government officials and regulators in the audience. The following week, ICAEW joined with WWF, one of the partners we work closely with on sustainability, to host a screening of the corporate edit of the Netflix documentary series, Our Planet, at Chartered Accountants’ Hall, and a debate about the part business can play in helping to save the world. “Humankind,” WWF-UK chief executive Tanya Steele told the audience of senior businesspeople, “is at an unprecedented moment in time when we get to choose our and our children’s future.”

Business sits at the heart of the drive to move forward and has a defining role in this sustainable future. The good news is there is growing understanding and support for action, she added; the bad is that it’s inadequate to meet the scale of the challenge.

This is something that has concerned us increasingly at ICAEW over the last 15 years since we first established our sustainability team. We have watched years of reasoned argument, peer-reviewed scientific research and evidence in the wake of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. But so far they have failed to move those who hold the institutional power to act to stop environmental disaster.

Instead, we have seen an industry of business cases grow up that may well have generated huge promise of corporate or shareholder action but have rarely been translated into the society-wide tectonic change required. Last October the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a landmark report warning that there are just 11 years left to save the planet. This is how long scientists calculate we have left to ensure global warming is kept to a maximum of 1.5°C. At 2°C, our coral reefs will be gone.

We have to stop looking the other way. Until we – the business community – and governments act on it, all the promises, reports, protocols and conventions simply provide an audit trail of our self-destruction. The question we have to ask is, do we continue to bury our heads in the sand or do we screw our courage to the sticking place and adapt to meet the climate crisis by driving towards net zero carbon and developing new industries and products?

At ICAEW we renewed our commitment to sustainability in September 2015 when the UN adopted its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We have worked hard on developing ways to help businesses achieve this ambitious project. In October, when London hosts the One Young World summit, bringing together the brightest young talent from more than 190 countries, we will be presenting a series of workshops on the SDGs. As well as our partnership with WWF, we will be giving space to the Human and Social Capital Coalition to join the Natural Capital Coalition at Moorgate Place, and leading on the development of ways to measure and report on value creation beyond the financials.

As implementation of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures recommendations comes closer for banks and insurance companies, we’ve been working on courses and advice for members, and we have launched a joint initiative with Deloitte to educate businesses on addressing climate change.

ICAEW also leads a Professional and Business Services Council group, which is putting together a sector strategy deal as part of the government’s industrial strategy. All the council members have pledged to sign up to the UN Global compact and the SDGs since the professions they represent will be advising businesses on their path to a sustainable future. Not surprisingly, the cost of these transformational changes will be enormous, but business must embrace it willingly. After all, there are no jobs on a dead planet. In acting now, we not only play our part in saving the planet, but figuring out how to do it will furnish us with a major new skill that we can share with others in years to come.

Michael Izza is CEO of ICAEW

Originally published in Economia on 17 July 2019.