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Making COP count

Accountants can be guardians of sustainability data

Author: Michael Izza

Published: 14 Dec 2023

Michael Izza ICAEW CEO Chief Executive man suit tie purple background

Fresh from his time at COP28 in Dubai, ICAEW Chief Executive Michael Izza reflects on the role the profession will play in transitioning the global economy to net zero.

The last time I attended a COP was COP 15, in Denmark in 2009. At the time, ICAEW was the only professional accountancy body present. I remember speaking about carbon disclosures and the importance of getting this information prepared, understood and acted upon. Around me, governments were debating the commitments needed to reduce emissions. Much that was expected wasn’t achieved. 

Some 14 years later, COP28 has been a very different experience. The scale was breathtaking; the biggest meeting or exhibition I have attended by quite some way. In stark contrast to COP15, the accountancy profession was represented in considerable numbers. Professional bodies, standards setters, regulators, academics and firms all made their presence felt, and ICAEW met with members in and around the COP Expo City.

Acronyms such as TCFD, TNFD, ISSB and GRI were being used by panellists and attendees across the summit, many of whom were far removed from the profession, but understood that measuring, reporting and assuring are all necessary to transition the global economy. Net zero transition plans, conceived just two years ago at COP26 in Glasgow, now have a framework thanks to the UK’s Transition Plan Taskforce. Businesses now know what their own plans need to look like and the resulting innovation taking place is remarkable.

These ideas now also need to be applied in a way that doesn’t cause different, potentially bigger problems than they are trying to solve. 

Despite the scale of the challenge and the difficulty in reaching full international consensus on achieving net zero, I feel positive about the progress made so far, and optimistic about what we will achieve in the future. I am also as confident as I have ever been that the accountancy profession has a critical role to play in this. 

We need to build the knowledge and skills to enable Chartered Accountants to prepare and assure non-financial reports, and to support leadership in creating effective strategies and transition plans. All of this will lead to better decision-making in organisations across the economy.

Our core skills already provide a solid foundation, and ICAEW continues to build sustainability into our qualifications and continuing professional development. This is evolving at speed, however, and there is always more to learn. The transition could be just as disruptive to the workforce as the technological revolution, so it is imperative that skills gaps are addressed.

Users of accounts want to see good quality climate, nature and social data, and they need to be able to trust it. We are the guardians of that data, who can analyse, prepare and assure it.

There are also others who have the skills to contribute and who want to play a major role. The profession needs to be willing to collaborate with other leaders, organisations and professions to ensure it has a seat at the table. 

So what are the next steps? We need to ensure countries adopt the ISSB framework. Our profession needs to be prepared to apply it. We also need to be ready to follow a steep learning curve in order to get this right. When countries don’t adopt ISSB standards and follow an alternative framework like CSRD, the ability to use data interchangeably and with interoperability, should be demanded by investors.

The time will come when climate, nature and social impacts will factor into every strategic decision we make. In the meantime, we must continue to lead and support the road to net zero. And when we encounter problems, we must do what we do best – solve them.

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