Disclosure Issues Bedevil Climate-Change Debate

July 3rd, 2008 by Phil Mattera

Big business is talking more these days about the need to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Even long-time global warming denier Exxon Mobil feels the need to publicize what it is doing in this regard. Claims of reductions in GHG are not, however, meaningful unless those emissions are being estimated consistently to begin with.

A study issued yesterday by the Ethical Corporation Institute raises questions about how much we really know about the volume of GHG being generated by large corporations. According to a press release about the report (which is available only to those willing to fork over more than 1,000 euros), there are “staggering inconsistencies in how companies calculate and verify their greenhouse gas emissions.” The report found, for instance, that companies responding to the fifth annual Carbon Disclosure Project questionnaire used more than 30 different protocols or guidelines in preparing their emissions estimates. The report, it appears, surveys this potpourri of measurement techniques but does not attempt to resolve the differences.

The absence of consistency has not prevented the Carbon Disclosure Project from trying to use current reporting to understand the larger framework of GHG trends. In May, the Project issued the first results of its Supply Chain Leadership Collaboration, an initiative in which large companies such as Nestlé, Procter & Gamble and Unilever urge their suppliers to report on their own carbon footprint. It is unclear how much effort is made to ensure these results are reported in a uniform manner.

Along with the need for improved GHG reporting, there are growing calls for companies to disclose the liability risks (and opportunities, if any) associated with those emissions. Recently, a broad coalition of institutional investors and major environmental groups once again urged the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to clarify the obligations of publicly traded companies to assess and fully disclose the legal and financial consequences of climate change. The statement was aimed at reinforcing a petition filed with the SEC last year on climate-change disclosure.

Climate-change liability risks no longer exist just in the realm of the theoretical. Lawsuits have been filed against the major oil companies for conspiring to deceive the public about climate change—including one brought in the name of Eskimo villagers in Alaska who are being forced to relocate their homes because of flooding said to be caused by global warming.  Famed climate scientist James Hansen recently declared at a Capitol Hill event that oil and coal company executives could be guilty of “crimes against humanity.” If that isn’t a risk worth reporting, what is?

One Response to “Disclosure Issues Bedevil Climate-Change Debate”

  1. Nick Rudikoff says:

    great article Phil!

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