Accountability for a just transition: COP27 must look beyond emissions

By Margherita Barbieri, Topic Standards Manager and Noora Puro, Sector Standards Manager at Global Reporting Initiative (GRI)

In the heat of Sharm El Sheikh, discussions started on 6 November that will determine how, over the next years, we address the defining challenge of our time: climate change. The latest United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) brings together political and business leaders, activists, civil society groups, international organizations and others, to set commitments that can quicken the action and adaptation needed to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

The context for COP27 could not be more urgent, as the latest IPCC report sets out in stark terms. Human-induced climate change is causing dangerous and widespread disruption, to the environment and countless people around the world. Increased heatwaves, droughts and floods are already a reality.

These extremes are causing cascading affects that have exposed millions of people to health risks, and acute food and water insecurity, especially in developing and emerging economies. These crises are inter-connected and those affected most are often the least to blame. For example, World Resources Institute analysis shows that, while many parts of Africa are at the forefront of climate change impacts, the continent accounts for only 3% of global CO2 emissions.

Prioritising adaptation that protects the most vulnerable

How we address these challenges require holistic thinking, long-term strategies and clear accountability, to prevent and alleviate negative impacts. We cannot achieve that without widespread and comprehensive reporting by organisations on their climate impacts.

As UN Secretary-General António Guterres has set out, greater leadership is needed from governments and businesses, warning that efforts to keep the rise in global temperatures to 1.5-degrees above pre-industrial levels is ‘on life support’. And so, with good reason, the focus of reporting has been mostly on emissions, with widespread commitments by companies to reach ‘Net Zero’ targets.

Yet, focus on emissions reductions alone is not enough. If we are to avoid further escalation and consolidation of crises, we urgently need transparency and accountability on how a low-carbon transition, which supports the needs of workers and communities, is being prioritised. Beyond this, organisations need to explain how their strategies and business practices alleviate the impacts of climate change on those around them.

To this end, there are growing demands on companies to help the communities directly affected by their activities to become more resilient against the impacts of climate change.

Clarity on the climate data that matters most

At GRI, we urge all organisations to disclose their impacts on the planet, because transparency – through quality, comparable information – is an essential stage in identifying where responsibilities lie and contributing to global solutions to the climate crisis. Sustainability reporting can be a driver for better environmental performance. However, companies are not always reporting the data that matters most.

That is why, as the most widely adopted standard-setter for sustainability impacts, we convene stakeholders across the board in our standards development, to determine best practice. This is the approach we will again follow as we get ready for a major update of GRI climate-related standards.

A review will launch in 2023 and cover not only commitments and actions to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE), but also how to ensure a holistic view on adaptation and resilience to climate change. This will account for the physical impacts of climate change as well as the low-carbon transition on workers and communities. A key consideration here will be to connect the climate standards review to our current revision program for labor-related reporting.

Demands for more clarity and consistency on the most relevant climate-related impacts of organisations, from the local to the global levels, has been a key learning from our Sector Program – particularly in the Sector Standards for oil and gas (GRI 11) and coal (GRI 12). Alongside steps to mitigate emissions, these standards have extensive focus on achieving a just transition. The new Agriculture, Aquaculture & Fishing Standard (GRI 13), meanwhile, gives attention to how organisations enable adaptation and protect critical sources of food.

Our revision of the Biodiversity Standard (GRI 304) has shone a light on the inter-relations between the climate and biodiversity crises. This process is at an advanced stage – and the exposure draft for the revised Biodiversity Standard is expected to be released for public comment early December (during the UN Biodiversity COP 15). This updated standard will closely intersect with our work on climate standards.

‘Double materiality’ in climate disclosure

As demonstrated by our multi-stakeholder engagement, we believe standard-setting should not happen in isolation. To that end, our review of climate standards will not only build on our wider program to develop the GRI Standards, it will also see collaboration and alignment with the climate standards under development by the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) and the recommendations of the TCFD, as well as new EU standards under the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive.

GRI reporting is focused on impact materiality – in terms of how the organisation impacts on people and planet. We will ensure our updated climate standard(s) complement the financial materiality disclosures in the proposed ISSB standards, reflecting our commitment to a global comprehensive reporting regime in which impact and financial disclosure are on an equal footing.

When it comes to climate reporting, the interrelationship between impact on the organisation and impact on the outside world is clear to see. Taken together, this ‘double materiality’ perspective – with both the inside-out and outside-in viewpoints taken into account – will be crucial in driving accountability for climate impacts.

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