There had been fears that with the emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and with many companies facing an existential crisis, the focus would move away from ESG issues. But, in many respects, the opposite has occurred.
Pressure is also coming from the side of governments. Government responses to COVID-19 in many countries included large stimulus packages tied to “green outcomes,” with specific focus on accelerating the transition to a zero-carbon economy.
There have also been other, more targeted government interventions. The European Commission’s proposed €750b fund to help the bloc recover from the COVID-19 pandemic came with a requirement that 25% be set aside for climate change mitigation.1
There is also pressure from companies themselves. A good example is WEF’s recent white paper Measuring Stakeholder Capitalism: Towards Common Metrics and Consistent Reporting of Sustainable Value Creation, which proposed a set of universal ESG metrics that could be published in annual reports. The metrics were created by WEF’s International Business Council (IBC) of leading CEOs in collaboration with professional services firms.
Another example is the Build Back Better movement, where a coalition of CEOs published an open letter (pdf) calling for the creation of a post-COVID-19 global economy that boosts society, the planet and shareholders for future generations. The CEOs want to promote “purpose-first” businesses as a fourth sector of the economy to join the existing public, private and nonprofit sectors.
But, significantly increasing pressure is from investors, who are focusing their attention on ESG issues and stakeholder capitalism. In a recently published letter to CEOs, Larry Fink, CEO of asset management company BlackRock, indicated that companies who focus all their stakeholders are going to be the winners in the future. He recently said that stakeholder capitalism is only going to become more important.
The growing significance of ESG issues to investors can be seen in the recent 2020 EY Climate Change and Sustainability Services (CCaSS) Institutional Investor survey. The survey found that, of the 98% of investors surveyed who assess ESG, 72% carry out a structured review of ESG performance, compared with just 32% in the previous survey conducted two years earlier. Moreover, many of those who currently use an informal approach, plan to move to a more rigorous regime (39%).
Institutional investors are aligning their portfolios toward better ESG performance. This signals a different approach from focusing on “responsible funds,” and instead seeing ESG issues as fundamental to the performance for all investments.
Structured reviews of ESG performance72%
of investors surveyed who assess ESG carry out a structured review, compared with 32% two years earlier.
In the report, one institutional investor, Vincent Triesschijn from ABN AMRO, sums up the views of many investors. “It is our conviction that companies that perform well on ESG are generally less risky, better positioned for the long term and possibly better prepared for uncertainty,” he says.
Nonfinancial performance is now considered more frequently when investment decisions are made, when compared with the results from the 2018 survey. Around 9 out of 10 investors surveyed say that nonfinancial performance played a pivotal role in their investment decision-making over the previous 12 months.
Looking at the survey findings, it is clear that a focus on ESG performance will likely be critical to success in a post-COVID-19 world. Rather than distracting us from the need to drive a sustainable future, the COVID-19 pandemic has helped reinforce the imperative. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the possibility for significant carbon emission reductions and rapid behavioral changes.
The transition to a decarbonised future is likely critical to the long-term resilience of companies, the economy and the planet as a whole. Strong ESG strategies and frameworks should be vital to economic recovery and for companies to thrive in the long term.
It is our conviction that companies that perform well on ESG are generally less risky, better positioned for the long term and possibly better prepared for uncertainty.”
Energy sector opportunities
Different pressures are now converging to create the market conditions for rapid transformation within sectors. Energy is a prime example. Alongside regulatory support for renewables, and an ever-decreasing cost base for solar, wind and battery-storage solutions, stakeholder forces are focusing on decarbonisation and the realignment of assets toward lower-carbon alternatives.
By 2040, according to the International Energy Agency, over half of all electricity supply will be from low-carbon sources2. With increasing demand for electrification of transport and industrial processes, and greater funding through green bonds and green loans, opportunities for this sector to capitalise on decarbonisation should be plentiful.
Companies that focus on ESG issues and realign themselves to the stakeholder capitalism agenda may have a competitive advantage over those that try to return to business as usual.
This article was first published in Foresight Climate & Energy
Show article references#Hide article references
- “Recovery Plan for Europe.” European Commission - European Commission, 9 Feb. 2021, ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/recovery-plan-europe_en.
- Iea. “World Energy Outlook 2019 – Analysis.” IEA, 8 Feb. 2021, www.iea.org/reports/world-energy-outlook-2019.
Companies that set an agenda for climate-resilient growth will likely be seen as more attractive prospects by investors. Institutional investors are aligning their portfolios toward better ESG performance, as the COVID-19 pandemic is demonstrating the possibility for significant carbon emission reductions and rapid behavioral change. It is clear that a focus on ESG performance could be critical to success in a post-COVID-19 world.