This month, there have been some significant regulatory announcements in relation to climate-related disclosures. These announcements are a result of the increasing focus on climate change and sustainability risks across governments, regulators and industry and a continued move towards corporate compliance with the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures’ (TCFD) recommendations.
While not launching new developments or heralding the unexpected, these announcements are noteworthy for issuers as they mark a change in tone from the UK regulators regarding climate-related disclosures. Previously, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and Prudential Regulation Authority took a cooperative and directional view, in recognising that issuers’ capabilities were continuingly developing in some areas which might limit their ability to model and report scenarios in the manner recommended by the TCFD. With the latest announcements, it seems increasingly likely that there will now be a shift away from voluntary climate-related disclosures towards mandatory TCFD aligned disclosures across the UK economy.
Recent key announcements include:
- HM Treasury publishing the Interim Report of the UK’s Joint Government-Regulator TCFD Taskforce (the Taskforce) on the implementation of the TCFD recommendations and a roadmap towards mandatory climate-related disclosures;
- the Governor of the Bank of England’s (BoE) speech reaffirming what the BoE is doing to ensure that the UK financial system plays its part in tackling climate change;
- the FCA’s speech on rising to the climate challenge; and
- the Financial Reporting Council’s (FRC) publication of its Thematic Review on climate-related risk.
Summary of key announcements
These announcements highlight the UK’s financial regulators’ strategy for improving and developing climate-related disclosures. The key points from these announcements include:
- The Taskforce’s Interim Report highlighted the UK government’s commitment to introduce mandatory climate-related financial reporting, with a “significant portion” in place by 2023, and mandatory requirements across the UK economy by 2025. The Interim Report considered regulatory steps around tackling climate change, and also identified proposed legislative changes from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (which is intending to consult in the first half of 2021 on changes to the Companies Act 2006 to insert requirements around the TCFD recommendations on compliant disclosures in the Strategic Report of companies’ Annual Reports and Accounts, including large private companies registered in the UK).
- The Taskforce strongly supports the International Financial Reporting Standards Foundation’s proposal to create a new global Sustainability Standards Board on the basis that internationally agreed standards will help to achieve consistent and comparable reporting on environmental and, social and governance (ESG) matters.
- The BoE reaffirmed its commitment to driving forward the business world’s response to tackling climate change and reiterated the importance of data and disclosure in firms’ attempts to manage climate risk.
- The BoE announced that the delayed climate risk stress test (its biennial exploratory scenario dubbed “Climate BES”) for the financial services and insurance sectors would be carried out in June 2021.
- While the Climate BES will not be used by the BoE to size firms’ capital buffers, the BoE has put down the marker that it expects firms to be assessing the impact of climate change on their capital position over the coming year and will be reviewing firms’ approaches in years to follow.
- The BoE also directed financial firms and their clients to the TCFD recommendations to encourage focus and drive decision-making, pointing to the benefits that the BoE has itself felt from reporting this year in line with the TCFD recommendations.
- The FCA confirmed that from 1 January 2021 new rules will be added to the Listing Rules requiring premium-listed commercial company issuers to report in line with the TCFD recommendations. As anticipated by last year’s Feedback Statement, the new rule will be introduced on a ‘comply or explain’ basis. The general expectation is that companies will comply, with expected allowances for modelling, analytical or data based challenges. It is expected that these allowances would be limited in scope. The Taskforce’s Interim Report notes that the FCA is considering providing guidance on the “limited circumstances” where firms could explain rather than comply. A full policy statement and confirmation of the final rules are expected before the end of 2020.
- The FCA is also intending to consult on “TCFD-aligned disclosure” by asset managers and life insurers. These disclosures would be aimed at “clients” and “end-investors”, rather than shareholders in the firm itself. The consultation is intended for the first half of 2021 and is stated that “there will be interactions with related international initiatives, including those that derive from the EU’s Sustainable Finance Action Plan” (it should be noted that such standards cover much more than climate disclosures). Current indications are that these disclosure standards would come into force in 2022.
- The FCA is co-chairing a workstream on disclosures under IOSCO’s Sustainable Finance Task Force, with the aim of developing more detailed climate and sustainability reporting standards and promoting consistency across industry.
- The FRC emphasised that all entities (boards, companies, auditors, professional advisers, investors and regulators) needed to “do more” to integrate the impact of climate change into their decision making. One of the FRC’s ongoing workstreams is investigating developing investor expectations and better practice reporting under the TCFD recommendations.
Regulatory reporting requirements and litigation risks for issuers
The recent announcements are a reminder by the UK’s financial regulators that issuers must look beyond the current Covid-19 crisis to the oncoming climate emergency. It is clear that not engaging is not an option, even as the regulatory environment continues to change. Issuers and firms will therefore want to consider the impact of those disclosure requirements/suggestions across the board, from investor interactions to regulatory reporting to meeting supervisory expectations.
As the sands shift, issuers may also want to consider what, if any, litigation risk may arise in connection with climate-related disclosures (and indeed other sustainability related disclosures that are brought out from the shadows with these regulatory developments). There may be an increased risk of litigation under s90 FSMA, s90A FSMA, or in common law or equity. This was considered in greater detail in our recent Journal of International Banking & Financial Law article (published in October 2020) where we also examined the existing climate-related disclosure requirements, the impact of the FCA’s proposals on issuers and how issuers can mitigate against such litigation risks.