A week-long EU event in May focusing on the skills needed to support a ‘green transition’ coincided with the publication of a key ‘state of the climate’ report from the United Nations that its secretary general António Guterres described as a ‘dismal litany of humanity’s failure to tackle climate disruption’.
In turning this dire situation around, ‘every country, city and citizen, every financial institution, company and civil society organisation, has a role to play’, he said.
Accountants will be in the vanguard of that battle, and key to many organisations playing their part in averting climate catastrophe. But they may also have to acquire and update their skills if they are to fulfil their purpose to ‘create, protect and report value’ as the effort against climate change progresses.
‘Accountants and accounting will be quintessential for making the green transition a reality’
Making it happen
At a webinar during EU Skills Week in May 2022, co-hosted by ACCA, IFAC and the Green Finance Platform, Thomas Verheye, principal adviser on green finance at the European Commission, perhaps best captured the importance of accountants. He said: ‘Accountants and accounting will be quintessential for making the green transition a reality… for overcoming the prevailing silo-based approaches in tackling the sustainability challenge, bringing actionable information to economic and financial decision-makers that currently struggle to translate the sustainability jargon in a corporate management context, and for ensuring the green transition is inclusive, by not only “growing the green”, but also “greening the grey” part of the economy.’
In other words, accountants have a big part to play in the green transition. Business will not only have to devise and report on more sustainable strategies, but they will also have to comply with a host of regulatory measures intended to edge companies towards climate-friendly models.
Wave of regulation
These mostly take the form of reporting frameworks. In Europe, companies face the prospect of implementing a new corporate sustainability reporting directive (set to replace the non-financial reporting directive) as well as the corporate sustainability due diligence directive. The US is currently working on the introduction of its own climate risk reporting rules.
In the UK, companies have to report using guidelines from the G20’s Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD). The UK government has also pledged to adopt new standards under development at the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB), launched last year at the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow. Under Provision 1 of the UK’s corporate governance code, boards should already describe the ‘sustainability’ of their business models in annual reports.
These developments will make huge demands on accountants’ skills and knowledge.
‘The call to the finance and accounting profession is clear: if we don’t act, we will lose opportunities’
ACCA sets sustainability as one of the seven core capabilities required by accountants, and has introduced integrated reporting as part of its qualification.
But specific skills will depend on specific business activities and the role occupied by accountants. Broadly they will include: an understanding of the changes happening in the environment and their impact on business strategy; collaboration and cooperation across the ‘entire investment chain’; and managing uncertainty.
Helen Partridge, director of accountancy education of the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC), sees more reasons for accountants to acquire new skills. She told the EU Skills Week webinar: ‘The call to the finance and accounting profession is clear: if we don’t act, we will lose opportunities.’
Failure to move, she warned, could see accountants lose their relevancy, fail to attract newcomers to the profession, and fall short of meeting their mandate to act in the public interest.
According to Jeremy McDaniels, a sustainable finance adviser at the Institute of International Finance, the emergence of new reporting frameworks places a premium on skills. But he also stressed the importance of being able to measure and disclose risks, and to integrate priorities such as biodiversity and social justice into financial decision-making.
‘While needs will vary in terms of business activities and functions,’ McDaniels said, ‘all professionals will need an understanding of what is at stake, capacities in managing uncertainty and dynamic environments, and the skills to work collaboratively towards common goals across stakeholder groups.’
For Orla Collins, ACCA president and deputy managing director at Aberdeen Asset Management, ‘accounting for the true cost of capital’ will support investors in their analysis of how companies affect the planet. That means bringing together accounting and sustainability reporting.
‘ACCA members should be part of the process of harmonising sustainability standards with the accounting standards to shape the future,’ she added.
Nancy Kamp-Roelands, professor of non-financial reporting at the University of Groningen, also outlined the skills she sees coming to the fore for professional accountants. These include the ability to connect long-term society challenges to business operations and to identify the information needed for internal decision-making as well as external accountability.
She also urged accountants to learn how to analyse the concept of ‘value’ in ‘multiple capitals rather than the concept of financial value’. There will also be a need to use data as part of a broad strategy over the short, medium and long term, and the ability to measure and report on a variety of indicators.
‘During my 30 years in the field of standard-setting and education, I have experienced that additional skills are needed,’ she said.
Skills in strategic planning may also be required. Verheye said he would like to see the development of a curriculum that would ‘promote standardised natural capital accounting’ and cover ‘all key environmental areas’. That chimed with MEP Victor Negrescu, who told the webinar that skills development could not be managed from an ‘office somewhere in Brussels’, but would need ‘concrete partnerships’ between different organisations.
While the discussion raised the need for more work developing and upgrading skills, Alan Johnson FCCA, president of IFAC, struck a note of an optimism. The knowledge and skills gap, though daunting, is ‘relatively narrow’ for accountants compared to other professions. Current capabilities among qualified accountants come close to what is needed.
‘Our broad skill set,’ added Johnson, ‘is an exceptionally strong starting point for attaining the skills for the green transition.’