You may not think of accountants as being agents in the fight against climate change, but as Gord Beal describes it, that’s counting them short.
What in the world do accountants have to say about climate change? A great deal, as it turns out. Clean capitalism needs people who understand the importance of incorporating data into decision making and are present everywhere business takes place. Those people are accountants.
Delivering this message has been an important part of Gord Beal’s advocacy for clean capitalism and at times his greatest challenge.
“Often people think of accountants as tax planners, financial statement preparers and financial auditors,” says Gord, vice-president, Research Guidance and Support for Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada. “What is sometimes overlooked is our capacity to meet broader demands, such as for climate change disclosures. This reporting can of course help shine a spotlight on carbon across the economy.” Beyond reporting, accountants provide the data management and decision making to help organizations reduce their environmental footprint and prepare for the impacts of concerns like climate change on their markets, supply chains and critical infrastructure.
Gord sees the sheer size and presence of the profession as being almost as important as its unique skillset. “Addressing complex, challenging issues like the transition to a carbon-neutral economy requires multi-disciplinary, cross-jurisdictional strategies,” he points out. “Canada’s 217,000 CPAs can be found in every sector of the economy and in every city, province and territory, as well as internationally. In the war on climate change and degradation of our environment, CPAs can provide boots on the ground.”
CPA Canada has a long history of raising awareness of climate change and sustainability as business issues. For the past several years, Gord and his team of like-minded CPAs have helped to up the ante on this important work.
The team has published extensive guidance on ESG topics, launching seven new e-publications in just the past two years. To ensure the broadest reach, the information is made available to the public at no cost and promoted through social media marketing and speaking engagements across Canada and internationally. One such event was the World Congress of Accountants, attended by 5,600 delegates from more than 100 countries, where Gord delivered a critical message on climate change and the role of accountants.
Gord and his team also leverage key partnerships to spread their message. In 2017 Gord led work to launch the Canadian chapter of the Prince of Wales’s Accounting for Sustainability (A4S) CFO Leadership Network, the first of its kind in North America. He is co-chair of the Accounting Bodies Network of A4S, which provides leadership for the global profession’s sustainability initiatives. He and his team also work actively on sustainability advocacy with other leading organizations such as the International Integrated Reporting Council, the Institute of Corporate Directors, the Responsible Investment Association, Financial Executives International Canada, Global Accounting Alliance and the International Federation of Accountants.
“When it comes to our message, we know it’s not enough to say it – we have to continuously reinforce it,” Gord says. “It’s always a challenge to get a share of mind in a world of fragmented media and short attention spans. We try to make the best case for why people should care, and we appeal to them on that basis.”
This means helping businesses recognize that they can improve both their ESG reporting and their business resiliency to environmental changes by engaging their finance function in sustainability issues. It means making sure governments know that CPAs fill hundreds of thousands of positions throughout the Canadian economy that are crucial to the success of climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. It means educating CPAs about the opportunity to add new value to their organizations. And it means ensuring that new recruits to the profession see the opportunity to contribute to the health of the planet through the lens of finance.
These messages are gaining traction. CPA Canada and the Government of Canada are jointly funding a $1.45 million project to help business leaders recognize and anticipate the emerging impacts of climate change and respond to the increasing demand for climate-related disclosure.
The project will accelerate corporate Canada’s understanding of clean capitalism with training that targets the distinct interests of directors, executives and CPAs working in business and professional services. It also funds needed research on climate change disclosure and decision making. The ultimate goal is to create best-practice guidance on implementing the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosure.
Gord has also been invited to represent CPA Canada in private-public sector sustainability initiatives. He is a member of the Natural Resources Canada National Climate Change Adaptation Platform Plenary and the federal government’s Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation Assessment Advisory Committee. CPA Canada was also involved in the work of the Expert Panel on Sustainable Finance, including organizing a roundtable consultation of Canadian finance leaders for the panel. Gord further represented the profession at a Sustainable Finance Roundtable organized to coincide with a meeting of the G7 Environment Ministers so they could consider the group’s recommendations.
“What this tells us is that we are being invited to the table, and we are being heard,” he says. We still have a lot of work to do, but perceptions are shifting about our profession’s role in addressing the planet’s environmental challenges.”
His advice to others passionate about their cause? “The most important thing is having an unshakeable belief and a commitment to the long game. Make sure you identify your key stakeholders, partner with them, and help them see themselves in the cause. If you can, provide education and training. This way people have the tools to go beyond awareness and become part of the solution.”