Setting standards: How the ISSB plans to revolutionise climate reporting
New draft standards that the International Sustainability Standards Board plans to issue at the end of this quarter have the potential to unite a fragmented disclosure space
The relatively young International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) is gradually gaining moment within the net zero community.
Initially formed following the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in 2021, the ISSB set objectives of developing standards for a global baseline of sustainability disclosures, and enabling companies to provide comprehensive sustainability information to global capital markets.
The ISSB is currently in the final stages of drafting its formal approval process, ahead of its publication towards the end of the second querter, followed by implementing the standards in early 2024.
The first focus of the ISSB will be on climate, followed by more general sustainability-linked disclosures.
The standards are being formed under the oversight of the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), which formerly unified accounting standards under the oversight of the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB), leaving hopes high for the ISSB.
“I’m a complete optimist about the ISSB”, says Emily Pierce, VP for global regulatory climate disclosure at carbon accounting platform Persefoni.
Prior to joining Persefoni, Pierce was assistant director in the Office of International Affairs at the SEC, where she was responsible for engagement with international regulators on climate-related disclosure issues.
“There's still a journey in terms of raising awareness about the ISSB and the value that it is going to bring to the global markets. One of the really interesting things about it is that it's serving a market need," she continued.
"A problem for many years is that as the voluntary space evolved, a lot of different frameworks evolved, companies were getting competing demands and trying to answer questionnaires for this framework or this score. One investor would ask for one framework and other for another”, Pierce said.
The committee for forming the ISSB is chaired by Emmanuel Faber, known for his sustainability drives while chief executive of Danone, a position which may have contributed to his ousting from the firm in 2021.
Sitting on the Technical Readiness Working Group of the ISSB was Curtis Ravenel, also a senior advisor to the co-chair at the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) and secretariat at the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD).
Of how the ISSB came about and what it hopes to achieve, Ravenel said: “Standards such as the ISSB are like Goldilocks; not too hot, not too cold. They can't be too far ahead of the market, but they certainly can't be behind the market."
He pointed out that "at COP 26 there was enough momentum where it made sense for something with the credibility, the reach and the influence of the IFRS to create a sister organization to the IASB around sustainability related data, and with a focus on the financial materiality side.”
Explosion of standards
The ISSB builds on the work of reporting initiatives including the Climate Disclosure Standards Board, the TCFD, the Value Reporting Foundation’s Integrated Reporting Framework and industry-based SASB Standards, as well as the World Economic Forum’s Stakeholder Capitalism Metrics and European Sustainability Reporting Standards (ESRS).
These are far from the only reporting standards out there, with this year also seeing a push in areas such as the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) and the Task Force on Inequality-related Financial Disclosures (TIFD).
As to whether there are too many standards out there, Alexandra Mihailescu Cichon, executive vice president at ESG data firm RepRisk, said: “Yes, there are a ton. They're popping up in different thematic areas, and that's on top of the variety of sector specific initiatives going on. Just to try to map all these things and put your head around them can be scrambling for anybody, even for those of us who work day in, day out in this area.”
For instance, ESG Book, a digital platform for ESG data management, disclosure and analytics, boasts access to more than 2000 ESG regulations, 1500 reporting indicators, and 800 authorities.
James Purcell, group head of sustainable frameworks at Credit Suisse (pending forced merger with UBS) and author of Sustainable Investing in Practice, says: “There are too many standards in general. We have as human beings, what's often termed ‘additive bias’, which is when we see a problem, our temptation is to add something rather than take something away. Often what you need is to do the opposite; strip things back.”
While with the distinct potential to be a unifier in the manner of the IFRS and accounting standards, there is still the possibility for the ISSB to simply be yet another reporting standard in the “additive bias” mould, particularly while it remains voluntary in certain jurisdictions and the TCFD reporting standard remains prevalent in the climate space.
As to how the ISSB builds upon and sets itself apart from something such as the TCFD, Ravenel explained: “The TCFD is first and foremost a framework and it is very principles based. Because the field is evolving so quickly, when we designed the TCFD it was intended to be flexible, scalable, and used in different ways by different types of reporting entities.
“If you want to create a standard, it’s very different than a framework, you need a little more specificity, a little more rigour. As the ISSB is much more of a standard, it'll have some more ‘line item required disclosure’, which brings a little more uniformity, a little more comparability and greater coverage.”
The ISSB also builds on the materials produced by the TCFD, such as within scenario analysis.
In November 2022, the ISSB voted to confirm that companies are required to use climate-related scenario analysis to report on climate resilience and to identify climate-related risks and opportunities to support their disclosures.
Criticisms of a perceived dearth in both the quality and quantity of ESG data and rates of reporting have been a bugbear for the concept almost since the inception of responsible investing as a concept.
The ISSB has the potential to be the overarching standard, and serve as a cornerstone of an area of reporting that is still in its infancy.
On whether ISSB is the solution, Martina Macpherson, head of ESG Products at SIX Financial Information, said: “One important source for ESG data providers is usually the self-disclosed information published by companies yearly according to standardised frameworks."
She added: "Different reporting frameworks combined with non-consistent data collection, monitoring and reporting efforts, leads to diverging data and ratings outcomes among information producers and consumers.
“The ISSB's set of standards mark a critical shift that brings climate change and sustainability issues and criteria right onto the agenda and hence aligns the accounting, governance and reporting efforts across an organisation, for financial, and non-financial information, given that IFRS standards are already commonly used for financial reporting.”
The need for ISSB to be an effective reporting standard is pressing.
According to the 2022 TCFD Status Report, only 4% of companies disclosed in line with all 11 of its recommended disclosures and only around 40% disclosed in line with at least five.
On the potential for the ISSB, Pierce states: “These standards can provide a lot of value to how companies can better communicate on these issues, both within domestic markets but also across borders. Investors, are looking to put trillions of dollars into the transition and this gives them a way to get similar information from companies around the globe to support those investment decisions.”