The Carbon Disclosure Project 2011: Big Business Finds Big Returns In Managing Carbon

In the Carbon Disclosure Project’s 2011 analysis of the largest 500 companies, the Global 500, there is a very interesting statistical trend – the companies who were the most strategically focused on accelerating low-carbon growth had returns from January 2005 to May 2011 that doubled the Global 500 as a whole, with returns totaling over 85%, compared to the 42.7% returns for the index.  Even more amazingly, the 13 companies that had been recognized by CDP for this strong focus for the last 3 years outperformed the Global 500 by over 60 percentage points over the same period.  Does monitoring and disclosing a company’s carbon footprint and incorporating the risks and opportunities of climate change at executive levels actually lead to increased financial performance?  This report suggests there is a high correlation, at least.

The report analyzes the responses the Global 500 companies submitted to a questionnaire that has CDP has sent on behalf of institutional investors every year since 2002.  Participation has increased each year — up to 81% for 2011 – as has the quality of the companies’ answers and reporting, and the targets and goals that companies set for themselves.  This year’s results show significant progress by all of the reporting companies in a few key areas, such as 74% of respondents setting greenhouse gas reduction targets, and 59% reporting a payback period of 3 years or less on their emission reduction activities. This year’s survey also marked the first time that a majority (68%, up from 48% in 2010) of respondents have integrated carbon reduction efforts into the heart of their business strategies.

The set of 58 companies that doubled the returns of their peers were listed by CDP as part of the Carbon Disclosure Leadership Index (CDLI) (those that scored the highest on carbon emission measurement techniques and subsequent public disclosure) and Carbon Performance Leadership Index (CPLI) (those that fell within the top 10% of respondents when scored on strategic commitment to the business issues related to GHG emissions, energy use, and climate change).  There were 23 companies who made both lists.  Companies in Canada, Japan and the US were under-represented on these lists, compared to their peers in Australia, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and the U.K.  Surprisingly, given the regulatory focus it faces, the energy sector lags behind other sectors with the lowest proportion of companies setting targets (55%) and under-representation on both the CDLI and CPLI.

What did the CDLI and CPLI companies do differently?  As the report highlights, one notable difference between the companies named to the CDLI and those that were not is the practice of setting emissions reduction targets on which the company places significant emphasis — 96% of the CDLI companies have emissions reduction targets, versus just 70% of the remaining companies.  Also significant seems to be whether the companies dedicated resources and time to identifying the new opportunities, investments and potential partnerships that a low-carbon economy could bring about — the average score for the CDLI companies on this rubric is 88 (out of 100) compared to 54, across all respondents.  Similarly, all 29 of the CPLI companies have integrated their climate-related risks and opportunities into their business strategy, and used monetary incentives to encourage employees to meet carbon reduction goals.  The CPLI companies also universally submitted their emissions data for adequate verification — something that only 37% of the remaining companies did, despite the importance of providing investors validated data.

Although the authors of the report argue that this data is a clear indicator that it makes good business sense to manage and reduce carbon emissions, correlation is not necessarily causation.  The companies who are better managing their carbon may just be better managed overall, leading to better performance.  Either way, the fast-rising number of Global 500 companies who are moving to capitalize on these opportunities highlights that more sustainable business models are, increasingly, simply the way business is done.

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