Friday, 20 September 2019

Climate Emergency, Climate Action and Accounting Education?

By Ian Thomson, University of Birmingham Business School and CSEAR Executive Council Convenor

Today, the 20th September 2019, children in the UK and around the world are participating in mass demonstrations stressing the need for global action on climate change. Climate scientists warnings are more urgent,  nations are waking up to this climate emergency, some financial institutions are divesting of fossil fuel investments levels, some businesses are reducing their carbon footprint and a growing number of committed individuals are struggling to live low carbon lives. Despite an awareness of how to resolve this, where change is happening it appears too slow to make a difference.

Despite this crisis, many universities and business schools continue to teach accounting and finance, with its hidden carbon curriculum, as if they were climate change deniers. The need for carbon literate graduates has never been greater, yet with a few notable exceptions accounting and finance programmes across the world are largely ignoring this global challenge. Carbon accounting and finance needs to become the new normal for our students.

Of all the social and environment accounting topics this is perhaps the easiest to assimilate into professional practice and is broadly supported by professional accountancy bodies. Carbon intensity disclosures are part of UK corporate reporting and in many other countries. There are standards, protocols, taxes, techniques to measure carbon in ways that can be appropriated into organisational decision processes and reporting.

However, we must ask ourselves how competent are graduates from your programme in understanding drivers of climate change, deciding which carbon accounting method to use,  applying carbon accounting methods and making meaningful and impactful recommendations as to the lowest carbon course of action. Even though I have been teaching this topic for over 25 years I only reach a percentage of our students. These students are aware of the topic, but far from competent in doing carbon accounting.

So why it is it that in 2019, climate literacy and carbon accounting are not core parts of our degrees?

  • Why do we not teach our students to become carbon literate and provide them with the accounting skills to contribute to the meaningful application of carbon accounting to real world problems?
  • Why do we teaching management accounting students to resolve problems with labour or machine capacity constraints, but not with carbon constraints?
  • Why to do teach students about asset impairment standards, but not taking into account unburnable fossil fuels or stranded assets? 
  • Why do we not teach students to take into account carbon emissions as a material risk in audits? 
  • Why is possible exposure to future regulations on carbon, not a factor in corporate valuations or setting cost of capital? 

The list of whys could go on and on. Before you get too annoyed with me – I know many of you are doing wonderful things in this space, and members of the CSEAR community are at the frontiers of practices. But we need every graduate in every institution to have some level of capacity in climate literacy and effective carbon accounting.

This is a challenge CSEAR should take the lead on. I would like us to share our best practice, create learning resources that are translated into different languages. We also need greater accountability and transparency on how climate change is integrated into global accountancy education programmes.

This will not solve climate change on its own, but is a necessary first step, and at least may mitigate the worst consequences of the production of carbon illiterate accounting and finance graduates. This is not a trivial task, but we have the expertise, knowledge, ability and motivation to change what we teach in our programmes. Let us not be bystanders as the world burns.