Sustainable accounting – A bright green future or an impossible dream?

Sustainable accounting - A bright green future or an impossible dream?

Last month, Prof. Rihcard Murphy launched Sustainable Cost Accounting, a radical accounting solution to tackle climate change. But will it work? The ICAEW and HW Fisher give their thoughts.

Sustainable accounting – A bright green future or an impossible dream?

Last month, hidden away in the backstreets of the City of London, inside a small, wood-panelled room, Prof. Richard Murphy launched his latest radical idea, Sustainable Cost Accounting (SCA).

Murphy is a man of many talents and achievements, and that includes being a co-author of the original Green New Deal. For a brief time, it was part of Ed Miliband’s strategy to gain the keys to number 10, and more recently, its’ newest incarnations are being trumpeted in the US by Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez.

The Green New Deal was a revolutionary proposal to kick-start the economy and combat climate change with huge investment in green industry. But perhaps his newest plan to revolutionise accounting trumps even that.

Murphy’s argument is simple: “The conceptual framework for IFRS accounting produces perverse incentives that are wholly unsuited to the long-term financial thinking that must underpin a sustainable future [and so] this framework has to be replaced as a basis for accounting.”

He suggests a radical solution. “If a company cannot demonstrate that it has the ability to maintain its activities in the long-term as a going concern within the constraints that the environmental crisis that we face impose upon it, then the costs to be incurred to meet those demands that climate change will impose must be provided for in the present period and be treated as a cost,” he said.

“The consequence might be that a company may decide that it is financially solvent but has, nonetheless, to cease an activity, or even trade, because of the environmental constraints upon it,” he added.

Inside that little room there was genuine enthusiasm for Murphy’s proposal, but there was a lingering thought: ‘This is too radical. It will never happen’.

Is it just a far-fetched, unlikely and unworkable idea or an inspired, necessary intervention that could finally see climate change taken seriously by business?

Time for big ideas

For Richard Spencer, ICAEW’s head of sustainability, who also attended the seminar, it is crucial that we begin looking at big ideas. “We can’t carry on doing what we’re doing, but just doing it better, because that’s an operational thing and, frankly, that boat has sailed. We’ve got to put the problem in the middle and think about how we change the way we do things to solve that problem.”

Indeed, time is of the essence with 11 years left to reduce global warming before irreparable damage is done to the planet. Spencer is optimistic that once solutions like Sustainable Cost Accounting lay down the gauntlet for action, change can come at a searing speed.

“I thought that was a really interesting challenge because what he does is, he poses an alternative to this. We can all sit around and say what we think is wrong with the existing structure. But unless we can pose the alternative, we end up strengthening the existing one, because we haven’t got an answer,” he said.

“When you look back in history, how quickly did the US and UK economies transform themselves into war machines? It was within months. In an age when things change can happen so much more quickly, it’s easy to think: ‘Is it a bold, huge, mind bending, regulatory intervention like that, that would just drive the change?’”

“Accounting is art – Discuss”

As we discuss the viability and vision behind Sustainable Cost Accounting, Spencer joked that accounting was like art. But perhaps there was a smattering of truth there too?

“What you’ve got is the people who put together the numbers that drive the decisions that the business makes, or even puts together the narrative, the basis on which decisions are made,” Spencer explained.

“Think about Constable’s paintings of the Suffolk countryside. They’re taken to be his most naturalistic pictures. You can look at the flowers in them and identify them as the flowers that we used in that part of the country at that time. That’s how accurate they are. But they tell you nothing about the appalling, rural poverty that was going on, because he didn’t paint starving peasants.”

So too, it is with a set of accounts. “In a sense, a set of accounts are simply an interpretation of the world,” Spencer said. “But like any interpretation, they leave things out. The problem today is we have left out the two key resources that business depends upon for its prosperity – nature and society. What we have very conveniently done is created boundaries around businesses, where those costs that have become the most damaging have been ignored.”

More questions than answers

For Simon Mott-Cowan, partner at HW Fisher, Murphy’s proposal is an “admirable” endeavour, but there are still many questions to be answered.

“How would you audit that? How would I be able to audit somebody unless there was an agreed way of recording it and metrics for how much it was going to cost to become carbon neutral? Do we actually know? Is there a way of identifying? Because as technology changes, we are looking so far into the future, is it possible to identify how much it’s going to cost to become carbon neutral?”

In fairness to Murphy, he was clear at the launch of SCA that there were elements he had not yet explored or didn’t have answers for. SCA is to be seen as a starting point, the opening statement of a grand debate perhaps.

But Mott-Cowan raises another, important question. Who should be responsible for tackling climate change?

“I could help my clients measure, manage and reduce their carbon. But should it be part of the financial system to do that,” he asked. “I still question whether it’s the responsibility of accountants to actually drive climate change? I don’t know. It might be, but why isn’t it somebody else’s? It should be the responsibility of the stakeholders and the owners of the business to do that, that’s clear.”

However, Mott-Cowan seemed adamant that unless governments took action to either incentivise or force climate action there was little hope that businesses would step up to the plate. “From my experience, until the legislation is there by the government very few people will do it,” he said.

Fears for the weakest

Both Mott-Cowan and Spencer were concerned about the impact SCA could have on the poorest in society.

“The challenge is the extent to which the weakest and the poorest and the most vulnerable end up paying the cost,” said Spencer.

Numerous economic crises in recent years around the world have seen the worst-off in society bear the brunt of the costs and if SCA is to cause the radical change Murphy believes is necessary, that may come at the expense of economic growth. Then finding a way to mitigate the damage done to small businesses and poorer sections of society will be key.

Indeed, Mott-Cowan said that for his clients, SCA could become another mountain to climb that they don’t have the time or money for.

“For a lot of clients, things are a struggle at the moment. The political situation, the economic situation in this country, it’s not, it’s not a bed of roses. People are genuinely really concerned for what the future has to hold, not in 12 years-time, in one, two years-time. They have got to prepare and do what they can for Brexit and what’s going to happen around the corner. There’s uncertainty there at the moment, and uncertainty means they have got to focus time and effort on that.”

Unlikely or inevitable?

The Q&A that followed Murphy’s presentation left those present inevitably go on to think harder about his proposals. The question ‘how on earth do you get this implemented?’ returned time and again.

While so many saw obstacles, and they were easily seen, Murphy saw possibilities in the embers of a crisis. As he saw it, we are in a climate crisis now and that can bring with it a plethora of opportunities.

He knew this from experience. Country by country accounting was once seen as something that would be extremely difficult to get agreement on, but the financial crash of 2008 meant legislators were willing to change tack.

He knows that what once was unlikely can soon feel inevitable. Perhaps too with SCA.

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