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5 key topics for investors to have on their ESG radar
Jessica Ground
Global Head of ESG
KEY TAKEAWAYS
  • Regulators are putting a more intense spotlight on supply chains.
  • Corporates are recognising the challenge of AI governance.
  • Reality bites for the energy transition.
  • Further financial innovations among sovereigns.
  • Biodiversity is maturing.

How can just three letters encompass such a vast array of crucial topics for investors? It’s a question I often ask myself. Of course, environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues move in and out of focus — often leaving a flurry of activity in their wake. And yet, the sheer number of these issues that investors are grappling with just seems to keep growing.


As one long-serving corporate leader recently explained to me, fifteen years ago, most questions he fielded were focused on volumes and margins. Fast forward to the present, and investors expect him to “know everything about everything.” From diversity policies on boards, to safety records among suppliers, or even geopolitics in the Middle East — it’s all on the table.


When considering what’s in store for the coming year and beyond, dozens of pivotal issues register on my own “ESG radar.” Five of the most important developments on the horizon are, in my view, related to supply chains, AI, energy transition, sovereigns (government issuers of bonds) and biodiversity.


Some of these topics could appear niche. Others are clearly more front and center. Each of the five has the potential to create meaningful opportunities and risks and should, therefore, be on investors’ radars for 2024 and beyond.


1. Regulators put more intense spotlight on supply chains 


When buying something, do you like to know the details of how and where it was made? Like curious consumers everywhere, governments and regulators want answers, too.


New efforts to enhance transparency across corporate supply chains are prompting many businesses to revisit their operations and associated reporting. In certain industries, improvements in the availability and quality of data at different stages of the supply chain are greatly aiding transparency.


For investors, compliance costs, operational changes and regulatory fines can all have meaningful effects on bottom lines. Notable recent developments include the European Union (EU) Deforestation Regulation (proposals still under development), as well as forced labour and supply chain due diligence laws in the U.S. and Germany, respectively.


Another EU initiative is, in my view, likely to be among the most transformative. The Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD) will have global repercussions. It will compel companies to establish due diligence practices that address negative environmental and human rights impacts from their own operations and their subsidiaries, and across the entire value chain.


Details are still being finalised, but as per the latest agreed proposal published by the Council of the European Union in March 2024, the directive is expected to be phased in, starting as early as 2027. In-scope companies with at least 5,000 employees and a turnover exceeding €1.5 billion will be the first cohort. Under the original proposal, non-compliance fines equivalent to as much as 5% of global gross revenue were suggested. The March 2024 rule text indicated that “member states should ensure that the pecuniary penalty is commensurate to the company’s worldwide net turnover when being imposed.”


Thousands of firms in the EU and beyond are expected to be in scope for the CSDDD*
Potential compliance year EU company thresholds Number of employees   |   Global turnover
2027 ≥5,000   |   ≥€1.5B
2028 ≥3,000   |   ≥€900M
2029   ≥1,000   |   ≥€450M

 

5,400+EU-based companies in scope,* including: Non-EU-based companies
1,489 | Germany In-scope company list to be published by European Commission, based on same turnover thresholds, but applied to turnover from the EU only.
737 | Italy
481 | France

*Timing for phased-in CSDDD compliance assumes rule enters into force in 2024. Number of in-scope EU-based companies are initial estimates calculated by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO), based on the compromise proposal published in March 2024.

Sources: European Union and SOMO.

2. Corporates recognise the challenge of AI governance


Thinking through the transformative effects of artificial intelligence (AI) on the economy and society has preoccupied many corporate leaders, government policymakers and investors — especially since the public release of ChatGPT in late 2022.


Regulators, the judicial system, companies, workers and users are racing to keep pace with new developments. Recently, many stakeholders have begun to pay closer attention to the technology’s complex implications for corporate governance.


A slew of legal cases around copyright infringement, data privacy and other issues have hit the headlines recently. Recent proxy seasons have included AI-related shareholder resolutions, and those could proliferate in coming years.


Political scrutiny has also increased. For example, OpenAI, Microsoft, Meta, Inflection, Google, Anthropic and Amazon agreed to implement guiderails and commit to certain standards at a high-profile July 2023 meeting at the White House.


The companies using AI are also under increasing scrutiny. AI governance frameworks have been developed by the EU, United Nations, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), among others.


The EU AI Act, which is expected to become law this year is wide-ranging. Details are being finalised, but possible rules include mandatory disclosure when content is AI-generated, inclusion of risk assessment and information on training data used by advanced AI models, adherence to EU copyright law, no scraping of facial images from the internet or security cameras, banning AI models from inferring political, religious, or philosophical leanings, race or sexuality, human oversight of AI models, and authority to ban higher-risk AI.


Frameworks and proposed regulation are serving as a North Star for nascent corporate efforts centered on AI governance. As trial and full-fledged commercial deployments of AI ratchet up, privacy, data protection, responsible use and human safety are just some of the key issues. Firms that aren’t ensuring their governance is fit for purpose may be exposing themselves to substantial legal and regulatory risks.


While the technological, regulatory and legal landscape surrounding AI is shifting, corporate boards will likely become the de facto AI arbitrators at many firms. Board members with AI expertise will likely be in high demand.


This is not a hallucination (or is it?): Corporate governance-related AI risks
  Example of risk
Hallucination AI models can make incorrect decisions and predictions — perhaps due to the limitation of datasets used in training.
Intellectual property There are legal uncertainties and risks associated with the outputs of generative AI that has been trained on text, images and other data that is copyrighted or patented.
Regulation Keeping up with fast-moving and, in some cases, divergent global regulations can create compliance challenges.
Stakeholder misalignment Corporate leadership, boards and workforces may not have the expertise or experience to judge the merits of AI and its alignment with corporate strategy.
Bias AI models can have implicit bias due to the limitations of datasets or interpretation of results.

Examples shown for illustrative purposes only.

Source: Capital Group.

3. Reality bites for the energy transition


In recent months, I’ve had several revealing conversations with companies that have laid bare a key challenge around energy transition. For many firms, making further progress on decarbonisation after plucking the low-hanging fruit of managing their own Scope 2 (purchased electricity, typically) emissions is not easy.


Much more challenging energy-efficiency measures are coming into focus. At the UN Climate Change Conference (COP28 in December 2023), countries agreed to an aspirational target of doubling the pace of annual energy-efficiency improvements, to reach 4% by 2030. To be successful, the International Energy Agency estimated average annual efficiency-related investment will need to triple — rising to US$1.8 trillion by the end of the decade. 


With higher electricity prices, the typical payback times for energy-efficiency solutions (upgrading equipment or installing steam traps, for example) have shortened from a few years to less than 18 months.


Other noteworthy areas for efficiency gains include electric vehicles (power efficiency is typically a multiple of what’s possible with internal combustion engines), moving away from use of natural gas for heating, and moving toward electrification in heavy industries. We may be entering a critical period where large upfront price tags are no longer viewed as a reason for inaction — especially as governments use incentives to mitigate costs.


Transportation, heating and industry: Key areas for energy-efficiency gains

Exhibit listing three key numbers related to energy transition. (1) Motors in electric vehicles (EVs) can convert about 85% of their energy into useful power. (2) Heat pumps powered by electricity are about three to five times as energy efficient as traditional boilers. (3) Electrification and clean energy can raise efficiency and reduce emissions — manufacturing (including iron, steel, cement  and chemicals) account for about three-fourths of U.S. industrial greenhouse gas emissions.]

Examples shown for illustrative purposes only.

Sources: International Energy Agency, U.S. Department of Energy.

4. Further financial innovations for sovereigns


If you’re not living and breathing ESG every day, you might be surprised to learn that sovereign (government) issuers are at the nexus of some really interesting innovations.


For instance, a group of academics and institutional investors recently launched a new framework designed to help investors better understand nuanced environmental-related risks and opportunities. The number of countries included initially is limited, but ASCOR (Assessing Sovereign Climate-related Opportunities and Risks) could grow to be a potentially useful data source.


Beyond the reporting and analysis, there are other fascinating developments around the ways that sovereigns are financing their sustainability efforts. Among emerging markets, for example, ESG-labelled bonds have accounted for around 20% of overall hard-currency issuance in recent years.


Ecuador’s record-breaking “debt-for-nature” swap in 2023 has, I suspect, provided real food for thought among governments that are looking to prioritise conservation. Put simply, these financial contracts forgive some portion of an issuer’s debt in exchange for the government pledging to protect the environment in some specified way. Ecuador, for example, was able to buy back US$1.6 billion of its debt at a steep discount. The Latin American sovereign then issued new “blue bonds” whose proceeds will help it direct at least US$12 million a year toward conserving the unique ecosystems of the Galapagos Islands.  


ESG-labelled sovereign bonds: Numbers to know

Exhibit noting four key numbers related to ESG-labelled bonds: More than 1,700 bonds outstanding, from 48 countries, equivalent to more than one trillion U.S. dollars outstanding, and 13 percent of outstanding bonds were issued by emerging markets.

Examples shown for illustrative purposes only.

Sources: Bloomberg and Standard Chartered Research. Analysis of Bloomberg data by Standard Chartered Research as of January 2024, including government bonds classified as Green, Social, Sustainability or Sustainability-linked, with a maturity of more than one year.

5. Biodiversity is maturing


As highlighted in my discussion of sovereigns, issuers are turning to bonds to help finance their protection and enhancement of biodiversity. At the same time, biodiversity is becoming a much higher priority for investors amid growing concern about the erosion of natural capital (basically the world's “stock” of soil, air, water, living things — and the benefits derived from it).


Relative to 2023, our most recent annual ESG Global Study, which is available on our website, found that nearly twice as many surveyed investors said they expected to have a dedicated biodiversity policy in place by 2025.


Publication of the long-awaited Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) reporting framework in 2023 is accelerating recognition of biodiversity’s importance. In January 2024, 320 organisations from 46 countries committed to start making nature-related disclosures based on the TNFD recommendations. It will be interesting to see how TNFD is incorporated into global accounting standards and regulation in coming years.


At Capital Group, we are looking forward to seeing further guidance on nature-related disclosures to help us better understand the risk. Nature is arguably an even more complex issue than climate, where company-specific considerations have historically centered on emissions data.  Recently, we have spent considerable time examining biodiversity data providers to see where third-party data could help us to assess biodiversity-related dependencies and influences on our investments.


It’s no exaggeration to say the details of how and where policymakers act to protect natural capital in the next year or two could have profound implications for many businesses’ operations and reporting for decades to come.


Costing the Earth: Nature accounts for trillions of dollars of economic value

Exhibit stating that the nature-dependent proportion of global GDP is more than 50 percent. Also noted are example estimated values in U.S. dollars of key global natural goods and services. Seagrass and nutrient recycling: 1.9 trillion dollars. Annual market value of animal-pollinated crops: more than 200 billion dollars. First sale value of fisheries and aquaculture: more than 350 billion dollars. Coral reef tourism: more than 35 billion dollars.

Examples shown for illustrative purposes only.

55% of global GDP was “moderately or highly dependent on ecosystem services,” according to the World Economic Forum’s 2023 report (written in collaboration with PwC China): “Towards Nature Positive: Corporate and Financial Institution Practices in China, written by the World Economic Forum.“

Values based on 2019 report prepared for the OECD: “Biodiversity: Finance and the Economic and Business Case for Action.”

Sources: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), World Economic Forum.


Jessica Ground is global head of ESG at Capital Group. She has 25 years of industry experience (as of 31 December 2022). She holds a bachelor's degree in history from Bristol University and is a member of the CFA Institute.


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Glossary:

Hard currency - government bonds issued by Emerging Market (EM) countries in major currencies which are widely seen as being more stable than local EM currencies, such as US dollars or euros.

Sovereign bond – a debt security issued by a national government.

Swap – a type of contract where one financial instrument is exchanged for another.

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