Tech companies join calls for disclosure mandate to meet US emissions goals

Consistent, comparable and reliable data needed, companies say

Apple wants the SEC to require companies to disclose emissions, as audited by a third party.  (Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)
Apple wants the SEC to require companies to disclose emissions, as audited by a third party. (Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)
Posted May 4, 2021 at 7:00am

Tech giants, including Salesforce.com, Apple and HP, are joining calls for uniform regulations requiring corporations to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions, citing a need for consistent, comparable and reliable data.

President Joe Biden last month announced a U.S. target for halving emissions from 2005 levels by the end of this decade. More than 300 businesses working with Ceres, a sustainable investing nonprofit, wrote to the administration to back that target. Achieving such a reduction so quickly requires data that can be compared across industries, business sectors and geography, they said.

“Disclosure is an important tool in the fight against climate change,” said Arvin Ganesan, Apple’s global head of energy and environmental policy. “Measuring and mapping carbon emissions enables companies to understand their footprint, develop strategies to reduce emissions and, ultimately, achieve decarbonization.”

Ganesan’s statement, which Apple Vice President and former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson posted in an April 13 tweet, marked the first time a major U.S. public company backed climate disclosure rules, according to sustainable investing advocate Ceres.

The Securities and Exchange Commission should require companies to disclose emissions, as audited by a third party, Ganesan said. He met with agency officials on April 15 and discussed climate reporting, according to an agency memo. Apple voluntarily reports emissions data.

Company input

Companies are weighing in on disclosure rules as the SEC collects public input on climate-related reporting

In March, acting SEC Chair Allison Herren Lee, a Democrat, said that she had asked staff to evaluate disclosure rules with a focus on consistent, comparable and reliable climate information. The agency put forward 15 questions for public feedback. Lee did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The comment period will be open for 90 days and could lead to new rules on climate reporting.

Current SEC Chair Gary Gensler, who was sworn in on April 17, has said that the agency has a role to play in bringing comparability to climate risk information that investors are seeking. The agency has guidelines for climate reporting by companies but doesn’t require the information to be provided to investors.

Salesforce said in an April 20 statement on its website that companies should have to report audited Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions alongside reduction goals. HP’s sustainability chief, Ellen Jackowski, said in a LinkedIn post on April 23 that the company backs mandatory reporting of all scopes of emissions. Both companies report emissions voluntarily and expressed support for the SEC’s review process.

Scope 1 emissions represent all direct emissions an organization controls. Scope 2 emissions are indirect and owned by the organization, such as those from electricity a business buys. Scope 3 emissions are all other indirect emissions, ranging from those produced by the use of a company’s products to business travel by employees. Companies are increasingly asked to include indirect emissions in reporting of their carbon footprint. These emissions are often the most difficult to quantify.

Steven Rothstein, managing director of the Ceres Accelerator for Sustainable Capital Markets, said in an interview that public support for climate risk reporting represents a transformation from companies, which typically oppose government regulation that could raise their costs.

Ceres works with businesses and investors to promote climate-friendly policies, including through a network of more than 50 large corporations and with lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill. It’s talking with other companies interested in supporting disclosure rules during the SEC’s open comment period.

Rothstein said big tech companies have been first to back climate reporting because of their global reach and climate-conscious worker base, and he expects more companies to follow.

“They have a large number of younger employees that have a great interest in this,” Rothstein said. “They are all international-based — a lot of international work — but I think you’re going to see it in other companies as well.”

Uber, Walmart

Uber Technologies, in a comment letter to the SEC last week, backed climate reporting while urging a more business-friendly approach. The company encouraged regulators to base rules on standards set by the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board and Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures and establish a principles-based framework, which would give companies more flexibility in deciding what information to report. The dependence of Uber’s business on cars adds a more emissions-intensive aspect to its business than some tech peers.

Other companies are commenting on climate reporting directly to the SEC but have yet to reveal public stances. The agency disclosed April meetings with representatives of the largest U.S. retailer, Walmart, and the biggest bank, JPMorgan Chase & Co., during which climate disclosures were discussed. JPMorgan reached an agreement this year with a shareholder requesting transparency on the bank’s plans to measure and disclose emissions related to its financing activities.

Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove told CQ Roll Call that the company welcomes the opportunity to meet with the SEC and discuss more robust, rigorous and comparable ESG disclosures. He declined to comment on the company's position on reporting rules.

Meetings last month when agency officials discussed climate-related reporting included talks with major business trade associations: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable and Edison Electric Institute, which represents electric companies. The Chamber’s Tom Quaadman said in a letter to the SEC that the group supports environmental, social and governance standards that are market-driven, rooted in materiality and flexible by company size and industry.

“While disclosures may be a part of an all of government, comprehensive policy to combat climate change, disclosures should be used to protect investors and should not be used as a means to achieve policy goals outside the scope of the federal securities laws,” he said in the March 15 letter.

How trade associations’ lobbying on climate-related disclosure rules compares to corporations’ stated positions could be a pressure point. Investors began last year asking some U.S. public companies to publicly report on whether and how they’re aligning lobbying with the Paris climate agreement, including through their trade groups. They found significant backing for this disclosure among shareholders, and some oil and gas companies have provided transparency.

Senate Banking

As federal regulators address climate change under the Biden administration, Congress is also taking up the issue with Democrats in control. The Senate Banking Committee held its first hearing on climate change in mid-March. Lawmakers in the House and Senate recently reintroduced bills that would direct the SEC to mandate corporate reporting of emissions and other climate-related information.

Ceres’ Rothstein attributed interest from companies in climate-related mandates to other countries’ moves to require reporting, a desire for certainty on standards and their need for data to follow through on climate promises. Many public companies have pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, and some have set 2030 targets. Some investors and environmental groups say pledges could amount to marketing alone unless there’s evidence companies are shrinking their carbon footprints.

“One can’t manage a problem if you can’t measure a problem, and you can’t measure a problem like climate change without mandatory climate disclosure,” Rothstein said. “Fundamentally, we as a society can’t get to a net-zero future — a sustainable future — without mandatory climate disclosure. It is an aspiration, but it will never happen without it.”