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Source: Finance Derivative

By Professor Frédéric Fréry, ESCP Business School

Even as climate change threatens our prosperity and, in the long-term, global peace, a disastrous trend rooted in ecologism is promoting asceticism and degrowth. We must stop fighting the wrong battle! Rather than stifling scientific ambitions and rejecting all technological solutions, we must mobilize our ingenuity and pursue the solutions that will enable us to overcome this formidable obstacle.

In 1969, in one of the most astounding technological feats in human history, the United States succeeded in sending men to the Moon, less than seven years after John Fitzgerald Kennedy announced this ambition. Now humanity is facing an even more extraordinary technological challenge: that of climate change, which is threatening our habitat, food, prosperity and, in the long-term, global peace. In order to respond to this daunting challenge, we must mobilize the ingenuity of millions of men and women and massively invest in technological solutions to an even greater extent than JFK’s space race. Yet politicians and the media seem tempted by frugality and degrowth, advocating the precautionary principle and sobriety over mobilization and boldness. However, choosing to back down rather than face the obstacle would mean fighting the wrong battle.

Promising technology

Technology can and must be developed to fight the rise in temperatures. The most promising non-greenhouse gas emitting energy sources include geothermal and hydrothermal energy, synthetic fuels, nuclear fission and soon nuclear fusion, as opposed to solar and wind power, which cannot sustain our way of life due to their intermittent nature.

This low-carbon power generation will lead to more virtuous solutions for our needs for transport, habitat and food: electric cars and zero-emission aeroplanes, more environmentally-friendly building materials and energy-efficient housing, protein alternatives to livestock farming. Finally, quantum computing will increase the potential of our artificial intelligence.

All of these technological advances, including those linked to recycling, are crucial in safeguarding our future. However, these innovations will require collective global mobilization.

The doom and gloom movement

Rather than seeing these technological advances as solutions, supporters of doom and gloom ecologism see them as part of the problem. The environmentalist collapsology trend is inherently anti-tech: it paints an idealistic view of organic agriculture, rejects advances such as GMOs, and plays on the public’s fears in advocating the closure of nuclear power plants, despite the relativity of the hazards (cigarette smoking is responsible for more deaths in France per month than civil nuclear energy has caused since the 1950s).

Far from being the “blind optimism” or “Promethean dream” that critics depict, a pro-technology approach is a progressive and daring ambition. This political, scientific, and financial momentum is not based on blind trust or technological utopianism from another century. It involves making informed decisions from among the multiple opportunities created by technological progress.

Two threatening dystopias

This doom and gloom perspective reflects a lack of faith in humanity, and threatens to paralyze us with fear, causing us to abandon any pursuit of enlightenment, falling instead into modern-day Malthusianism, as witnessed in the GINK (green inclinations, no kids) movement which discourages people from having children to avoid producing more “little polluters.” Ecologism of this nature is not humanist. It negates human creativity, the spirit of adventure, and curiosity. It seeks to use a stern sense of guilt to constrain the momentum that has always driven humanity.

Furthermore, it is hardly realistic to imagine peaceably convincing hundreds of millions of human beings to give up the comfort and prosperity they enjoy or to which they aspire. Sooner or later, there is a danger of this commitment to degrowth moving from conviction to constraint and prompting dictatorship, a temptation inherent in any group convinced it has the monopoly on truth.

The collapse of society is therefore like a self-fulfilling prophecy. It either paralyzes innovation efforts through fear (obscurantist withdrawal), or provokes a populist response to environmental tyranny (widespread Trumpism). In order to avoid these two dystopias, and truly fight climate change, we must not let ecologism gain the monopoly.

The case for capitalist ecology

When ecologism condemns technological solutions, it is in reality attacking capitalism. When it denounces the commodification of nature and consumerism, it is in essence declaring that “green” growth is impossible.

Yet this anti-capitalist position has two limits:

  • First of all, environmental damage is not specific to capitalism. We only need to consider one recent example to realize this: the impacts of the Soviet Union.
  • Secondly, refusing capitalism means refusing its number one strength: it is the most tremendous catalyst of human energy in all of history. While the concept is not morally attractive, the lure of individual gain is an extraordinary driver of collective prosperity.

In short, rather than fighting capitalism, we must make it our ally. How? By making the protection of biodiversity and the fight against climate change lucrative activities that could attract ambitious entrepreneurs and interested investors. The human energy that will be released in pursuit of a fortune to be made in protecting the environment will be infinitely greater than any response to calls for restraint. Ecology must embrace capitalism’s energy in order to achieve its goals. The story has yet to be written, but we should choose ambition over resignation, energy over contrition, and science over degrowth.

Frédéric Fréry is a Professor in the Management Department at ESCP Business School. He teaches on strategy, organization, and innovation management. He has authored numerous books and articles, speaks at conferences, and is a columnist in the financial press. His research focuses on strategic innovation.

This article was originally written as part of the ESCP Business School’s “Better Business: Creating Sustainable Value” series.

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Is the UK lagging behind other countries when it comes to sustainability?

Authored by Daniel Harman, co-founder at alternative investment platform Darksquare

In March 2023, the IPCC released the fourth and final instalment of its AR6 report, accompanied by a chilling message from the UN Secretary General: ‘the climate time-bomb is ticking’. In it, the IPCC detailed the destruction already caused by climate inaction and warned that greenhouse gas emissions should be decreasing now and must be cut by almost half by 2030, in order to limit global temperature rises to 1.5°C. It’s set to be the last such assessment while the world still has a chance of meeting this target.

Eyes are on governments to step up and reach this goal but the private sector has a huge role to play too. The stirring of hope is that interest and activity around Environmental, Social and Governance is currently booming. One study found that $120 billion was put into sustainable funds in the first half of 2022 alone, while Deloitte notes that, at their current growth rate, ESG-mandated assets “are on track to represent half of all professionally managed assets by 2024.” Such funding will be crucial if countries are to individually and collectively diffuse the climate time-bomb and drastically cut their emissions.

There’s appetite for backing sustainable projects and initiatives – but are the opportunities there? Well, it depends on location. Across Europe, Germany and Spain are leading the way in solar energy (installing 7.9GW and 7.5GW in 2022, respectively) and Spain is aiming to double its share of renewable energy to 74% of power generation by 2030. It’s been noted that realising this goal will rely on permitting processes keeping pace with change – an issue also experienced by alternative energy projects in the UK. It was only this past December that the UK government pledged to relax restrictions on building onshore wind farms in England.

But it’s not just wind farm regulation that hampers the UK’s renewable energy growth. In February, Energy UK released a report warning that the country risks missing out on the investment needed to fund the expansion of clean, domestic power. The investment barriers it highlights include inflation, interest rates, supply chain issues, increased international competition and poorly designed windfall tax, stating that if these are not resolved, the UK could lose out on £62 billion of investment between now and 2030. This would result in a shortfall of 54GW of potential wind and solar capacity – the energy needed to power every home in the UK.

This shortfall risk comes at a time when the UK is already projected to fail its emissions targets. The UK government’s new ‘Powering Up Britain’ net zero plan (written after the High Court ruled last year that its net zero strategy was not detailed enough) reveals that the UK will only achieve 92% of emissions reductions needed to meet its 2030 goal. Added to this, the government is currently refusing to follow the US and EU’s lead and offer green subsidies and tax breaks.

Such resistance is indicative of an old, worn attitude to sustainability and ESG more broadly, that sees ESG efforts as a penalty, rather than an opportunity for profit and growth. If the UK is to keep up with other countries it needs an investment climate that recognises this and legislation that facilities it. Otherwise the UK’s slow uptake, policy barriers and challenging investment environment will mean interest will naturally turn to initiatives in other countries, making it even harder for UK-based opportunities to benefit from funding. This will be a problem for the UK’s economic forecast, as well as its sustainability one.

The UK wants to be a world leader but it risks lagging behind other countries in the race to stop catastrophic climate breakdown. This doesn’t need to be the case. Private investment is ready to push forward climate action and meet emissions targets but it must be supported with policies and mechanisms that foster growth, not block it. The government needs to take this seriously – after all, the bomb is ticking.

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Innovating on a budget: how FSI organisations can remain agile in the face of adversity 

Source: Finance Derivative

By Charlie Thompson, Vice President EMEA, Appian

There’s little doubt that tough economic times will necessitate difficult business decisions. Gloomy forecasts from the World Bank predict just 1.7% growth this year, forcing businesses to reevaluate their operations as they navigate this flux – all whilst protecting the bottom line. Remaining agile is imperative for any business. The cost of doing nothing and simply adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach to ride the economic storm will lead to stagnant business growth.

But how can those in heavily regulated industries, such as financial services and insurance (FSI) companies, continue to innovate and grow in this economic environment? How can they remain agile in adversity whilst managing the increased risk from a downturn? Not only are they contending with protecting business performance in a turbulent economy, but they are also facing increased regulatory compliance when it comes to being held accountable for their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) practices. This is all come at a time when customer expectations are higher than ever. Staying ahead of the curve – especially given the number and success of many fintech disruptors – has to remain paramount. Thankfully, constraints offer ample opportunities for technological innovation.

When it comes to planning for the year ahead, there are three main areas that FSI business leaders should embrace to enable agility and remain competitive.

Charlie Thompson

Managing increased regulatory reporting

This year, there will be increased scrutiny of process controls and higher regulatory enforcement from governments and agencies. Transparency around the reliability of digital currencies and open banking will heighten as the industry looks to adopt an appropriate framework to manage and mitigate the risks around these new paradigms. The focus on ESG will also lead to the need for more comprehensive reporting, which will become even more critical this year with more emphasis on climate change and the requirement for companies to demonstrate their commitment to operating with purpose.

Recent news also confirms this, with the World Economic Forum citing that the failure of climate mitigation is the number one long-term global risk facing the planet today. As the public sector and investors require more accountability in this area, we can expect compliance around ESG reporting to increase substantially.

Whilst further regulatory measures are inevitable, the good news is that technology can help companies stay compliant and enable them to stay competitive, helping them not to lose ground as a result of increased regulatory controls. For example, organisations can deploy solutions to monitor and report ESG activities with a process automation platform and data fabric. This innovative technology helps companies manage their data easily in one place, regardless of where the data resides. A virtual data layer can help unify information across systems and quickly build enterprise applications. In doing so, integrated data will lead to better insights, enabling organisations to simplify and accelerate all their critical processes. Ultimately, this makes compliance monitoring and reporting easier and faster, thus allowing businesses to meet requirements whilst remaining agile.

However, despite the value that technology brings, there is a need for FSI organisations to strengthen their ability to adapt rapidly to change by using these digital tools to gain a competitive edge. In a recent survey, 81% of European IT leaders in financial services and 73% in the insurance sector said they are concerned the transition from the pandemic to an economic downturn will see businesses freeze IT budgets and headcounts. It is critically important that business leaders take the advice and use the digital solutions available to help them to innovate and remain competitive in a challenging environment.

Designing, orchestrating, and optimising processes

These challenges are inevitably creating a pressure cooker, where businesses are tasked with cutting costs, yet remaining agile in the meantime. This may mean that the ability to innovate could be short-lived. This is also supported by the research study that shows that eight in ten (81%) developers and software engineers across Europe in the FS industry say their organisation is already shifting focus away from innovation projects towards cost-cutting initiatives.

So, could this present a Catch-22 situation, where the troubled economy requires ambitious innovation, yet tight budgets prevent companies from carrying out that innovation?

This may not be the case. What remains important during uncertain times is that FS firms streamline their IT stack to focus on time-to-value, maximise return on investment, and stay competitive in an increasingly recessionary global economy. Process automation on a low-code platform is one solution organisations have used to design, orchestrate, and optimise critical processes. By leveraging the right technology, business leaders can increase productivity, and boost profits and savings, thus putting them in a stronger position to remain innovative even in the face of economic adversity.

Using technology to bridge the skills gap

Nevertheless, whilst FSI organisations must ‘do more with less’, we should not look exclusively at the impact of budget shortfalls in 2023; we also have to navigate the talent landscape. If organisations have not recruited the right technical skilled workers to keep up with increased business and regulatory requirements, then growth will ultimately be affected.

To address these issues, a multi-pronged approach is needed. Firstly, FSI organisations need to make better use of innovative solutions, without heavy lifting from coders who have exclusively and painstakingly written applications in the past. Low-code development is helpful here as it enables those with no coding background to support, building robust business applications efficiently and quickly.

This will likely become a critical skill in the future, helping reduce the sole reliance on IT. Not only can we take advantage of low-code to develop applications faster, which is vital in the battle to be agile in the financial services industry, but we can also train more people to create these solutions. For example, business analysts without years of technology experience would be able to create a simple app with mobile forms and automation features; then collaborate with more technical engineers to ensure enterprise readiness with security, compliance, and data integrity.

Upskilling and reskilling existing talent will be particularly important for organisations during the downturn when budgets do not allow for new hires. Low-code platforms powered by process automation lead in this approach, empowering a broader set of users to participate in digital innovation.

In times of economic adversity, businesses must continue to build and innovate. An increasingly complex compliance landscape lies ahead, and this is why the FSI industry must embrace digital solutions to enable them to grow and not stagnate. Demand for automation and low-code development – which makes it much faster to build, modify, and execute enterprise applications – continues to surge as organisations seek new solutions to help them remain agile. The ability to stay ahead of the curve lies at its core in technology, and those that embrace it will ultimately have the competitive edge in uncertain times ahead.

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How to improve the accuracy of your ESG reporting

Source: Finance Derivative

Rajesh Gharpure, Global Head- ESG, Larsen & Toubro Infotech (LTI)

ESG initiatives have become increasingly significant in the business world, with organisations integrating sustainability into their core business strategy and using them as drivers to strengthen resiliency and create long-term value. As a result of this elevated focus, investors now require greater transparency into ESG performance. This means organisations need to make public commitments towards sustainability and provide robust, relevant, and routine updates to their strategies, goals and metrics. They also need to collate accurate ESG data which is critical for making the right capital allocation and investment decisions, and for investors to understand their investment risk and value preservation.

But organisations often struggle to report ESG data effectively. In fact, more than half of leadership across organisations today experience challenges around data availability and data quality. However, with upcoming regulatory changes, such as the European Commission’s Sustainable Financial Disclosure Regulation (SFDR), investment firms need to ensure organisations provide the right data for accurate reporting to support green claims in their ESG-labelled investment funds. 

While organisations focus on robust and accurate ESG reporting, it’s not just about trying to report everything, but more about knowing what should be reported. This can be achieved through the focused implementation of the Selection – Innovation – Assurance (S-I-A) approach:

Boundary Selection

It’s important for organisations to continually reassess their ESG journey and establish the correct boundaries through a precise selection process. Selection criteria should categorically define the areas for reporting. A well-planned and executed materiality assessment can help identify areas which are most impactful for business as well as stakeholders. Taking inspiration from the 17 UN SDG goals, alignment with the objectives, jurisdiction, peer benchmarking and geography-specific requirements, organisations need to limit their reporting purview to the most significant topics. By taking a structured programmatic approach, these steps ensure reliable choices are made regarding organisation boundaries, programmes and KPIs, all of which are crucial for an organisation’s long-term sustainability. This is all while taking into consideration the bandwidth and resources needed to ensure proper governance and accurate reporting.

Digital Innovation

Reporting as a means to precisely monitor and govern creates a multitude of challenges as data needs are continually expanding. So it’s important to factor in that large organisations grow both organically and inorganically and, in the process, end up having a wide digital landscape most of which is focussed on primary operational needs and not necessarily targeted towards integrated digital fabric. Organisations often struggle with sourcing the right data as much of the non-operational information is recorded and manually maintained in excel spreadsheets. It is also a question of how to track all the relevant data and compile it in a way that is meaningful and ingestible for generating an ESG report. This means a typical ESG reporting cycle for a mid to large scale organisation can take up to 4-5 months to complete, significantly delaying its ability to monitor and adjust course. Furthermore, the myriad of frameworks and reporting programmes used globally only tend to multiply the problem. Manual data collection also comes with the risk of errors and inaccuracies. It also makes it difficult to scale ESG initiatives and examine transactional data for disclosure purposes.

Through digital intervention, this timeline can be systemically reduced, enabling organisations to quickly adapt and evolve their sustainability programmes and metrics. Usage of digital tools to capture and perform the extract, transform, load (ETL) work before reporting serves the triple purpose of effort and time savings, data validation and reporting accuracy. Taking a productised IT and data product approach focussed on ESG data can help more effectively catalogue data from organisational systems and subsystems into formats needed for reporting and disclosures. This reduces the risk of poor data quality. IoT technologies are capable of tracking and measuring the performance of each individual asset in an operation and data from these platforms can be directly pulled and integrated into such catalogues for ESG reporting purposes and auditing.

Data Assurance

Assurance (internal, followed by external) provides the evidence to support the accuracy of an organisation’s data, and adds the element of truth and trust in your ESG report. The 2021 survey by the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC), showed that only 51% of the organisations who shared their ESG information, provided assurance with their disclosures. And most of those were limited to certain facets of the total report. However, an ESG report validated by a recognised auditing organisation and verified against an accredited standard provides an impartial overview of performance and compares findings against best practice. This ensures compliance with policies, which gives confidence and security to the investors and reduces the fear of greenwashing. International Standard on Assurance Engagements 3000 (ISAE 3000) and AccountAbility’s (AA) AA1000 Assurance Standard are the dominant standards in the ESG sphere.

However, before you seek external assurance, your leadership need to review the quality and coverage of the data being reported. It should add value by helping to establish a functional ESG control environment and perform a review of the effectiveness of ESG risk assessments and controls. It also adds the benefit of levelling up an organisation’s performance in sustainability-related rating and benchmarking.

Accurate reporting supports decision-making by both investors and taxpayers at one end, and leadership and governing bodies at the other. Organisations should apply the same rigor and checks to ESG reporting, as they do for financial reporting. This can result in increased stakeholder/investor confidence, business value and effectiveness of capital markets.

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