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Aug 23, 2017

Canadian boards tackling environmental issues, poll finds

Attendees at GPC conference say climate change and related challenges on the agenda

More than half of Canadian boards are addressing environmental issues – and are facing pressure to do so, according to new informal polling.

Two thirds of attendees at the Governance Professionals of Canada (GPC) annual conference this week said in an interactive survey that either climate change or other sustainability issues will be on their board’s agenda this year. Meanwhile, a majority said investors are engaging with their board on sustainability issues either regularly (13 percent) or occasionally (40 percent). Fifty-eight percent of respondents said sustainability is part of their company’s business model, and a further 21 percent said it isn’t yet but that the firm is discussing whether to take that step.

The findings come shortly after a proxy season that saw a heightened focus on ESG issues by major institutional investors, and a number of high-profile votes where shareholders went against board wishes to back proposals seeking greater disclosure on how companies will deal with the risks – and opportunities – of climate change.

Speaking at the session where the polling took place, Global Compact Network Canada president Helle Bank Jørgensen pointed to recent flooding and fire hazards and told attendees that companies need to think about the full range of potential risks they face from climate change. Those may include problems with their supply chain that could affect their ability to deliver services and products, or challenges facing employees trying to get to work, she noted. If a company isn’t reporting about these matters, it will face questions about what it is doing, she added.

Fellow panelist Edward Waitzer, partner with Stikeman Elliott, described the present as a time of ‘thin political markets’, when governments are poorly equipped to tackle long-term issues due to the short-term cycles of political systems. This creates a tension with the public’s expectations and leads to an increasingly important role for the courts and the private sector – including boards carrying out their fiduciary duty, he said.