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Why the SEC’s New Climate Rules Could Divide Corporate America

6 minute read

Even couched in wonky, legalistic language, the difference in tone between the American Bankers Association (ABA) and the American Petroleum Institute (API) is hard to miss. Last year, following a request for feedback from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the two trade groups presented vastly different pictures of the role the market regulator should play to make sure investors understand the risks climate change poses to companies.

The ABA declared its support for a “climate risk disclosure regime” shaped by the commission that takes into account climate science, international standards, and risk modeling. “Information about climate-related financial risks and opportunities will allow lenders and investors to more effectively assess, price, and manage risk and allocate capital,” Michael L. Gullette, ABA’s senior vice president, tax and accounting, wrote in a June letter to the SEC.

That same day, API expressed skepticism in the need for new disclosure rules. Many in the industry already voluntarily disclose their emissions, the trade group said, and new rules could be costly for small firms. “API encourages the SEC to view the oil and natural gas sector’s pre-existing voluntary disclosures and reporting as evidence that the industry seeks to be a partner that, in some cases, has already tackled key areas raised in the request for information,” Frank J. Macchiarola, API’s senior vice president of policy, economics and regulatory affairs, wrote to the SEC.

With that feedback in hand, the SEC on Monday issued a more than 500-page proposal for a comprehensive new system that would require companies to disclose the risk climate change poses to their business as well as the emissions each company generates. The public now has two months to provide feedback before the SEC gets to work on the final rule. The process is hugely important for obvious reasons: it will determine how and to what degree companies disclose their emissions and in turn shape the ability of the financial sector to stave off climate-related risks.

Beyond the outcome, the fight—pitting one group of corporate actors against another—is also likely to be instructive, illustrating the emerging fault line between companies that are engineering their firms to survive a climate-changed world and those that are hanging on to an old way of doing things. Apple, Walmart, and FedEx, for example, have all previously voiced support for the SEC’s proposal, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a major business lobby group, has expressed skepticism at the changes.

“By no means do I think there’s going to be some sort of monolith of industry opposition,” says Kathleen Brophy, a senior strategist for U.S. climate finance at the Sunrise Project, a non-profit that pushes for the financial sector to address climate change. “I think that there’s actually going to be a huge amount of diversity.”

The proposed rule from the SEC covers a wide range of climate-related concerns. Publicly-traded companies would be required to publish independently-certified reports of the greenhouse gas emissions that result from their operations and from the energy they consume. Some larger companies would also need to share the emissions of both their supply chains and when their products are used, so-called Scope 3 emissions. Companies that publicly set targets for emissions reduction would need to follow guidelines to report details about how they plan to achieve them.

The rule would also require companies to disclose the risks to their business posed by climate change. That includes the threat posed by extreme weather and other effects of a warmer planet, such as water scarcity, as well as what’s known as “transition risks” that result from the world moving away from a fossil-fuel economy and towards a cleaner one—think of stranded assets, like a coal mine in a world where no one wants to purchase coal.

In a sense, these rules aren’t all that groundbreaking. In 2010, the SEC issued guidance for corporate climate disclosures. And many companies already provide such information on a voluntary basis and a slew of non-profit organizations provide frameworks for companies to do so. More than 1,000 companies representing $23 trillion in market capitalization had signed up to the Science-Based Targets Initiative, for example, and in doing so committed to setting emissions-reduction targets in line with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C target and reporting on them with standardized metrics.

Still, a significant group within the private sector is calling for mandatory disclosure. The reasons are multifaceted and vary by industry. Investors, particularly institutional investors that own a wide range of assets, have been particularly vocal. A clear form of disclosure helps investors ensure that the companies they finance will not go under as a result of either climate-related rules or climate-related disaster. And the force of government-issued regulations rather than voluntary disclosure gives the reporting legal weight. “It’s consistent with both client and fiduciary demands at this point,” said Ivan Frishberg, the chief sustainability officer at Amalgamated Bank, of climate disclosure rules prior to the SEC’s announcement.

For the most part, companies that have committed to reducing their own emissions and disclosing their progress transparently say that clear government rules would simply be more efficient than trying to participate in the different voluntary frameworks that compete with each other. In a submission to the SEC last June, Peter W. Carter executive vice president and chief legal officer at Delta Air Lines, said that “numerous and sometimes contradictory sustainability frameworks and standards” had led to a “lack of consistency and comparability of information.” The solution, he wrote, is a government-led structure that would “allow companies to simplify climate change disclosure by reporting under a single disclosure framework.”

Elsewhere in the private sector, it’s easy to see why some industries remain skeptical of the rules. Leaders in the oil and gas industry increasingly say they are working to address climate change, and, in some cases, have announced targets to eliminate the carbon footprint of their operations. But grappling with the reality of climate change under a stringent regulatory regime threatens to expose credibility gaps—and affect investment in the industry. Other heavy industry, too, like steel, faces challenges in decarbonizing.

It’s early days, and the rule will face challenges from all angles. But, at this juncture, when companies increasingly say they support action on climate change, support for transparent climate disclosure may become an important litmus test.

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Write to Justin Worland at justin.worland@time.com