Australia: Update to landmark legal opinion highlights growing climate liability of company directors
By Robin Hamaker-Taylor and Nadine Coudel
An update to the landmark 2016 Hutley opinion has been released by the Centre for Policy Development (CPD) on 29th March, 2019. The 2016 opinion set out the ways that company directors who do not properly manage climate risk could be held liable for breaching their legal duty of due care and diligence.
The supplementary opinion, provided again by Noel Hutley SC and Sebastian Hartford Davison on instruction from Sarah Barker, reinforces and strengthens the original opinion by highlighting the financial and economic significance of climate change and the resulting risks, which should be considered at board-level. It puts an emphasis on five key developments since 2016 that have built up the need for directors to take climate risks and opportunities into account and reinforced the urgency of improved governance of this issue. While the 2019 opinion is rooted in the Australian context, just as the 2016 opinion, it has much wider applicability, as much of the developments discussed in the update have been simultaneously happening in jurisdictions outside of Australia.
The five areas of development covered in the 2019 supplementary opinion include:
- Progress by financial supervisors: The 2019 opinion suggests statements made by Australian supervisory organisations such as the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA), Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) and the Reserve Bank indicate they now all see the financial and economic significance of climate change. Similar realisations have been happening among supervisory organisations in the UK, with the Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA) due to imminently release a supervisory statement on banks’ and insurers’ approaches to managing the financial risks from climate change, following a public consultation on the matter in late 2018 / early 2019. At the European level, the wider sustainability of the financial system is under review with the European Commission rolling out its Action Plan for Financing Sustainable Growth;
- New reporting frameworks: Three new reporting frameworks have emerged since 2016. The most broadly applicable is The Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) recommendations. In June 2017, the TCFD, a task force set up by the Financial Stability Board in 2015, published its final recommendations to help companies disclose climate-related risks and opportunities. The Principles for Responsible Investing (PRI) and CPD frameworks have now both aligned their climate-reporting frameworks with the TCFD recommendations. The other two reporting frameworks mentioned in the 2019 supplementary opinion are more relevant for the Australian context, and include the new recommendations on assessing climate risk materiality from the Australian Accounting Standards Board (AASB) and the Auditing and Assurance Standards Board (AUASB), as well as the updated guidance from the ASX Corporate Governance Council;
- Mounting investor and community pressure: Investors and community groups are increasing voicing concern around climate risks;
- Development of the scientific knowledge: The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a special report on the impacts of 1.5 °C warming in 2018. The opinion recognises this as a “notable development in the state of scientific knowledge” that affects the gravity and probability of climate risks which directors need to consider; and
- Advances in attribution science: Important developments in attribution science have now made it easier to identify the link between climate change and individual extreme weather events.
The opinion suggests management of climate risks will require engagement with company directors in certain sectors in particular. These include banking, insurance, asset ownership/management, energy, transport, material/buildings, agriculture, food and forest product industries.
CPD CEO Travers McLeod, explains the implications of this supplementary opinion for company directors, stating “the updated opinion makes it clear that the significant risks and opportunities associated with climate change will be regarded as material and foreseeable by the courts. Boards and directors who are not investing in their climate-related capabilities are exposing themselves and their companies to serious risks”, according to a press statement.
Mr Hutley and Mr Hartford Davis write “the regulatory environment has profoundly changed since our 2016 Memorandum, even if the legislative and policy responses have not” […] “These developments are indicative of a rapidly developing benchmark against which a director’s conduct would be measured in any proceedings alleging negligence against him or her.”
The 2019 update to the 2016 landmark Hutley opinion also provides ample evidence as to why company directors all over the world not only need to be aware of their firms’ contribution to climate change – it is just as important to assess and disclose their potential climate risks in a transparent manner. It is therefore vital to ensure that future business plans are in line with the Paris Agreement and to also anticipate and prepare for climate change impacts, both in terms of risks and opportunities. The voluntary TCFD recommendations provide a framework for both corporates and financial institutions for assessing and disclosing climate risks and opportunities, and mandated disclosures are on the horizon.