Commonwealth Bank shareholders sue over 'inadequate' disclosure of climate change risks (Guardian Australia)

In world-first case, shareholders’ move comes after the Australian financial regulator warned climate change poses material risk to entire financial system

The embattled Commonwealth Bank is being sued by shareholders for what they say is a failure to properly disclose the risks to the business posed by climate change.

The case will be the first anywhere in the world to test in court how companies are required to disclose climate change-related risks in their annual reports, and follows calls by shareholders, regulators and central banks around the world for greater clarity.

The papers were filed on Tuesday, after which the federal court will decide how the case should proceed.

The claim, brought by lawyers at Environmental Justice Australia on behalf of Commonwealth Bank shareholders Guy and Kim Abrahams, says the bank’s 2016 directors’ report did not adequately inform investors of climate change risks.

It also seeks an injunction to stop the bank making the same omissions in future annual reports.

The move comes six months after the Australian financial regulator warned climate change poses a material risk to the entire financial system, and called for companies to report on climate change-related risks as financial risks.

The sorts of risks the Commonwealth Bank might face as a result of climate change are diverse, said David Barnden, a lawyer at Environmental Justice Australia.

“CBA has exposure to the Australian economy in general. We could be talking about anything from extractive projects to the housing market, which might face risks from sea level rise,” Barnden said.

Reputational risks for the bank as the economy moves away from fossil fuels could also be significant, Barnden said, with the shareholders raising concerns about the bank’s position on funding Adani’s proposed Carmichael coalmine and associated infrastructure.

“There is an aspect of the claim that looks at the reputational and financial risks the Carmichael mine might pose to the bank,” Barnden said. “We say that CBA ought to have known of those risks and should tell investors what its plans are with respect to the mine and if it is considering financially supporting the mine.”

Another part of the claim focuses on the Commonwealth Bank not disclosing any climate-related risks as major or material risks. “When the bank talks about major or material risks to the bank, we say it should be talking about climate change,” said Banden.

In February, Geoff Summerhayes from the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority, gave a speech saying that business needed to stop reporting on climate change as a purely ethical or environmental issue and begin seeing it as a financial problem. He said: “Like all risks, it is better they are explicitly considered and managed as appropriate, rather than simply ignored or neglected.”

The claim, brought by lawyers at Environmental Justice Australia on behalf of Commonwealth Bank shareholders Guy and Kim Abrahams, says the bank’s 2016 directors’ report did not adequately inform investors of climate change risks.

It also seeks an injunction to stop the bank making the same omissions in future annual reports.

The move comes six months after the Australian financial regulator warned climate change poses a material risk to the entire financial system, and called for companies to report on climate change-related risks as financial risks.

The sorts of risks the Commonwealth Bank might face as a result of climate change are diverse, said David Barnden, a lawyer at Environmental Justice Australia.

“CBA has exposure to the Australian economy in general. We could be talking about anything from extractive projects to the housing market, which might face risks from sea level rise,” Barnden said.

Reputational risks for the bank as the economy moves away from fossil fuels could also be significant, Barnden said, with the shareholders raising concerns about the bank’s position on funding Adani’s proposed Carmichael coalmine and associated infrastructure.

“There is an aspect of the claim that looks at the reputational and financial risks the Carmichael mine might pose to the bank,” Barnden said. “We say that CBA ought to have known of those risks and should tell investors what its plans are with respect to the mine and if it is considering financially supporting the mine.”

Another part of the claim focuses on the Commonwealth Bank not disclosing any climate-related risks as major or material risks. “When the bank talks about major or material risks to the bank, we say it should be talking about climate change,” said Banden.

In February, Geoff Summerhayes from the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority, gave a speech saying that business needed to stop reporting on climate change as a purely ethical or environmental issue and begin seeing it as a financial problem. He said: “Like all risks, it is better they are explicitly considered and managed as appropriate, rather than simply ignored or neglected.”

The case focuses on sections 297 and 299A of the Corporations Act. Section 297 says annual financial statements must present a “true and fair view” of the financial position and performance of the company. Section 299A says the financial report must contain enough information to allow people to make an informed assessment of the company’s financial position, business strategies and future prospects.

Guy Abrahams, one of the claimants and a chief executive of not-for-profit Climarte Inc, said in a statement: “We bought Commonwealth Bank shares more than 20 years ago as an investment in our children’s future.

“We are deeply concerned about the serious risks climate change poses to the environment and society. The bank should tell investors about the risks climate change will have on its business.”

The Commonwealth Bank has been contacted for comment.

By Michael Slezak

Published by Guardian Australia on 8 August 2017

 


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