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Guest Article | Sustainability Reporting Standards for the Public Sector

Last updated: 18 Dec 2023 10:00 Posted in: AIA

As the baseline for private sector sustainability reporting is finalised, the public sector has started to build on this to address its own specific needs, writes Ian Carruthers.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals provide a framework for governments’ sustainability activities globally. While the private sector has made notable progress in setting and measuring sustainability targets, the public sector has only recently intensified its focus in this area.

This shift is crucial in the face of the global climate emergency. Through the size of its operations and its significant financial and regulatory influence, the public sector plays a fundamental role in achieving real progress. Representing over a fifth of the global workforce and with governmental spending exceeding 40% of GDP in many countries, the public sector often drives national economies. Furthermore, it sets the sustainability agenda through policies, regulations and incentives. Without a structured approach to tracking these activities, assessing the success of governmental strategies is difficult.

Like the private sector, the public sector needs appropriate sustainability reporting standards to enable better-informed decision making, hold governments accountable for the environmental impact of their interventions and foster trust in the public sector’s sustainability efforts.

While progress is still patchy, a promising boost comes from the International Public Sector Accounting Standards Board’s (IPSASB) recent announcement that it will start developing international sustainability reporting standards addressing the public sector’s unique reporting requirements.

Targeted frameworks produce results

 In recent years, the private sector has made substantial progress in improving the sustainability of its activities. As of last June, over one-third of the world’s largest publicly traded companies had pledged to achieve net-zero carbon targets, a marked increase from about one-fifth in December 2020, a record number of US businesses appointed their inaugural chief sustainability officer last year.

This significant progress can be largely attributed to the increasing adoption of standardised metrics for sustainability reporting, which has, in turn, driven organisations’ actions and priorities.

Standardised sustainability reporting is important because it allows organisations to hold themselves accountable in meeting their climate-related targets. It also allows external stakeholders to compare relative sustainability performance. International standard setters – including the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) and the International Audit and Assurance Standards Board – have recently made enormous strides in developing standards that will support these efforts.

Public sector action is critical

Despite the public sector not experiencing the same level of pressure from investors and consumers as the private sector, the financial ramifications of neglecting sustainability goals are becoming clear for governments. Sovereign bonds account for about 40% of the global $100 trillion bond market, and a 2021 study indicated that by 2030, countries failing to meet emission targets could incur debt downgrades costing between $137 billion and $205 billion. And interest in government efforts is growing –when the European Union launched its first green bond in 2021, it drew record demand from prospective investors.

This makes IPSASB’s new initiative more important. By developing sustainability reporting standards tailored for the public sector, we will drive transparency, ensure that governments answer for their environmental footprint, and sharpen decision making on climate change. This enhanced accountability also stands to improve global trust in the public sector’s decisions and actions by making their impact measurable and comparable.

Strong foundations are already in place

Fortunately, there is no need to start from scratch. A decade ago, in 2013, the organisation I chair, the IPSASB, released the first of three Recommended Practice Guidelines (RPGs). Two of these provided guidance on topics still not addressed in the private sector – addressing long-term fiscal sustainability and service performance. Based on feedback, we recently issued further guidance that clarifies the application of RPGs 1 and 3 to sustainability reporting.

The recent advances in the private sector also offer valuable insights for the public sector. When developing international public sector sustainability reporting standards, we will be able to leverage guidance from the ISSB and the Taskforce for Climate-related Financial Disclosures, as well as the existing Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) standards.

However, public sector reporting comes with unique challenges. Public entities navigate a diverse stakeholder landscape and often have more intricate budgeting, accounting and performance structures than private firms. The ramifications of policy decisions, from regulatory frameworks to tax incentives, will need to be considered in developing international public sector sustainability reporting standards. Consideration must also be given to the potential effects of climate change on countries’ natural resources. Finally, unlike corporations, which cater to specific stakeholder groups, governments serve vast populations with varied concerns. Here the GRI standards are likely to be helpful.

In May 2022, IPSASB initiated a global consultation to advance public sector sustainability reporting. Global feedback underscored the urgent need for tailored public sector standards, entrusting IPSASB, with its quarter-century of standard setting expertise, to spearhead this initiative. Fast forward to the present: IPSASB is now gearing up to develop a public sector specific Climate-Related Disclosures standard. This will integrate insights from the private sector while catering to the unique demands of the public sector. Our ambition is to collaborate closely with global standard-setters, governments and policymakers, aiming for universally relevant guidelines to harmonise public sector sustainability reporting.

Helping the public sector move at speed will benefit everybody

International sustainability reporting standards will help to focus public sector investments, aid in sovereign bond issuance and encourage international development finance. By transparently reporting their adherence to sustainability goals and global climate initiatives, governments can enhance their appeal to investors.

Individual countries and the world at large stand to benefit from both public and private sector efforts focused better on achieving real sustainability impacts. With so much at stake, none of us can afford to wait for someone else to take the lead.

This article was originally published in Environmental Finance and is available on the Environmental Finance website. The article was originally titled ‘The importance of developing sustainability reporting standards for the public sector’.


Author biography

Ian Carruthers is head of the International Public Sector Accounting Standards Board.

"Like the private sector, the public sector needs appropriate sustainability reporting standards to enable better-informed decision making, hold governments accountable for the environmental impact of their interventions and foster trust in the public sector’s sustainability efforts."

Ian Carruthers, Head of the International Public Sector Accounting Standards Board.