The percentage of companies worldwide providing assurance on ESG information continues to rise, according to the latest round of data, but the United States and the United Kingdom continue to lag behind when it comes to having auditors provide ESG assurance.
The percentage of companies that had ESG assurance provided on their reporting rose to 58% in 2020 from 51% the previous year, according to The State of Play in Reporting and Assurance of Sustainability Information. The International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) and AICPA & CIMA co-authored the report.
The percentage of worldwide ESG assurance engagements conducted by audit firms and their affiliates went down slightly from 2019 to 2020, from 63% to 61%. The numbers rose in the United States but only from 11.1% to 16.2%. In the U.K., the percentage went from 53.5% to 42.3%.
IFAC and AICPA & CIMA advocate companies opting to have their statutory auditor also perform ESG assurance engagements, and the survey found that 71% of companies using audit firms for ESG assurance are doing just that.
"The role of finance and accounting professionals is to instill trust in information," said Ami Beers, CPA, CGMA, senior director–Assurance & Advisory Innovation at the AICPA. "As it relates to ESG, we know that professional qualified and licensed accountants are well positioned to meet marketplace demands. As companies begin their ESG reporting journey, they need to establish processes and controls to collect data in order to measure that data against established standards and use the information for internal decision-making and reporting to external parties. In their public interest role, auditors maintain independence, integrity, and objectivity, and they have the necessary skills to provide the assurance on ESG information, similar to financial information, that builds confidence and trust."
Ninety-two percent of the 1,400 companies surveyed reported some ESG information in 2020, compared with 91% the previous year.
The study highlighted some findings related to what specific ESG information companies are providing, where they're providing it, and when they're providing it.
- What: Eighty-nine percent of companies reporting ESG data in 2020 provided at least some information in each of four identified areas — greenhouse gases (GHG), other environmental, social, and governance. However, just 43% provided assurance in all four areas. GHG was the one constant, with 92% of companies reporting on it, and 95% of those providing assurance.
- Where: Seventy-six percent of companies included assurance reports in their annual reports, while 19% provided them on a company website. The United States, U.K., and Canada were outliers, collectively including assurance in annual reports less than 40% of the time while posting on company websites about half the time. Those numbers may speak to the more informal nature of some assurance engagements in those regions.
- When: Among the 733 companies that had both their financial audit and ESG assurance reports/signatures examined, 54 days was the worldwide average time between those issuances. The average time varies widely by country — ranging from two days in Italy to 110 days in the United States — in part because of different requirements for statutory versus voluntary disclosures by location.
— To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Bryan Strickland at Bryan.Strickland@aicpa-cima.com.
Journal of Accountancy podcast episode with Ami Beers, "5 Trends Driving the Importance of Understanding ESG"