When I joined IRAS in September of 2023 it was abundantly clear that my new “job” was not going to be limited to the tasks that I do for my boss, but also the tasks that I do for myself. As Michael (my boss) stated,

“Your #1 objective during your first year at IRAS is to learn.”

By the time I started 2024 with my second “Learning & Development Week”, a required activity, I hadn’t yet figured out that Michael isn’t interested in telling us what to learn, but rather observing what we learn, how we learn it, and whether our choices and performance have been strategically selected for the benefit of myself  AND the company. Apparently, Michael’s idea of what one needs to learn differs from what I thought I needed to learn, which in and of itself has been a learning opportunity.

Within IRAS, I could easily keep my head down and focus only on the tasks given to me. I could “do the work”, but not necessarily “learn from the work”, or even “add value to the work”. On most days over the past few months, my time has been spent analysing JSE listed company annual reports. Based on the 15 years Michael’s been pulling together an annual review of ESG/Sustainability performance data for the JSE listed companies, I’ve been given a spreadsheet with 264 requests for numbers (i.e., “the data”), and I basically just dig through reports searching for what IRAS refers to as the quantitative comparable performance data that matters. What I didn’t yet realise is that as a junior researcher, despite the degree I’m so proud to have earned, I actually started my job knowing nothing.

Before I started, when I submitted my CV to IRAS, I thought I was being honest when I said that I possess Excel skills. Little did I realise that being able to open a spreadsheet, add some numbers, save it, and then close it doesn’t necessarily pass a reasonable test for “Excel skills”. I’ve had to learn how to use pivot tables, the countif function, proper formatting of numerical information in tables and graphs. In truth, I had to “learn some Excel skills”.

Before I started, I also thought I had a reasonable understanding of what “sustainability” means. Of course, what I thought I knew was barely a scratch upon the surface of the subject matter, and that my wonderful ideas about how we all should protect our planet weren’t adequate in the context of being able to assess whether or not companies are doing “enough” to be able to suggest that they are either “sustainable” or “responsible”.

“I’ve already learned that I’m still learning what I need to learn.”

I’ve been researching courses to help me understand climate change, carbon emissions, the UN SDGs, the UNGC, relevant social and environmental legislation, the science-based targets initiative, and the basics of how to write proposals and management reports.

For now, I feel as if the only thing I’ve been learning is how to tread water. How to keep my head above all of the information and not feel like I’m drowning in a sea of things that I don’t yet understand, which became very helpful when Michael asked us to write about “what we know”.

Even though I don’t have a long history of prior jobs, I know that my current job is almost exclusively about getting paid to learn new things. At least 80% of my time is spent on researching subjects, conducting basic research on what companies report (or don’t report), and only 20% of my time is spent on doing tasks where I believe I’m adding value to the company, or our clients.

Thankfully, 20% is a lot more than when I started five months ago…and I’m confident that I’m on track to be able to support the work of IRAS on a 50-50 basis by Michael’s stated deadline of the end of Year 1, noting that Michael seems to think that at least 20% of his time is still invested in his own learning after being in the reporting and assurance space for over 25 years.

Noting that IRAS is committed to continuous learning and development, Michael asked me to contribute to a monthly IRAS blog in hopes that my own learning could be of use to people wanting to enter into the ESG reporting and assurance space.

While discussing potential topics for the inaugural 2024 blog, my colleagues and I were advised to ensure that we write about topics we are adequately informed about, and I chose to write about the three sustainability courses I completed as part of our January Learning and Development (L&D) Week.

Within IRAS, L&D is an essential part of not only the development of our team members, but also of building the entire team, with the aim of continued exposure to material concepts relating to ESG and assurance work. In particular, our goal is to find and complete courses that are strategically chosen to help us better understand the work we do as a team, the work Michael has to do beyond the team, and what the overall purpose is of the work IRAS does for its clients.

The first course I completed was an Introduction to Climate Change Science.

The course delved into the basics of the science fuelling the climate change debate.

As I worked through the course content, the one thing that first stood out was the misconceptions that many people – including myself – have regarding certain terminology. For example, many people use the phrases “global warming” and “climate change” interchangeably, when in fact, global warming – or the physical heating up of the planet – is the cause (i.e., the initiator) to climate change’s effect (i.e., the outcome of new weather patterns).

While the science of climate change involves the measurement of increased temperatures, this is only one specific subset of all the changes that are likely to occur as a result of the change in climate patterns. For example, in one region the increase in temperatures may result in increased rainfall leading to flooding, whilst in another region it may lead to decreased rainfall, resulting in droughts. The changes in weather patterns – due to climate change – pose significant risks to various organisations making them material to business sustainability and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG). By addressing climate-related issues, organisations can assess the risks and opportunities that are material to them, allowing organisations to remain “sustainable”, even in the face of increasing potential threats. Better yet, some companies are quick to become climate change opportunists,  noting that new challenges always need new solutions, and when trouble knocks on your door, opportunity is almost always waiting in the shadows.

To understand the varying significance of different Greenhouse Gases, my first course introduced the concepts of Global Warming Potential (GWP) and Global Temperature Potential (GTP), where GWP is the heat absorbed over a period of time whilst GTP is the change in temperature over a period of time. For example, although nitrogen (N) has a higher GWP and GTP than carbon (CO2), carbon is more concerning than other greenhouse gases because it remains in the atmosphere for longer. Considering these differences, in climate-related reporting, the emissions of other greenhouse gases is converted into a CO2 equivalent (CO2e) to make comparisons meaningful. At IRAS, these CO2 equivalents are important for understanding how different organisations contribute to global GHG emissions – in terms of Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions – and whether an organisation understands and accounts for all their emissions. Overall, the course advanced my understanding of the science that climate-related metrics are based on and the importance of communicating these to corporations as they manage their short- and long-term sustainability goals.

The second course I completed was an Introduction to GHG obligations.

This course helped me distinguish between climate adaptation and mitigation whereby adaptation is focused on addressing the impacts of climate change whilst mitigation is focused on addressing the impacts of organisations on the environment propagating climate change.

The Conference of Parties (COP) exists to guide the incorporation of mitigation and adaptation strategies to achieve net zero emissions, according to the 2015 Paris Agreement. Previously, the COP, ratified the Kyoto Protocol which required its signatories from developed countries (annex 1 countries) to report on their emissions, as well as assist developing countries (non-annex) in dealing with climate change-related issues. The basis for this recommendation is the argument that developed countries have been the most significant contributors to global GHG emissions since the Industrial Revolution.

The concept of market-based mechanisms to reduce emissions stood out to me.

It refers to the process whereby countries could trade off emission units when they were in surplus. While there was some merit in the concept of trade-offs, its major shortfall was the fact that the reporting of emissions was limited to Annex 1 countries which often resulted in an overestimation of the GHG emissions units an Annex 1 country was entitled to as large volumes of emissions from developing countries were not accounted for. The transition from Kyoto Protocol to the Paris Agreement paved the way for better accountability as in the Paris Agreement, all countries are expected to report their GHG emissions because achievement of net zero emissions is a shared effort although through different techniques based on the country’s economic standing. Additionally, this transition heightened inclusivity, allowing African and other developing countries to embrace ESG reporting and sustainable management in their private sectors.

Lastly, I undertook a course in Taking financial action for SDGs: Implementing the CFO principles.

In this course, I learned that the Chief Financial Officers (CFO’s) play a crucial role as they are responsible for creating expenditures that are directed towards investing in Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aligned projects within organisations. Additionally, they have a decisive influence on the strategic and risk management techniques that their organisation adopts. It was apparent that projects that align with SDGs and related targets are increasingly becoming important as they not only allow organisations to cater to the potential risks in the future by investing in these projects, but they also improve an organisation’s reputation by showing their proactive contribution to achieving the SDGs targets. By incorporating SDGs in risk management, an organisation can leverage these guidelines to create long-term sustainable value.

When developing an SDG impact thesis, an organisation must ensure that the proposed goals are measurable over time, relevant and intentional to achieve a positive impact. Integrated SDG strategy and investments are essential as they feed back into the organisation’s value chain at varying stages of production or value creation.

Integrated Corporate SDG Finance supports the development of investment strategies that duly considers a broader set of risks and returns for investors, shareholders and other stakeholders. Integrated SDG communication and reporting is an important principle as it translates to the level of investment that has gone into developing strategies and projects that are aligned with SDG targets relevant to an organisation. It provides goals, explains the process of implementing SDG-aligned investments and reports on the progress against said goals.

Through this course, I gained an understanding of why IRAS includes SDG-oriented indicators in the Sustainability Data Transparency Index (SDTI), an IRAS tool used to measure transparency by determining whether a company reports “specifically” on SDGs or has a “cursory” basis. “Specific” reporting is evidence that a company has fully invested in SDG-oriented projects and are providing a thorough reporting of the process, investment and outputs. Cursory reporting is mostly acknowledgement of the SDGs without a clear denotation of whether an organisation has actually invested (material amounts of time and/or money) in SDG projects.

These courses and my ongoing experience at IRAS continue to add to my collective knowledge of how SDGs, climate change related topics and legislative obligations interact to create the ESG in integrated reporting. Where legislative obligations make it mandatory for organisations to contribute to a reduction in emissions for net zero emissions, SDGs facilitate voluntary contribution to improve their reputations, sustainable life cycles for their operations and relations with their stakeholders.

As I undertook these courses, a gap in my experience became apparent.

The lack of direct interaction with facilitators was hard to ignore every time a need for clarity arose.  I found this to be of negative consequence as it limited the range of understanding of the course material to the words on a screen and whatever information I could uncover from the vast resources of Google.

With this in mind, IRAS is committed to ensuring comprehensive training in what will become the first new Certified Sustainability Assurance Practitioner (CSAP) course offered in South Africa since 2013.

Face-to-face classes are being incorporated into the schedule to allow for a meaningful dialogue between participants and Michael, one of AccountAbility’s few certified training providers. While interaction may not always be possible, Michael is committed to ensuring that his courses incorporate multiple online interaction platform, and ultimately a portal via which a multi-stakeholder dialogue will occur.

I, for one, am looking forward to being part of this year’s CSAP course.

– Tinotenda

  Junior Associate

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