At Cop26 in Glasgow last November climate activist Greta Thunberg accused the global gathering of being “…no longer a climate conference. This is now a global north greenwashing festival, a two-week long celebration of business as usual and blah blah blah.” These comments and accompanying climate march in Glasgow underline a clear need to move away from solely profit driven, business as usual thinking once and for all.
Many businesses are indeed engaging in ‘greenwashing’ – giving a false or exaggerated impression of their environmental credentials or the amount of work they’re doing to combat climate change – sometimes without even realising it. This occurs when carbon emissions are not accurately accounted for and reported, something a team of academics at the University of Birmingham is trying to change.
Professor Ian Thomson, Director of the Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business, Dr Mayya Konovalova and Dr Madlen Sobkowiak have been leading a new project which has seen climate change mainstreamed into the accountancy course offered at the University of Birmingham, believed to be the first of its kind in the world.
“Greta Thunberg was correct in what she said in Glasgow. It is an undisputable fact that business cannot carry on as normal if we are to effectively fight climate change and reach the government’s target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. This means that every student studying accountancy and finance should know how to account for climate change”, said Professor Thomson.
Dr Konovalova and Dr Sobkowiak are the two academics responsible for building the new vertically integrated syllabus for the course, and in 2021 won the Birmingham Business School Responsible Business Award for the project.
Professor Thomson stated that he was “very proud of the leadership shown by Dr Konovalova and Dr Sobkowiak and the wider accountancy department at the University of Birmingham in taking this ambitious and vitally important project forward.”
Dr Konovalova said: “Students embarking on their journey to becoming accountants can help future proof their own careers and the organisations they go on to work for thanks to the changes we have brought into the accountancy course.
“Mainstreaming climate change into the syllabus just makes sense. Climate change is a real threat to business resilience, as well as the world at large, and nothing will change if we don’t give our students the tools they need.”
Current first year undergraduate accountancy students are the first cohort to be taught the new course in full, with second and third year students also seeing the introduction of the updated compulsory modules for the remainder of their degree. The integration of climate change into the course has become a major selling point for the degree programme, with perspective students hearing about the updates at offer holders’ days this year, the first of which was this week.
Sophie Yates, a current third year undergraduate student in Accounting and Finance said: “Learning about carbon accounting showed me how influential organisations could be in encouraging societies' behavioural change, and the complexity of carbon accounting implementation into organisations. This highlighted my naivety towards carbon accounting and made me realise that some elements of sustainability are just too tricky and complicated to put a value on.
“My outlook on climate change has completely changed from being opinions on how we could be sustainable, to looking at the morals of society and responsibility for changing our future globally.”
Dr Sobkowiak said: “The ambition is to continue the roll out and share our practice with other universities across the world. We have already presented our work to universities in Canada, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Australia and Italy, to name a few, through digital international workshops.
“We really hope that other universities will replicate what we are doing at the University of Birmingham, so that our new generation of accountants across the globe are prepared with the vital knowledge and skills they need to take climate change into consideration when they go on to start their careers.”
The Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business is a strategic initiative from Birmingham Business School in partnership with, and funded by, Lloyds Banking Group, working towards a more responsible future in business. You can find out more about the Centre here.