DUBAI — Asda’a BCW has launched a specialist environmental, social and governance (ESG) advisory, OnePoint5, which aims to strengthen the voice of the MENA region on ESG issues while helping clients to develop their ESG propositions and adopt more sustainable business practices.

The new advisory is named after the sustainability goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. OnePoint5 will be led by Asda’a BCW SVP Stephen Worsley (pictured, left), who has advised clients in the sustainability and energy sectors including Total, Zayed Sustainability Prize, Engie and First Solar and is the former head of corporate communications at Abu Dhabi renewable energy firm Masdar.

The advisory offers four services: advice and counsel to client decision makers to ensure sustainability thinking is central to their business planning and disclosure; auditing and gap analysis to understand a client’s sustainability impacts; designing operational plans to help integrate best practices; and communications strategies and plans to help clients inform and motivate employees and internal stakeholders, as well as amplify external stakeholder awareness of their sustainability commitments.

Asda’a BCW founder and BCW MENA president Sunil John (pictured, right) told PRovoke Media that One Point Five would help clients address the “say-do” gap around ESG best practice, by combining the skills of experienced communicators with the technical abilities of sustainability specialists.

“Through Covid we had more time to think about the big needs of the region, and sustainability and ESG thinking was one of things came through front and centre. We’ve already worked with a number of clients on developing sustainability reports, the UAE Ministry of Economy’s CSR index, working with the Zayed Sustainability Prize in Abu Dhabi and the office of the climate change envoy in UAE on developing plans for the future, as well as clients such as General Electric and Nestlé on sustainability reporting and thinking. We realised there was a need for more than pure communications services – we also needed specialists who understand the space and could look at sustainability best practice, with the practical rigour of ESG auditing and gap analysis, and creating ESG frameworks.”

John said OnePoint5 would work with existing clients but also target the “low-hanging fruit” of listed firms who have to have ESG standards and “cannot get a dollar of international financing if they don’t have ESG reporting,” as well as partnering with financial services firms, which have already said they won’t invest in companies with a low ESG ranking.

“Finally, it’s all about money, including the ‘net zero’ promises,” he said. “It will take trillions of dollars to help the Global South to come up with renewable strategies and get out of fossil fuels. The time is over for pledges and now is the time for action – we’re bringing a service to market that is rightly timed.”

The advisory has been launched as the focus on sustainability in the Middle East is set to increase sharply, with Egypt preparing to host the UN Climate Conference, COP27, in November this year, to be followed by COP28 in the UAE in 2023 – the first oil-producing nation to host the conference. UAE and Saudi Arabia have set strong commitments to sustainable progress, and UAE President HH Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan recently announced an additional US$50 billion to combat climate change.

John said: “There will be a lot of scrutiny of the region and what it is doing. It may be counter-intuitive for oil producing countries to invest so much in renewables, but we want to see a path forward where we will have no oil but a much more diversified economy. More importantly, the MENA region faces acute climate challenges – it is warming at twice the global average and by 2050 will be four degrees warmer, which will make it difficult for humanity to survive. It’s a hotbed of renewable energy innovation: UAE and Abu Dhabi have the biggest solar and nuclear projects and the Saudi green initiative is one of the biggest in the world. OnePoint5 will help private sector clients, governments and institutions to take action to keep up with pledges.”

At the same time, Asda’a BCW has released the results of a survey of 200 decision makers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia which found that 60% of businesses two countries do not have a framework governing their environment, social and governance (ESG) standards, and only 48% of respondents who said their company had introduced an ESG framework said they understood it.

According to the research – conducted by PSB Middle East, the wholly owned data and analytics subsidiary of Asda’a BCW, from May 22-29 this year – Middle East businesses need to pick up the pace on climate action, with 51% of decision makers in the UAE and Saudi Arabia saying that global warming was already having a “significant impact” on the way their business operates.

While governance standards also show room for improvement, 40% of businesses in the two countries claim to have robust policies to combat bribery, corruption and unethical behaviour: 46% of respondents in the UAE and 43% in Saudi Arabia said they had a whistle-blower policy in place to expose corruption.

John said he was “honestly not” surprised by the research findings: “The Middle East is at a nascent stage in terms of ESG thinking and understanding, and there is a whole new journey for governments, the private sector and institutions to follow. That there is a complete lack of ESG thinking at decision-making levels surprised me, but it’s also an opportunity to play a role.

“Governments can go to [COP26 in] Glasgow and make promises, but eventually a dramatic change in operations needs to happen. Climate change is not going away, it’s getting worse, and if the world and especially the Middle East doesn’t take action, we will have a bleak future.”

And John said this was “a turning point” for the communications industry: “We need to look at the opportunity to transform what was do traditionally. I’m not undervaluing communications counsel, it is important and precious, but to make the link with action and behaviour is fundamental. We need to go outside the traditional PR realm, in the Middle East especially, and invest in specialist services and bring in people with new skills. We are well positioned to do that, because we understand the link between behaviour and communications, especially in the ESG space.”