The new Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation (SFDR) is on the minds of many investors these days. While a lot has been written on SFDR itself, I discuss how it relates to the Non-Financial Reporting Directive (NFRD) and the EU Taxonomy on sustainable economic activities. Taken together, these regulations can be overwhelming and maybe even confusing. While this is not the right place to comprehensively discuss all three regulations, I make some clarifications on their interlinked nature.
SFDR, NFRD, and the EU Taxonomy – What Are We Talking About?
To start with, let us briefly review the three legal instruments, all of which belong to a series of EU regulations under the EU Action Plan on Sustainable Finance.
- NFRD is the EU legal framework for regulating the disclosure of non-financial information by corporations. It was adopted in 2014 and states that corporations have to report on ESG information from 2018 onwards (for the 2017 financial year). NFRD is rather flexible – it applies only to so-called “public interest entities” (basically rather big corporations) and it contains so-called comply-or-explain clauses (allowing for non-disclosure of information if this is made transparent and reasons are given).
- SFDR is the new EU regulation that introduces rules for financial market participants (FMPs) and financial advisers (FAs) to report on how they account for sustainability risks. SFDR applies at the “entity level” (i.e. requiring financial firms to report on how the whole organization deals with such risks) and also on the “product level” (i.e. requiring firms to report on how their financial products are affected by such risks). SFDR contains few comply-or-explain clauses (e.g., smaller firms, with less than 500 employees, can opt out of reporting on due diligence processes). The regulation asks all FMPs and FAs to report on sustainability risks even if they do not offer ESG-related products. If an entity offers ESG-related products, SFDR requires additional disclosures depending on how “green” the product is considered to be. SFDR came into force on 10 March 2021.
- The EU Taxonomy regulation (hereafter: the Taxonomy), which entered into force 12 July 2020, reflects a common European classification system for environmentally sustainable activities. Basically, the Taxonomy tried to answer the question: What can be considered an environmentally sustainable activity? Answering this question is essential for investors to prevent “greenwashing” – i.e. a situation in which financial products are marketed as being sustainable without meeting sustainability criteria. The taxonomy defines six environmental objectives, and it defines an economic activity as sustainable if this activity contributes at least two one of these objectives without, at the same time, doing significant harm to any of the other objectives.
Differences and Commonalities
To start with, it is important to note the different legal status of SFDR/the Taxonomy as well as NFRD. NFRD is based on an older EU Directive (2014/95/EU). Directives imply that EU member states have to translate the broad requirements into national regulation. By contrast, SFDR (2019/2088) and the Taxonomy (2020/852) are both based on European regulation, which is immediately enforceable and does not require transposition into national law.
To understand how the three legal frameworks relate to each other, look at the Figure below. NFRD applies to corporations of all kinds. Hence, for investors NFRD is mostly relevant because it stipulates how investee companies report ESG data. SFDR, by contrast, most concerns financial market actors and ensures transparency about how these report on sustainability risks to their audiences (e.g., retail investors). The Taxonomy was introduced to have a common reference point when trying to figure out whether an economic activity really is sustainable. The Taxonomy therefore has the power to further specify the regulations set out in SFDR and NFRD.
The linkages between the three frameworks will be further specified throughout the coming years. While SFDR has been in force since 10 March 2021, it is only in the so-called “level 1 stage of development”. As with many EU regulations, level 1 development sets out the basic framework principles for a regulation, however without specifying technical details. SFDR level 2 will come into force once the regulation is complemented with Regulatory Technical Standards (RTS), which are developed right now. The RTS will also specify the linkages to the Taxonomy in more detail (e.g., related to the “do-no-significant-harm” concept inherent in SFDR).
So, what can we say right now? The current versions of SFDR and NFRD do not yet link disclosures to the Taxonomy. This is likely to change, especially with the SFDR RTS being further specified and rolled out (in early February the European Supervisory Authorities released their final draft of the SFDR RTS). Moreover, the NFRD regulation is currently under consultation and will be revised in the near future. However, two important linkages are important to consider right now.
- First, the scope of the Taxonomy is defined through NFRD and SFDR. In other words, if an organization is affected by NFRD and/or SFDR, the Taxonomy will also be relevant for its disclosure practices. It is important to note here that the EU Taxonomy defines further mandatory disclosures in addition to what is laid out by NFRD and SFDR.
- Second, the Taxonomy asks companies (incl. asset managers) to report the percentage of their turnover and capital as well as operational expenditures that are aligned with the Taxonomy. It also asks asset managers to report the percentage of their portfolio which is invested in economic activities that are aligned with the Taxonomy.
We will witness a good deal of technical specifications of all three regulations throughout the next years. SFDR level 2 reporting will kick in once the RTS standards are part of the reporting (probably by mid-2023); also by 2024 year-on-year comparisons of data points under SFDR will be likely mandatory. The six environmental objectives of the Taxonomy will be specified through technical screening criteria, some of which will be released very soon.
It is good to see non-financial reporting and sustainable finance being backed by strong European regulations. It allows for more comparison and benchmarking and hence transparency. But, of course, we should also be prepared for a good deal of clarifications that will be necessary until institutionalized reporting cycles can fully kick in and unfold their potential.