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Roopa Davé is a Vancouver-based partner in KPMG Canada’s sustainability services practice.handout

The growing commitment in the global financial community to support the transition to a lower-carbon economy now has organizations scrambling for people with the talent to deliver on those commitments: finance professionals with a green streak.

“Sustainable finance may seem like a new concept for some, but almost overnight we have seen an explosion in demand for professionals with this kind of experience,” says Jean Andrey, dean of the University of Waterloo’s faculty of environment.

Her faculty has teamed with the school of accounting and finance to develop a new undergraduate degree program in sustainability and financial management. “We are creating brand new curriculum.”

Experienced candidates with that combination of financial expertise and deep environmental knowledge are in short supply, says Roopa Davé, Vancouver-based partner in KPMG Canada’s sustainability services practice. “We have a lot of postings out there,” she says, and competition is intense.

KPMG already has a strong multi-disciplinary team of sustainability specialists in Canada – “business acumen is a key overarching theme, so we have chartered professional accountants and chartered financial analysts, but we [also] have engineers, foresters, biologists and folks with climate degrees,” she explains. The practice is growing to keep pace with client needs for environmental audits, guidance on climate change risks and opportunities, the integration of ESG (environmental, social and governance) considerations into business strategy, and transitioning to a lower carbon footprint.

KPMG Canada recently recruited a marine biologist-turned-accountant from the firm’s ESG strategy team in the United Kingdom and is hiring internationally. “We are bringing folks in from India, we are looking at Australia,” Ms. Davé says. “We are looking for specific qualities, not necessarily a specific profile. Really, what we are looking for is a certain way of thinking – that ability to be multi-disciplinary and connect the dots on these complicated issues.”

At the same time, KPMG Canada – like other organizations in the professional and financial services sectors – is training for the emerging skills it can’t hire for. Training all staff on the environment, social and governance issues that affect every sector in the new economy will go a long way to solving the talent shortage, Ms. Davé says. “I think it’s a key approach for all businesses. We’re partnering, for example, with global academic institutions like the University of Cambridge and New York University to develop curriculum to do that.”

Pretty much every post-secondary institution in Canada “is addressing sustainability in some way,” says Michael Wood, associate director of undergraduate studies at the University of Waterloo’s school of environment, enterprise and development. Some graduates, like KPMG’s microbiologist, go on to study business. There are also post-graduate climate science courses for graduates of business programs, plus a whole range of continuing education options for students seeking to supplement their knowledge of environmental issues or business.

The new sustainability and financial management program, which will accept its first cohort of students in the fall of 2022, marks “the beginning of a new discipline,” Mr. Wood says. Globally, companies have established sustainability goals and targets to minimize their environmental impact.

In October, 2021, a few weeks in advance of the recent United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow, Canada’s six largest banks joined the UN’s global alliance of bankers in recognizing the urgency of addressing climate change and the role of financial institutions – through their investment and lending decisions – in supporting the transition to a low-carbon economy. The goal is “net-zero” emissions in their portfolios by 2050.

Vancouver City Savings Credit Union, a member-owned co-operative, was one of the founding signatories of the net-zero banking alliance when it launched in April, 2021, along with such industry giants as HSBC, Deutsche Bank AG, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America Corp. and Citigroup Inc.

Vancity aims to eliminate or significantly reduce carbon emitted by any company it finances by 2040, working with members to reduce their carbon emissions. Moving any faster could be “incredibly disruptive to people’s livelihoods and communities,” says Jonathan Fowlie, who leads Vancity’s external relations and impact strategy division, overseeing community investment, climate strategy and performance, among other responsibilities.

In February, 2021, the credit union recruited sustainability professional Alison Coates from HSBC to help Vancity “chart a credible roadmap towards net zero” in her role as director of climate strategy and performance. The challenge for all the signatories to the net-zero alliance is to identify and finance new and innovative clean-tech ventures, to offer investment products that can demonstrate the integrity of their ESG stewardship, all while providing the financial support heavy-emitting sectors need to decarbonize, with the view to ensure a just and stable economic transition.

At Waterloo, students will study accounting and financial management, earning credits towards either CPA or CFA designations, and will delve into environmental law, social equity, carbon emissions and ecosystem science – emerging with the expertise to quantify, report and integrate sustainability considerations into long-term business strategies and decision-making processes. They’ll also gain 20 months of paid on-the-job experience through co-op placements.

“You will still need conservationists, biologists, you will need foresters, all of those people who are trained in the classic way in the environment,” says Ms. Andrey from Waterloo. “But, in addition, you need an entirely different cadre of people who are able to lead the financial sector with a deep understanding of sustainability.”