Many Australian companies might moan about the carbon price but there's little sign the tax is prompting a noticeable shift in either their efforts to act to cut emissions or disclose to the public their efforts.
Compilers of the annual Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) had expected the start of the carbon tax to spur an increased response from the top 200 companies on the ASX. Instead, just under half responded, which was little changed from a year earlier.
The response rate to the seventh annual CDP survey was higher among the top 100 ASX stocks, at 71 per cent, but slightly down on the previous two years.
"We'd expect, as the impact of the carbon prices and climate change become more material, the response rate will increase over time," said James Day, the director of the CDP for Australia and New Zealand.
All up the respondents account for 85 per cent of the ASX200's total market value. The results go to 655 investors globally with combined assets of some $US78 trillion.
Among the largest non-responding ASX100 companies which declined to disclose their views on carbon risks and opportunities were rail freight giant QR National, Westfield Retail, Lend Lease, and notably, given its overseeing of the stock exchange, the ASX itself. Bank of Queensland, based in a state that was hit by significant flooding three years in a row, was among seven companies which responded to CDP 2011 but declined to participate this year.
The report's authors, which include the Australian partnership of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, said the findings suggest Australian companies are becoming "increasingly comfortable" with the carbon tax.
For instance, some 69 per cent of ASX200 and the top 50 listed companies in New Zealand identified a risk to their business, down from 81 per cent in 2011. Just three respondents — David Jones, Origin Energy and OneSteel/Arrium — consider the tax to be a high risk, unchanged from a year earlier.
The main threat from the carbon tax, as seen by 88 per cent of respondents nominating a risk, was rising operation costs while 14 per cent nominated falling demand for goods and services.
Airlines Qantas and Virgin Australia were among companies worried that a carbon price might turn consumers off their services. Both firms, though, were also praised for the thorough disclosure of the challenges they face.
Financial firms, such as Insurance Australia Group and National Australia Bank, were among companies placing the greatest priority on dealing with the challenges of climate change possibly out of concern "over reputation and customer expectations", the report said.
Several of the report's other findings, though, suggest that even after a year of heightened debate over climate change and the carbon tax, there remains no strong trend towards "continuous improvement in governance, strategy and targets".
For instance, only 72 per cent of respondents report such issues to the board, little changed from a year earlier.
The report's authors found it "perhaps surprising" that not all responding companies in the materials or mining sector had made the carbon issue a matter for the board, executives or senior management.
"This is a possible indicator that carbon pricing risks may not be appropriately managed" by these companies, it said.
Just 52 per cent of ASX200 respondents reported absolute and/or intensity emission reduction targets, although that ratio was up from 40 per cent two years earlier. Somewhat oddly, companies in the highest emitting sectors were among the least active in disclosing such goals, with just 20 per cent of utilities, a third of material stocks and 40 per cent of those in the energy sector responding.
"We would hope to see that companies, particularly those in directly affected sectors, are moving to set real targets," Shauna Coffey, director of sustainability and climate change at Deloitte, said.
Taking into account non-respondents, the survey estimates 92 per cent of listed utilities do not have targets to cut greenhouse gases, with energy and material firm only marginally better.
"This general level of unresponsiveness . . . is problematic and demonstrates a continued lack of preparedness to respond to carbon prices," the report said.
Industrial firms bucked the trend, however, with two-thirds of responding firms in the sector disclosing targets, up from 39 per cent a year earlier.
If pessimism about the effects of carbon pricing has begun to diminish, so too has optimism that the shift to a lower-carbon economy would open up new markets.
Just over one in three respondents, or 35 per cent, reported that carbon price would drive business opportunities, down from 56 per cent in 2011.
One drag on the overall responsiveness by companies both to the annual survey and to the slew of corporate action to carbon pricing may be doubts that the tax will be long-lived.
The report noted policy uncertainty as one reason for the absence of emission-cutting targets and the federal opposition's "unchanged" stance to unwind the carbon price should it win power at the next election.