Private equity and ESG: five trends and predictions for 2024

Private equity firms must accept that ESG has become a strategic imperative, says Petra Funds Group MD Charlie Chipchase. So, what can we expect in 2024?

In 2023, private equity firms continued to integrate ESG considerations into their investment processes with Limited partners (LPs) and regulators continued to prioritise the importance of transparency and reporting related to ESG factors.

Whether the ESG acronym continues to be used over the long term remains to be seen but ESG in one form or another has cemented itself into the private equity landscape.

Irrespective of recent political debate in the US, General Partners (GPs) must accept that ESG has become a strategic imperative.

And given the ESG regulation sweeping the globe – a legal necessity, says Charlie Chipchase Managing Director and Head of Europe at Petra Funds Group, which administers funds and structures totalling more than US$110 billion in assets.

So, what can General Partners expect as they look to 2024? 

1 Move toward outsourcing routine ESG monitoring and reporting

​​​​​​​When it comes to ESG monitoring and reporting, you need to be able to collect data and have the experience and knowledge to analyse and make sense of it and disclose it. Certain PE firms believe in having a larger team at the GP level responsible for various activities and reporting directly to the Head of ESG. These tend to be the large cap funds – a luxury that is often not an option for the mid-market and certainly not for the firm that is on its second or third fund.

Justifying the need for a sizable in-house ESG team can be difficult. This dynamic is leading to an increasing shift within GPs, with a growing move towards outsourcing ongoing ESG monitoring and reporting functions to reliable third-party providers with the majority of those costs being allocable to the funds. We anticipate this trend gaining further momentum throughout 2024. 

2 The (rising) cost of ESG

Given that a great deal of external ESG-related costs are ultimately borne by the LPs, GPs need to ensure that they are getting 'bang for their buck' when they engage external consultants and the raft of ESG vendors (legal, carbon accounting, tech etc) that have sprung up in recent years.

A typical refrain from founders through to CFOs and in-house ESG personnel over the last 12 months has been “how has this become so expensive” and “should we simply hire/develop the relevant capabilities internally”? While we would not be surprised to see some market consolidation of ESG service providers in 2024, PE firms will start scrutinising ESG costs and in-house legal personnel will be working carefully with their finance teams to ensure those costs are correctly allocated. 

3 Increased focus on Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) reporting

The CSRD represents a profound change in ESG reporting that should not be underestimated. While Europe may seem less relevant to US funds, the CSRD will affect a number of US-headquartered firms with European offices and portfolio companies.

Reporting obligations for some start in 2025 (on 2024 data) and for many others from 2026 (on 2025 data). We see 2024 as a key year for firms as they and their EU portfolio companies assess whether they are in the scope and, if so, what processes, resources, and controls are needed to comply. Regulatory change, such as the CSRD, will hopefully usher in an era of standardised and audited reporting of non-financial disclosures, which, in turn, will focus LPs and GPs on the key components of a successful ESG programme, including data, talent, and technology. 

4 Continued politicisation of ESG, particularly in the US

Support for ESG as an important lens through which investments should be viewed has gained momentum in recent years while also drawing criticism and, in some quarters, anti-ESG legislation. This is particularly true in the US where there is a clear divide between states supporting ESG considerations and those that do not.

We expect to see a continued backlash to ESG in 2024. ESG integration and the long term advantage it represents will however not go away – notwithstanding short term political headwinds. Large and mid-cap firms will continue to double down on their ESG reporting efforts and new funds coming to market in 2024 advised to do the same. In the wake of COP28 and with elections in the US, UK and EU in 2024 it will be interesting to see if those in power continue the regulatory work and sentiment of the previous administrations in 2024 and beyond, or change tack. 

5 Rise in ESG litigation and enforcement actions

After years of voluntary ESG disclosures there will undoubtedly be a steady rise in the number greenwashing claims in 2024 as the chickens come home to roost. So too on ESG-related regulatory enforcement actions. The SEC’s thematic mantra of 'Say What You Do and Do What You Say' may seem obvious to most but its focus on the truthfulness of disclosures that PE firms make – on ESG or otherwise – will mean a continued scrutiny of past ESG disclosures and will unfortunately result in certain sanctions and penalties across the PE sector.

Given this, and the swath of incoming ESG-related regulation, we expect to see GCs and CCOs leaning in more on ESG across the board. 

As a postscript, it will be interesting to see if the tension between ESG and antitrust laws develops. European regulators have generally encouraged private sector collaborations that pursue legitimate sustainability objectives whereas regulators in the US have been less permissive of 'climate cartels' with some states actually launching antitrust investigations into ESG initiatives. 

Another reason for GCs and CCOs to assess the risks inherent in their firm’s sustainability collaborations. 

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