Environmental Accounting Jobs and Careers
Recent decades have seen increasing discussion about environmental issues and the goals of sustainability.
While businesses clearly exist to create a profit, the non-financial goal of being environmentally friendly is also of concerns to organisations who wish to retain their environmentally aware customers, funders or investors.
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Environmentally aware companies are developing business plans that yield profit while:
- Minimising their environmental impact.
- Making optimum use of natural resources.
- Becoming more energy efficient.
- Reducing their carbon footprint.
- Developing 'greener' products and processes.
- Demonstrating social responsibility.
This increasing 'green economy' has led to the rise of a new area of public accountancy, variously known as environmental, sustainable, social or (colloquially) green accountancy. These accountants undertake environmental compliance audits, as well as systems and procedures audits, alongside 'regular' public accounting procedures. They work primarily for companies whose activities have a direct impact on the environment, e.g. utilities, manufacturers, mining, construction and chemical companies. By producing quantitative information to demonstrate environmental compliance, these organisations are not only keeping the public and customers informed, but are gaining themselves information that will protect them from legal action at future dates. Such information also plays a part in encouraging enterprise agencies to invest - or not.
Outline of the Role
Environmental accountants integrate consideration of environmental factors into their regular accounting activities. Such costs are previously buried in the company's financial data, resisting analysis due to being diffused across many areas. Defining and isolating the financial information is therefore a specialist activity.
The accountant identifies and tracks these costs, working with production and site managers, and research and development teams, in the planning of budgets. They make financial information available that supports decision making with regards to product development and production, processes selected, or management of the systems or facilities.
The accountant can also project the financial initiatives that come with compliance, particularly those offered by government, such as tax breaks and rebates. These can be projected alongside overall cost savings of being environmentally friendly. The end result is business management that utilises data collected through accounting procedures and cost accounting to achieve cost efficiency in a way that marries with environmental risk and impact reduction. The accountants are therefore providing valuable information for public relations and marketing departments, as well as R&D and production.
Environmental accounting is very much a progressive, forward-looking area of accounting. It is extremely informative of decision making on longer term issues. It positions companies favourably for government handouts for sustainable projects or ventures, and provides greater protection from legislation against non-sustainable business activity. It helps companies prepare for weather related change and variations in availability of natural raw materials. While not necessarily achieving the lowest costs, the environmentally aware company is competitively placed for a rising consumer demand for green products and services, not to mention the eventuality of rising energy prices.
An environmental accountant will have their role defined by the activities of the company they are employed by. Generally speaking, in addition to company accounting, their work will encompass some or all of the following areas of work.
- Public reporting of data on environmental costs, such as energy use, local environmental impact, carbon emissions, etc.
- Production of reports utilising the above data for consumption by management teams.
- Recording and reporting on existing initiatives, combining financial data with measured outcomes regards social and environmental impacts.
- Identifying and establishing key indicator criteria that reflect environmental progress and relating these to financial developments.
- Presenting costs and benefits - not necessarily incurred by the organisation itself - in financial terms and integrating these into the accounts.
- Undertaking 'carbon accounting' to measure the carbon footprint and translating this into financial terms.
- Selecting emerging methodologies for integrating external or intangible costs into internal financial accounting.
- Contributing to the annual report with disclosure and comment on environmental liabilities.
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Hours and Conditions
The majority of accountants working in this capacity will be employed either as company accountants for large businesses and corporations, or as fund accountants with environmentally oriented non profit organisations or charities. Others provide environmental accounting to different organisations, working as an independent accountant or within a partnership and retaining a number of clients.
Hours are usually regular office hours. There will be exceptions, such as in the period of the financial year's end. If working under contract for different organisations, there is likely to be a need for travel to different locations.
Type of Person Required
Beyond the skills usually required for a career in accountancy, an environmental accountant should have a very strong interest in environmental and sustainability issues. The ability to work in a team and liaise with a range of people, including people who are employed by different organisations, is important. Skills in accounting software are important, as are written and verbal communication skills.
Multiple skills go with this job. There are far more people to be liaised with than in regular accounting jobs and not all will be favourable to large corporations. Problem solving and negotiating skills will be useful, as there are times when you may come under fire for the position you have taken on measuring impacts that people outside the organisation may measure in a different way. You will usually be working within a team of traditional accountants, focusing on this particular area.
You need to have the confidence to tread on new ground, as this is an emerging area. A specialist knowledge of legal regulations, not just in accounting but concerning environmental issues, is essential.
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As well as general accounting training and experience, additional training in environmental issues is usually necessary. Limited postgraduate training is available, although provision is likely to occur, with seminars, conferences and short courses also growing in number. It may be wisest to take a minor subject in Environmental Studies while still at college if this is your anticipated area of work. Alternatively, evening or distance study may be appropriate if you have left full-time education.
Usually, environmental accountants have worked with a company for a number of years and are already familiar with its practices and procedures, before moving into this position.
Salaries and Prospects
Demand for this type of accountant is likely to rise, although this may be tied to governmental rulings. This means the future is unpredictable, as it is subject to the actions of policy-makers. The average salary in the US, where most jobs exist, is US$67,000. In Canada, the average salary is CA$55,000. The position is not yet widely recognised in the UK, where a qualified accountant can expect to receive £30,000-40,000.