In a very short space of time, climate concerns have become mainstream. It is now manifestly apparent to all but the most die-hard denialists that the climate and the effects our activities have on it are a real challenge, and one that we must address urgently if we are to prosper as a species. But the transformational leadership that is required to steer us through this crisis still eludes us in South Africa.
Politicians and the financial sector have the biggest leadership role to play. Their decisions are what shape our futures, trading as they do in power, capital and resources. The shift to a low-carbon future has started, but progress is too slow, too clumsy, too uncoordinated and too dominated by the delay tactics and misinformation of vested interests.
In South Africa the political dimension of decarbonising our economy is particularly challenging. Many powerful people have a stake in the coal sector, and it is still a relatively low-cost, low-barrier way of entering the economy. There are tens of thousands of people, and many communities, who depend on the industry directly and indirectly in spite of its dire impacts on their health and well-being.
This results in astonishing contradictions, like our president telling the international community that South Africa is committed to decarbonising its economy, while senior members of the ruling party back home make it clear that coal is here to stay. If private investors decline to support coal-related opportunities by refusing to finance them, they are threatened with the possibility of being forced to climb aboard through prescribed assets and other less formal but equally persuasive mechanisms.
Proper stewardship by the financial sector can help to break this political deadlock. There are encouraging signs of leadership from asset managers like Investec, Old Mutual, Futuregrowth and Mergence. But for the most part, the custodians of South Africa’s private capital are coming up short, failing to take a stand on fossil fuels or to support low-carbon energy opportunities.
Sustainability reporting and its focus on environmental, social and governance matters has been a major factor in forcing the investment industry to look beyond short term profits, but it has also had the perverse effect of spawning a self-serving industry that misrepresents and obfuscates rather than genuinely grappling with the harmful impacts of big companies on people and the environment. We now have, as a result, a truckload of information from listed companies about their carbon emissions, but almost no credible, comprehensive strategies to reduce them in line with our international commitments.
South Africa is a country of paradox. This is how we are simultaneously the rainbow nation and a hotbed of xenophobia and gender-based violence. This is how the birth of our democracy has coincided with an increase in our already dramatic levels of inequality. It is why we have a world class reputation for corporate governance, and a corporate sector riddled with governance failings. It is also why our President can appoint an Eskom Sustainability Task Team that comes up with a visionary plan, which is then vigorously attacked by his own colleagues in government.
Somehow we need to find a way through all of the noise, self-interest and mistrust to come up with a meaningful plan for changing the nature of our economy, so that we emit far less carbon and achieve a transition that is just, not one which further sucker-punches the poor. Getting to that point will not happen spontaneously: we need consistent, courageous leadership. Those of us who are not in positions of power must demand that leadership. Developing the necessary strategy and vision, and communicating it in a vivid and persuasive way that draws us all in and inspires us to implement it, will not be easy. But it cannot even begin until our leaders are honest about the threats we face, and courageous in standing up to those whose vested interests threaten to derail us altogether.
Dugan Fraser is the director at the Centre for Learning on Evaluation and Results & chair of Just Share board and Tracey Davies is the executive director of Just Share.