SIMON BROWN: I’m chatting now with Tracey Davies, executive director at Just Share. Tracey, I appreciate the early morning. I was reading that UN Climate Report that came out earlier in the week, and it was scary reading. There’s just no two bones about it. It was not a fun read. As I was reading it – sort of looking out around the corporate space in South Africa, the starkness between what’s happening in the corporate space versus that report – my sense, and maybe I’m being overly paranoid, is big business, pension funds, investors are just not doing enough. Is that a fair comment?
TRACEY DAVIES: Morning, Simon. Absolutely. It is a fair comment. And I think in some of the pronouncements and quotes and kind of public statements from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and the scientists that wrote that report, you really are seeing this increasingly desperate plea, because what this report is saying essentially is that we don’t have 30 or 40 or 50 years to make changes – we have nine years, we have eight years because every additional ton of CO2 that we put into the atmosphere is going to make climate change worse in future. So the IPCC’s consistent message has been that we need to act now.
What we hear in the corporate space – of course, it’s not just in South Africa, but it’s certainly very, very common here – is, “Yes, yes, we really get climate change. We are very worried about it. We’re totally doing everything we can to tackle it. But it’s a journey and we’ll get there in 10 or 20 years’ time because South Africa needs time to transition.” That’s obviously a complex thing to unpack but, anyway, the bottom line is that I totally agree with you.
SIMON BROWN: That that 10 or 20 years – it’s not easy. I get that. We should have started 10 or 20 years ago, but we didn’t. That’s spilled milk, but it’s kicking the can down the road. It’s executive teams passing it to the next generation of executive teams, talking the talk. But absent of action the talk is worthless.
TRACEY DAVIES: It is, and talk in this instance is not only just worthless but also actually harmless [harmful?], the talk without the action. We’ve seen a really big upswing in, I think, awareness of climate risk in the corporate and financial sector in South Africa in the past two to three years. And we’re getting a lot of disclosure, a lot of talk about disclosure, a lot of talk about commitments, and so on.
But what we see hardly any of – which is the main thing we need – is a plan, a decarbonisation plan from every single company, or at least the major ones, that is aligned with the goals of the Paris Agreement that starts now.
Unfortunately, we are allowing the corporate sector and also the government to drive this narrative that ‘yes, we do need to take climate action, but we have to balance that against South Africa’s socioeconomic problems’. That’s a completely false narrative…
because, first of all, ‘business as usual’ is not going to solve all of those problems. It hasn’t done so yet, and there’s no reason to think that it will. Continuing as we are is going to make all of those problems a lot worse in the coming decades. If we continue to cling to coal, if we fail to come up with a credible transition plan we’re going to be very unattractive from a competitiveness point of view globally, as well as from the point of view of attracting climate finance from international climate-finance providers.
So we’re actually putting ourselves in a worse position and using the excuse that ‘we need to go slowly because of all our socioeconomic ills’. I think that that’s a very dangerous and irresponsible narrative to be pedalling at this stage.
SIMON BROWN: And of course those at the bottom of that social hierarchy are the ones who are going to suffer the most, who will be hurt hardest.
I’m sitting here myself as a small private investor with my portfolio, but there are organisations such as yourself and others at those AGMs – Is it just a case of me voting accordingly, me looking at a company and saying, “You’re missing the E in the ESG (environmental, social, and corporate governance), and I won’t invest”. In other words, we need to start voting with our rands and cents, even if they’re small.
TRACEY DAVIES: Yes, absolutely we do. And of course, climate change is an E, S, and G issue, a huge ESG. But the biggest one and the governance of climate change is something that all investors should be looking at in every single company that they’re invested in.
But I think as well as that it’s about the people with the power to change this.
We mustn’t be conned by this idea that if you just recycle more or pay a little bit more attention to where you invest, you’ll solve the problem. This is a problem that can only be solved by the major corporations and the major institutional investors.
So what they need is pressure from clients, and they need their clients to be saying to them: What are you doing about this; we don’t see action. Why are you not pushing these companies for plans? Why are you not voting against remuneration that is not adequately linked to achieving climate goals? Why are you not voting [out] directors that are clearly not competent to develop strategies that are aligned with climate action?
We just don’t see any of that in South Africa: we see nice friendly meetings, and we see things like Ninety One’s CEO saying that they are very happy with Sasol management’s approach to climate risk. That’s just the most extraordinary application of responsibility. And the reason they get away with it is because their clients don’t challenge them.
SIMON BROWN: I like that point. As customers, as investors, we can vote, we can do the digging, we can jump up and down. But also we can take our money somewhere else. It’s not major. They might not feel it, but if enough of us do it, ultimately that’s the power we have.
Tracey Davis, executive director Just Share, I appreciate the early morning.
Listen to Thursday’s full MoneywebNOW podcast here.