Our Burning Planet

THE GATHERING: EARTH EDITION

Business ruining the environment – do we blame the execs or do something about it ourselves?

Business ruining the environment – do we blame the execs or do something about it ourselves?
Business Maverick journalist Ray Mahlaka, CEO of Pan-African Capital Holdings Dr Iraj Abedian, senior manager at WWF South Africa Wendy Engel and senior financial advisor at ENGIE Desnei Leaf-Camp speak during the panel 'the business of climate' at Daily Maverick's The Gathering: Earth Edition on Friday 26 May 2023 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

South African citizens should not lump all the blame on every business for harming the environment but should take responsibility themselves for ensuring companies acted sustainably.

This was the message of economist Iraj Abedian at Daily Maverick’s Gathering, Earth Edition on Friday 26 May in a panel discussion on the Business of Climate.

In the panel discussion, Business Maverick journalist Ray Mahlaka was joined by:

  • Iraj Abedian, Chief Executive of Pan-African Investment and Research Services (Pty) Ltd
  • Desnei Leaf-Camp, ENGIE solar power plant manager
  • Katrina vanden Heuvel, founder and publisher of The Nation
  • Wendy Engel, senior manager of sustainable finance at the World Wildlife Fund South Africa

The theme was “ESG thinking should dominate the future strategies of business globally.” ESG refers to the environmental, social and governance programmes which corporations are expected to adopt to meet their obligations to society. 

The panel engaged in a lively debate about where the responsibility lay precisely for the contribution of business to climate change and other environmental impacts. 

Noting that business had a bad reputation on the environment, Business Maverick journalist Ray Mahlaka asked Abedian, Chief Executive of Pan-African Investment and Research Services (Pty) Ltd whether South Africans could trust business to protect the environment. 

Business Maverick journalist Ray Mahlaka during the panel ‘the business of climate’ at Daily Maverick’s The Gathering: Earth Edition on Friday 26 May 2023 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

He replied that businesses were diverse in their  behaviour on the environment, as in other areas. They were run by people – “like people in our families. If societies can be trusted then companies, and even governments can be trusted. It’s a matter of the culture of societies,” Abedian replied. 

He said, for example, that many people were shareholders in companies and so could demand accountability from those companies. “When last did you go to your fund manager to hold them accountable for your pension fund?”

CEO of Pan-African Capital Holdings Dr Iraj Abedian speaks during the panel ‘the business of climate’ at Daily Maverick’s The Gathering: Earth Edition on Friday 26 May 2023 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Abedian noted, by analogy, that many South African companies had refrained from State Capture during the Zuma years – often to their great cost – while others had actively collaborated. 

Desnei Leaf-Camp, the manager of a community solar power plant in the Northern Cape who has raised millions of dollars in financing for renewable energy projects in Sub-Saharan Africa, agreed with Abedian, saying “we can’t leave it all up to companies or governments. We all have to do our bit.”

Senior financial advisor at ENGIE Desnei Leaf-Camp speaks during the panel ‘the business of climate’ at Daily Maverick’s The Gathering: Earth Edition on Friday 26 May 2023 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

For example, by reducing consumerism. “Most of you here probably change your car every four to five years. Mine is 20 years old and still going fine,” she declared. 

However, Katrina vanden Heuvel, founder and publisher of the American liberal paper The Nation, was far less compromising, accusing big oil, coal and gas corporations of bearing the greatest burden of responsibility of global warning for the “climate crimes” which they had committed.

Addressing The Gathering by video from the US, she said that humanity already possessed all the tools to defeat climate change, including solar and wind power, regenerative agriculture and expanding forests rather than clearcutting them. 

“What has been lacking is political will … by government officials to turn aside big oil and other vested interests.” 

She noted that The Nation and Daily Maverick were partners in Covering Climate Now, a global media collaboration which The Nation co-founded in 2019 with the Columbia Journalism Review, which now had more than 500 partner outlets reaching a global audience of more than two billion people. 

She said one of Covering Climate Now’s core projects was covering “climate crimes”. She noted that most of the world’s population was living in one or other “crime scene” caused by Exxon-Mobil and other major oil companies lying for more than 40 years about their contribution to climate change. 

Vander Heuvel said that brilliant investigative journalism had revealed that fossil fuel companies already knew perfectly well by the 1970s that continuing to burn ever more oil, coal and gas would raise global temperatures to levels that would decimate the land and people living on that land. 

“They knew that because their own scientists told them so. Yet the executives of these companies decided not to share this knowledge with the public or with journalists… they actively lied about it.” 

Wendy Engel, an agriculture economist, part-time farmer and senior manager of sustainable finance at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) South Africa, said a major problem was that the market did not value nature and biodiversity and so part of her work was looking for sustainable business opportunities in the agricultural sector which could reduce greenhouse gas emission and also create jobs.

Senior manager at WWF South Africa Wendy Engel speaks during the panel ‘the business of climate’ at Daily Maverick’s The Gathering: Earth Edition on Friday 26 May 2023 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Mahlaka said that many companies were “greenwashing”, pretending to pursue climate-friendly policies which were no more than public relations exercises. Should consumers respond by “voting with their feet” and boycotting these companies? 

Engel said they should do that but should first improve their financial literacy to enable themselves to understand the workings of corporations. 

And she said those investors voting with their feet by boycotting products that were not sustainably produced could invest in the dedicated environment fund that the WWF South Africa had created with Sanlam.

Abedian said that many companies, especially those listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, paid lip service to the buzzword of ESG, producing programmes for public consumption in their company reports that did not pass muster when closely examined.

ESG commitments were too often not backed up by specific and practical programmes which set out what production or employment processes, for instance, the company intended to implement to meet their ESG commitments. 

But he also said that many companies were confused by receiving changing and contradictory advice from ESG consultants and experts.

Asked by Mahlaka to name companies which performed badly on sustainability, he named Sasol and Eskom as the two top culprits in destroying the environment year after year and yet being granted government exemption from environmental obligations because they provided many jobs. DM

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