According to the UN (United Nations) Brundtland Commission, “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
South Africa’s National Development Plan took this into account when planning for the future: “The country must find a way to use its environmental resources to support an economy that enables it to remain competitive, while also meeting the needs of society. Thus, sustainable development is not only economically and socially sustainable, but environmentally sustainable as well.”
However, the country has a very long way to go to achieve these goals.
Environmental sustainability concerns our ability to replenish the natural resources we use so they do not run out. If we follow a ‘growth at all costs’ path, also known as the ‘take-make-waste’ model, we will fail to conserve these precious resources – and quickly impoverish future generations.
According to the principles of a circular economy, we need to be able to regenerate natural systems, keep products and materials in use, and create less waste and pollution. This means reusing and recycling goods and designing more durable goods in the first place. We should also avoid non-renewable resources, like fossil fuels, and focus on renewable energy. South Africa is struggling to put the principles of a circular economy into practice, however. Our economy is largely linear and is powered by fossil fuels, which generate a huge amount of waste. In addition, we consider economic growth to be one of the drivers to lift people out of poverty – but although it would have this effect, it would also lead to a longer-term problem of inefficient resource use.
Although the South African government is determined to build a greener economy during our post-Covid-19 recovery, many challenges remain.
Tackling the climate emergency
South Africa is a climate-crisis hot-spot, which will put further pressure on our resources in the future. According to the Department of Water Affairs’ National Water Resource Strategy, water is the primary medium through which the impacts of climate change are felt in South Africa, with both water availability and quality being affected.
Higher temperatures and reduced rainfall are likely to deplete water resources and droughts may be more frequent and protracted. In addition, more intense storms could lead to flash floods, and sea levels are also expected to rise as snow and glaciers melt. Our National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy says these impacts are inevitable, not just a possibility.
The world needs to drastically cut its greenhouse gas emissions to decelerate the pace of global warming. However, this will be a major challenge. Collectively, we need to halve global emissions by 2050 – and the UN has pointed out that if we fail to meet this target the climate crisis will have a more severe impact than the Covid-19 pandemic.
Quite apart from the human cost – displacement, food insecurity, the spread of infectious diseases and fire or flood-related deaths – the climate crisis comes with a significant financial cost. Approximately 4.7% of Africa’s GDP could be at risk thanks to frequent extreme weather events. Developing nations are far less resilient than developed ones.
Fossil fuel companies have not been legally compelled to reduce their carbon emissions, but a landmark legal case in the Netherlands, which was heard in May 2021, resulted in fossil fuels giant Royal Dutch Shell being ordered to reduce its carbon emissions by 45% by the end of 2030. This is the first time an oil company has been held liable for contributing to climate change.
In South Africa, the ‘Deadly Air’ pollution case against the government has received global attention. The legal challenge brought against the State – and by extension the coal industry – has been led by two environmental justice groups, groundWork and Vukani Environmental Justice Movement (VEM), which have asserted that coal-related air pollution in Mpumalanga violates the rights of communities in the area to live in a healthy environment.Around 2 239 human deaths a year are directly attributable to coal-related air pollution in the country, not to mention 9 500 cases of bronchitis among children 6 to 12.
A 2019 report shows that sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide levels in the Highveld’s industrial region are ten times higher than is safe for human health, by World Health Organization standards. The plaintiffs in the matter argue that Government should compel coal mining companies to take steps to reduce air pollution in terms of the 2012 Highveld Priority Area Air Quality Management Plan.
Fossil fuel companies and other big polluters will have to accelerate their transition to a net-zero carbon economy, or potentially face legal action.
In April 2021, three students in the United Kingdom sued the Government over the human rights impact of the climate crisis, arguing that their right to life has been breached because of the State’s failure to act decisively. The students, from diaspora backgrounds, have noted the links between the climate crisis and wider social injustice, particularly as air pollution largely affects racially marginalised communities, and the UK exports plastic pollution to poorer countries.
With climate litigation on the rise, there is increasing pressure on governments and big business to take their responsibilities seriously, particularly regarding more vulnerable peoples.
Mercy Corps has pointed out that people already burdened by poverty and oppression suffer most from the climate crisis and are the least resilient. This is largely because three out of four people in poorer communities rely on natural resources and agriculture to survive.
“For these people, the effects of climate change — shifting weather, limited water sources and increased competition for resources — are a real matter of life and death. Climate change has turned their lives into a desperate guessing game,” the humanitarian organisation states.
South African’s environmental commitments
South Africa’s National Development Plan makes provision for a just transition to a low-carbon economy and we have pledged to transition to a net-zero carbon economy by 2050, in terms of our commitment to the Paris Climate Accord. However, this may also prove a challenge as we are the 14th largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, thanks to our overreliance on coal.
Fortunately, we are taking steps to accelerate climate action. As at January 2022, 50 local governments, investors and s had signed up to the Alliance for Climate ActionAl, committing to the net zero transmission and collaborating to build a more sustainable economy.
The Alliance for Climate Action is facilitated by the National Business Institute, the World Wildlife Fund and C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. South African companies are also showing a significant increase in sustainability reporting – the only emerging-market economy in Africa to do so.
Companies’ impact on the environment and society
Environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) are three broad categories or areas of interest that make up a framework companies can use to assess the impact they have on society.
- Environmental concerns include how a company uses energy and resources, how it manages its carbon emissions and waste, and whether it is polluting the areas in which it operates.
- Social concerns include a company’s reputation in the market, its relationship with customers, the way in which it treats its employees, and how diverse and inclusive it is.
- Governance concerns include how the business is run, what procedures and practices it follows, whether it complies with legislation, and how it serves all stakeholders.
Environmental impacts that directly affect society include air quality and emissions, land and water pollution, water quality and the handling of wastewater, how hazardous materials are disposed of, how natural resources are used and the quantity of usage, and whether biodiversity is maintained. They also include issues like land use, the resettlement of communities, and the preservation of cultural heritage.
Although we often speak about the impact a company has on ‘people’ and ‘planet’, the two are not distinct, except as reporting categories.
The Global Reporting Initiative provides guidance on what and how to report, which includes environmental and social indicators. More than 75% of the world’s largest 250 companies and nearly 70% of the Top 100 companies surveyed in 22 countries have indicated that they use the GRI (Global Reporting Initiative) Guidelines as the basis for their reporting framework.