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As parts of Europe and China flooded, and other parts of Europe and the US’s western states burned, the UN released a report on climate change that shocked the world. As we go into the 26th Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, starting on 31 October 2021, it’s clear we need to ask the hard questions.

 What is the IPCC report?

The IPCC report is the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 6th Assessment Report. It shocked the world not because of the facts – we knew about the acceleration and impact of climate change – but because it so starkly revealed how far along the trajectory of irreversible damage we are. You can read it here.

What is the outlook for climate change in SA?

We already know Southern Africa is warming at about twice the global rate. Most recent evidence of impact include:

  • The 2015/16 El Niño in the interior of SA, the strongest ever measured. The consequences for wildlife in the Kruger Park, for instance, were tragic.
  • Cape Town’s “day zero” drought of 2015-2017.
  • Tropical cyclone Idai which, in March 2019, took more than 1 300 lives in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi.

These are all unprecedented climate impacts.

At a micro level, consider the cancellation of the Cape Town Cycle Tour in 2017 due to wind speeds of up to 100km/hour. The Tour contributes around R500m annually to Cape Town’s economy. It was the first time in the Tour’s 40-year history that it was cancelled; the next year was the first year the Tour was not sold out. There is vast potential loss to cities’ and regional economies when extreme weather conditions lead to cancellations of big events. 

The predictions are that as we go further down the climate change road, heat waves and periods of drought will occur more frequently. The concern is that when areas which are already warm and dry become warmer and drier, options for adaptation are limited.

Apart from quality of life and longevity considerations, the implications of a hotter, dryer climate include:

  • Cities and towns running out of water; requiring public-sector funds to be diverted into desalination and greywater technologies to maintain life;
  • Desertification, leading to a loss of biodiversity in wilderness areas. In agricultural areas, changing conditions make traditional grazing and crops unfeasible. In Zimbabwe, for instance, small tobacco farmers – a route out of poverty for many – are increasingly abandoning their farms. Climate refugees are wandering the globe, or descending on cities at rates that swamp cities’ ability to absorb them. At a country level, governments feel the pain in the balance of payments, and in growing employment and food insecurity.
  • Health issues. Dust storms and smoke from increasing and more intense wildfires aggravate the impact of air pollution, which increases skin and lung diseases. Stress-related mental health issues grow exponentially. Other health issues linked to climate change include heatstroke, skin cancer & other diseases, malarial mosquitoes and disease-carrying ticks, poverty-related diseases, waterborne diseases and pandemic viruses.

Overall, there is a significant negative impact on GDP; compounded in areas which previously enjoyed tourist activity. Already we have seen significant loss of tourist income and tourism-related jobs.

What is the corporate response?

South Africa is no victim in the climate change narrative. We are the 12th largest global greenhouse-gas (GHG) emitter, with per capita emissions higher than China’s and India’s, and well above the global average. We are the most carbon-intensive G20 economy, with the highest coal reliance. It’s useful to look at Eskom’s own thinking about this.

Industry leads when it comes to polluting the skies, but all businesses create GHGs. First, they create, sell, and use physical products. Second, they use energy in running their business. Growing awareness of the impact has triggered businesses everywhere – including the likes of Microsoft, Amazon, Apple and Walmart – to commit to net-zero carbon emissions.

Amongst recommendations from Forbes that all corporates can implement are:

1. Changing the source of energy used across the value chain to renewables. Thought must be given here, too, to how employees get to work – private cars equal heavy emissions. What can employers do to encourage alternatives?

2. Reducing the use of material product by focusing on waste as a way to stimulate innovation in product, process, packaging and delivery.

3.  Source from companies committed to net zero. By procuring inputs from suppliers who commit to carbon targets, companies have a better story to tell and contribute to changing the system production and consumption. 

What about the retail world?

There is enormous scope for retail to make a meaningful difference. In addition to the steps above, retailers should be eliminating single-use plastics (in many areas of the world, they’re already illegal), shortening supply chains, and designing for reducing and recycling.

One potentially high-impact area is better management of online shopping returns. Free returns are part of what makes online offerings attractive, but while in-store shoppers return between 5% and 10% of items bought, about 40% of items ordered online are returned. Only 50% of these returns end up back on the shelf to be sold: in the US, 2.2m tons of online returns end up in landfill. Add the emissions generated by return shipping and the doubling up of packaging, and it’s clear the environmental impact is huge. We presented this as a challenge to innovators and entrepreneurs here.

written by: heather parker