This was the question that Henley Business School Africa dean and director Jon Foster-Pedley posed at the inaugural Henley EARTH dean’s dialogue.
The dean’s dialogues are virtual conversations, as Foster-Pedley put it; “opportunities to talk to people who have a passion for things that really matter”.
Held under the auspices of Henley EARTH (Environmental Activism through Research and Training at Henley), the panellists were Henk Sa, a partner at EcoMetrix – a South African green economy management consultancy, and eco-warrior Charles Appleby, the founder of N0CO2, a carbon-neutral movement.
There is much that people can do individually; recycling or planting trees to offset their own carbon footprint, said Appleby. His organisation promotes exactly that, especially in deforested areas in the world where the trees can make the most impact, like Madagascar, Mozambique and Brazil. Carbon footprints change between countries; in the UK an individual creates an average of 7 tons of carbon dioxide emissions, requiring 1 750 trees to remove. In the US, this rises exponentially to 16 tons or 4 000 trees – but it’s far more expensive to plant trees in the developed world than it is in the developing world.
For Sa, planting trees is a great idea that encourages individual activism, but there is a difference between reducing greenhouse gases and capturing carbon. The best way to achieve this is to create global policies that penalise emitters and reward those who cut their emissions.
“We have Africa’s largest greenhouse gas emitter in Eskom and the world’s largest single source emitter in Secunda Synfuels,” but the good news, he said, is that South Africa does participate in global climate change forums and is showing signs of building back better, especially with the recent announcement paving the way for distributed renewable energy production by corporates.
The other good news is that the world can change for good.
“We need to recognise that we have done these things before. When I was growing up as a teenager in the Netherlands, we had the problem of acid rain caused by Nox (nitrous oxide) and Sox (sulphur dioxide), that problem has gone away in a decade-and-a-half.”
The same was true for the hole in the ozone layer that once bedevilled Australia, which was resolved over 20 years.
“(Climate change) is more profound and fundamental and it starts with recognising that there is a problem that has to be addressed. The notion that this might go away is the same as CEOs who refused to answer emails in the 90s, thinking that their PAs could answer them. There is no future in which climate change will not be a topic.”
The only way to resolve this is through influencing government policy – and getting corporates to be conscious of their practices and policies.
“We can replace our light bulbs with energy-efficient ones, we can put solar panels on our roof, but South Africa is a very intensive carbon environment, if you address that, creating electricity through coal and diesel, you address 70% of the problem,” said Sa. “Climate change mitigation is renewable energy.”
Appleby agreed; “decarbonise electricity and move everything to electric.”
But there’s something else too that can be done; make one day a week meat-free, said Sa, because the meat industry is another potential contributor to greenhouse gases. Recycling helps too, because it stops industry having to use energy to make new items to replace them.
“Do we shout? Or do we talk softly?” Foster-Pedley asked about becoming environmental activists. When it comes to individuals, the consensus is that you speak softly and evangelise, but when it comes to lobby groups, organisations and government, the tenor increases.
“Don’t let people get away with fake news,” said Sa. “Speak to people you don’t know about this, otherwise you are just speaking into an echo chamber of fellow believers,” said Appleby
The key remains governments and policy. A start would be finally getting agreement on the controversial Article 6 of the Paris at COP 26 in Glasgow in November this year, said Appleby.
“A tipping point came in April when (US President) Biden announced the US’s commitment to halve emission. Then the G7 committed. They can persuade the G20 and they can persuade COP 26. We could come out with an agreement this year,” he said.
“It’s a global problem, make your vote count,” said Sa, but for Appleby, elections will be too late.
“We can’t wait for voting, hold leaders to account for what they have pledged. Don’t just do it in your own country, do it all across the world.”
“We need to take this personally. Our legacy is to make a better world for our kids, and right now we are not. We have no option but to act” agreed Foster-Pedley.