Picture: 123RF/ALPHA SPIRIT
Picture: 123RF/ALPHA SPIRIT

With climate change conference Cop26 postponed until 2021 due to Covid-19, the mostly virtual Climate Week 2020, which took place last week in conjunction with the UN General Assembly, was this year’s largest and most important platform for the climate crisis.

The event spurred a global discussion about the urgency of taking a conscientious approach as economies around the world start to rebuild while continuing to battle Covid-19. 

However, for the average person following the events from home, and with the newly unveiled Climate Clock looming and counting down the seconds, the climate crisis might seem insurmountable. Amid lofty commitments from big corporations and governments, it increasingly seems as if our individual actions — switching off lights, taking fewer flights, composting and other efforts — are not enough.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless. Thankfully, there are simple yet powerful ways South Africans can directly contribute to the “green recovery” and the fight against climate change. Seemingly small actions can ultimately make a great impact. 

The climate initiatives with the potential for the broadest impact across industries and geographies are established when national governments come together and work collaboratively towards a common goal. The 2015 Paris Agreement, signed by SA in April 2016, is, perhaps, the most notable example in recent years. On the other hand, the US rolling back its climate leadership and involvement in the agreement demonstrates how those initiatives are also fragile and can be upended by representatives lacking commitment to the fight against climate change. 

Through platforms such as Kickstarter, individuals can choose from hundreds of innovative renewable energy projects to back with very affordable minimal investments

Local and national initiatives, therefore, also have an important role to play. During Climate Week the Cape Town and Durban metros made headlines by joining 10 other global cities in signing a pledge to divest their assets from fossil fuels. Earlier this week, President Cyril Ramaphosa reiterated the SA government’s commitment to rolling out an additional 11.8GW of power generation, much of this from renewables.

In the US, California enacted groundbreaking new regulations requiring all new vehicles sold in the state to be zero-emissions by 2035. 

With these examples in mind it is clear why, as South Africans and global citizens, we must do our part to ensure we have the right government leaders representing us and making decisions on our behalf at local, national and global levels. Our representatives must understand the urgency of the climate crisis, its impacts on our lives and livelihoods, and have actionable plans to curb emissions at the top of their agendas.

Another important and critical action we can take is to join, fund and support divestment and other movements that hold the world’s largest emitters to account for their impact. According to the Climate Accountability Institute, a third of all greenhouse gas emissions are linked to the extraction of oil, gas and coal by only 20 government or privately owned fossil fuel companies that continue to put profits ahead of people and the planet. 

Much as we can vote for the government leaders that represent us in the private sector, we can also “vote” with our wallets for a brighter climate future through sustainable investments and conscious consumption.

When it comes to investments it is critical to work with financial advisers that our values align with and conduct due diligence on where our money is going. If we turn a blind eye and fail to inspect the details of the funds, pensions and banks where our money sits, there’s a good chance we may inadvertently end up on the wrong side of the climate dilemma by supporting companies that show no regard for sustainability.

Thankfully, sustainable investments have become increasingly mainstream and accessible as investors from individuals to institutions increasingly recognise that having sustainability at the core of their strategy is not only the ethical thing to do, it also makes financial sense. In June, global finance research agency, Morningstar, published findings from a comparison of 745 sustainable to 4,150 traditional funds, which revealed that sustainable funds had comparable or higher returns across all categories. 

It is also becoming easier to choose between investments. The MSCI SA ESG leaders index provides a sustainability benchmark against which investors can compare the environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance of companies. This index shows that between 2008 and 2019, the companies in the index outperformed those in the MSCI SA index, which tracks SA equities performance.

New, online technologies have also given way to solutions that enable individuals around the globe to participate in the clean economy even more directly. For example, through Sun Exchange, even a university student with no roof space and little money can own solar cells and earn from the clean energy they generate. And through platforms such as Kickstarter, individuals can choose from hundreds of innovative renewable energy projects to back with very affordable minimal investments. 

Beyond investments, we can also take a stand through our everyday purchase decisions and the brands we support. In SA, several groups, such as Woolworths, Virgin Active, Vodacom and Liberty Holdings, to name a few, have pledged climate action. As consumers, it’s important that we take the time to understand and consider the climate footprint of the products and services we use for everything from food to electronics to gyms and financial services. We must make our voice heard and let businesses know that their climate pledges matter, but not without the action to follow. 

At the Climate Week opening address, Britain's Prince Charles delivered a virtual keynote with a chilling warning that a global climate disaster could dwarf the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, he also offered hope, saying the pandemic provides a unique “window of opportunity” to rebuild more sustainable economies globally.

We all have an important role to play in seizing that opportunity, even if our efforts appear insignificant. By taking seemingly small and simple actions in our civic and financial lives, collectively, we can have a massive impact and mobilise entire nations and industries to achieve a green recovery. 

• Cambridge is CEO and founder of Sun Exchange.

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