Adapt or die: The more things change, the more they stay the same

South Africa is extraordinarily rich in potential compared to many other developing nations, regardless of the current economic situation. This is one of the reasons that local business and economists are now calling for the formulation of an integrated environmental policy that will optimise sustainable development.

There simply isn’t an excuse for a country in our position not to optimise its future, and there is no reason why 15 years after 1994, we should not be in a position to begin constructively to solve all of our historically based problems.

In recent years we have seen our country developing rapidly on a number of levels. Naturally, while sustaining and furthering this development is of utmost importance to the progress of our nation, there will be a lasting and negative impact on the environment unless we modify our habits.

Sustainable development is built on three pillars: economic development, social development and environmental development – each equally important. Therefore, South Africa’s economy cannot be developed sustainably without taking care of the social and environmental aspects as well. This leads to the need for a balanced and all-encompassing national policy that can guide the government, the corporate sector and its people to a sustainable and brighter future.

“The time for delays and half-measures is over. The personal leadership of every Head of State or Government needs to seize this moment to protect people and the planet from one of the most serious challenges ever to confront humanity.” These are the words of UN Secretary-General, Ban-Ki Moon, in response to the recent efforts of world leaders to combat climate change.

The importance of combating climate change amongst other equally important challenges cannot be ignored any longer. We need look to our leaders for guidance on how to achieve this. Reducing carbon emissions is a task that falls equally on parastatals and the business sector. In order for them to start making a difference without compromising their own sustainability, they need to be pressured; and this is where the formulation of an integrated environmental policy becomes crucial.

South Africa is one of the biggest ‘sinners’ among developing nations in terms of carbon emissions. In light of this, government is widely expected to commit to a carbon reduction and adaptation programme at the global meeting of nations in Copenhagen in December. Local businesses and organisations will be impacted. Although this poses risks to those businesses that choose to resist or delay, it presents opportunities to those who act pro-actively.

A well-balanced environmental policy can go a long way towards helping local business prepare for the changing times ahead. There are a number of pro-active steps local businesses can begin to take. Businesses that implement relevant sustainability behaviour and reporting now will enjoy a definite competitive advantage as their customers and staff start to make brand choices based partly on this criteria.

As the focus on climate change intensifies, sustainability reporting will become an increasingly important prerequisite along the value chain.

In formulating an integrated environmental policy for South Africa, government faces several challenges unique to our country. South Africa’s history calls for a complex redistribution of both wealth and resources, which makes the balance between social, economic and environmental development extremely delicate. The business community should be active contributors to the debate.

Chartered Accountants [CAs(SA)] will play a pivotal role in this new era. They already occupy a unique position in corporate South Africa to identify and present relevant, accurate financial information to stakeholders in times of change. As importantly, they are ideally positioned to utilise their skills to contribute to the sustainability debate by presenting important non-financial information.

There has never been such an important time for both accountants and business leaders to ‘grasp the nettle’ so to speak, and to ensure that they have well thought through positions on the subject.

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