As climate change and environmental issues rise to the top of the list of economic risks facing us in the next decade, the pressure is on business to integrate its response to the crisis. It is the opportunities presented by the green economy that could shape this response, according to World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa (WWF-SA) CEODr Morné du Plessis.
The climate and nature crisis
“We cannot continue with business as usual,” he told delegates attending the first day of the 2023 Trialogue Business in Society Conference. Extreme weather events triggered by climate change are evidence of the ‘carbon loan’ we have borrowed from the planet but are unable to repay, while rapid and widespread biodiversity decline are warning signs that the ecosystem services upon which industries, economies and society depend are failing.
The value of these ecosystem services, whether provisioning, supporting, regulating or cultural, has been calculated as twice the size of global gross domestic product (GDP), or $150 trillion annually. It is possible that human resourcefulness could circumnavigate some of these degrading systems, though this would come at a high financial cost. The social burden would come at an even higher price for the world’s poor who derive 50-90% of their GDP from ecosystem services.
The opportunities it presents
Yet business opportunities exist amidst the climate and nature crisis, and it is at this intersection that the green economy holds opportunity. Du Plessis highlighted the importance of understanding the green economy, not as a mere part of the economy, but rather as all of it, where the green economy is a subset of human societies, embedded within the earth’s life support systems.
The green economy can be defined as a “system of economic activities that result in improved human well-being over the long term, while not exposing future generations to significant environmental risks or ecological scarcities.” In the South African context, the green economy supports two inter-linked developmental outcomes: growing economic activity in the green industry sector, and shifting the broader economy towards cleaner industries and sectors.
Du Plessis identified nine key areas of opportunity in the green economy:
Green buildings and the built environment, including incorporating green technologies and sustainability in private and public buildings.
Sustainable transport and infrastructure, including the development of electric vehicles and sustainable aviation fuel, as well as green public transport systems.
Clean energy and energy efficiency, including upscaling solar water geyser roll-out, creating off-grid power solutions from renewable sources and creating energy access for rural communities.
Resource conservation and management, focusing on creating more resilient ecological infrastructure, for example, clearing alien invasive species in water catchment areas.
Sustainable waste management practices, such as waste beneficiation.
Agriculture, food production and forestry, including regenerative agriculture and the reduction of food waste.
Water management, including water harvesting, municipal water metering and reducing water losses in agriculture, mining and in municipal reticulation systems.
Sustainable consumption and production.
Environmental sustainability, such as greening of large events.
At the heart of du Plessis’ presentation was the need for a shifting paradigm, in which economic activities are only sustainable if they have the long-term interests of society at heart. Economic growth ought to be decoupled from natural resource use, and negative externalities to both people and nature considered in any business venture.