ESG: no time for “the journey”


ESG: no time for “the journey”


Published Date: 2021-02-24 | Source: INCE|Connect | Author: Tracey Davies | Executive Director | Just Share

ESG: no time for “the journey”

Reflecting on the annual Mining Indaba

When I joined the Centre for Environmental Rights in 2013, as part of what was then a small team using the law to address the social and environmental devastation of mining in South Africa, the annual Mining Indaba was a source of intense frustration for civil society organisations across the country. 

For a week in February every year, the crème de la crème of the mining industry, government officials, mining lawyers and consultants filled the city's fancy restaurants and the suites of its five-star hotels, and gathered in the air-conditioned vastness of the Cape Town International Conference Centre, while eagle-eyed security guards made sure that no-one without an official invitation could set foot inside.

The organisers of the Indaba seemed to have a deep-seated fear of letting "activists" anywhere near their event. Only good news was allowed to emerge: day after day, journalists parroted government's visions for recreating the mining glory of the past (the mind boggles), and mining executives' lofty promises of investment and job creation.

The exclusion of alternative viewpoints - and often of reality - spurred NGOs to host an annual "Alternative Mining Indaba", at the same time, but in far less glittery surroundings. Over cups of bad coffee, scientists, academics, mining-affected communities, community-based organisations and public interest lawyers gathered to share a different set of stories about the mining industry: stories of communities forced from their land against their will; promises of thousands of jobs that never materialised; operations abandoned without rehabilitation; and an endless litany of examples of government riding roughshod over environmental laws and constitutional rights in licencing processes.

Taking steps

How times have changed for the Mining Indaba. Not only was the 2021 gathering a virtual event, but the third of four sessions on the first day was entitled Reigniting Mining Capital: ESG Investing in a Covid-Recovery World. Five years ago, a panel discussion with that title would never have made the cut, or would at best have been relegated to the poorly attended "sustainable development" session at the end of the conference. This illustrates how impossible it has become to ignore the escalating and unrelenting pressure on corporations to address the negative impacts of their operations on people and the environment.

After centuries of walking away from these impacts, mining companies are finally - and still only patchily - being forced to take responsibility. Some of the most significant examples include Brazilian miner Vale agreeing earlier this month to a $7bn settlement over the tailings dam breach at Brumadinho that killed 270 people, and the resignation of Rio Tinto's CEO and other senior executives in the wake of the outcry at that company's destruction of ancient rock shelters in Western Australia's Juukan Gorge.

A lick and a promise

It was evident from the Reigniting Mining Capital session at this year's Indaba, however, that while organisers and panellists may have finally realised that they cannot ignore ESG, they are far from grasping the urgency and scale of the changes required. The moderator's opening question was "Why is ESG suddenly the flavour of the month?", as if this is a new and surprising trend, unlikely to last very long, rather than being short-hand for a vast and complex array of fundamental changes that we must make to our economic system, to restore the health and well-being of the planet and its inhabitants.

"While the panel participants demonstrated their awareness of the importance of ESG, they still seem to believe that they have plenty of time. "It's a journey" is corporate South Africa's favourite phrase when it comes to anything ESG-related: the implication, always, is that this journey will take them just as long as they choose."

But neither they - nor any of us - have that luxury. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said on 18 February, at the launch of a new UN report, that "Humanity is waging a senseless and suicidal war on nature". The report focuses on the triple emergency facing the earth: the climate crisis, the devastation of wildlife and nature, and the pollution that causes many millions of early deaths every year.

The UN report says that the growth of the global economy in the last 50 years has largely been driven by a huge increase in the extraction of fossil fuels and other resources, and that this has come at massive cost to the environment. This is not a "green" problem: both the UN and the World Health Organisation have said that the root cause of pandemics is our destruction of nature.

In his seminal work for the UK treasury, the Dasgupta Review on the Economics of Biodiversity, Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, a Cambridge economist, similarly cites climate change and Covid-19 as evidence of our biosphere's increasing loss of resilience in the face of an exponential human onslaught.

It is rapidly becoming clear that the days of justifying social and environmental devastation in the name of economic growth are coming to an end, as it dawns on investors that, as that catchy slogan goes, "there are no jobs on a dead planet".

Buckling down

So the mining industry no longer has time to take a long and winding journey when it comes to ESG. It needs to take action, now, that has tangible, real-world outcomes, rather than making yet more commitments that look good in a glossy integrated report but have little bearing on reality. Investors have a key role to play in interrogating ESG claims, and calling out greenwashing.

I'll start. The ESG session at the Mining Indaba was sponsored by Standard Bank, which was also represented on the panel. Standard Bank states that it "supports the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement", and its social media feeds are packed with beautifully filmed adverts touting the bank's funding for renewable energy. But Standard Bank has lent far more money to the fossil fuel industry than to renewables. It is Africa's biggest lender to the oil and gas industry, and has repeatedly asserted that it will continue to fund fossil fuel expansion on the continent. Sustainable finance? You decide.

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