The irony of many reactions to national and international responses to climate change is that such reactions are very often deeply misinformed and, likely for this reason, tend to emphasise the negatives and the risks associated with the climate change response. The fact is that the climate change response offers as many opportunities as it does risks and it is the balance of risk and opportunity that must be achieved, both to provide a response that is in accordance with current science and which will serve national and international economic interest into the future.

In December 2013 the City of Johannesburg hosted a Business Dialogue to Reduce the Impact of Climate Change and, in his keynote address, the (then) City of Joburg Mayor, Mr. Parks Tau, indicated that, “In order to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions and drive sustainable green innovation within economies and industries, more collaboration and new methods of business need to be implemented between public and private sectors.” There are at least important truths implicit in this statement. The first is that the anthropogenic carbon footprint must be urgently curtailed; and, the second is that in limiting human-induced carbon emissions lies the potential for new business and collaboration across and between sectors.

The context for these truths is the recent confirmation, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that human activities are accelerating natural cycles of climate change to a degree that, unless action is taken to limit this acceleration, will seriously endanger the economic, environmental and social bases upon which human society is founded (www.ipcc.ch). In its National Climate Change Response Policy (November 2011), the national Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) makes the point that responding to climate change is a long-term exercise and one which seeks to protect the viability of the economy beyond 2030. This timeframe is illustrative of the tension between how we respond to climate change and how we organise our economic and political lives. The planning and institutional periods associated with the latter tend to limit decisions on how to respond to the former. In short, it is a brave political administration that will implement the measures necessary to respond to climate change when such measures might jeopardise the outcome of the next general election. It is to the DEA’s credit that it continues to work on the national climate change response, while focussing on the risks and opportunities that arise.

As one might expect, responses to climate change currently occupying political decision-makers across the globe, while the information at their disposal becomes increasing detailed. For example, on 27 March 2014 a report was released entitled Climate Change Resilience in Europe which reports that major companies across Europe are already experiencing climate change impacts on their business and are taking the issue seriously, including implementing forward planning and budgeting. This is unsurprising as it was the Association of British Insurers that comprehensively recognized international environmental change as the major risk to their business, as early as 2005.

In order to identify risks and opportunities that climate change poses to the private sector, the report analyses adaptation data disclosed by 270 of the largest listed European companies from 20 countries and considers:

  • which sectors are already feeling the effects of climate change;
  • which companies are taking action;
  • which companies have the most to lose and across what timeframes;
  • how different sectors will be impacted; and,
  • how regional differences may manifest in planning and responses to climate change.

The report concludes as follows:

  • Businesses identify two climate change risks for every one climate change opportunity.
  • The most often cited risk is a reduction or disruption in production capacity
  • Two in five companies anticipate increased demand for existing goods and services.
  • One in five companies expect new products or services to be profitable in a changing climate.
  • Risks are perceived differently across sectors, with financial companies accounting for nearly one third of all critical risks mentioned in the survey.

Similar work has been undertaken in South Africa (http://www.tips.org.za/climate-change-risks-and-opportunities-south-african-economy) that indicates that there are risks and opportunities for South African economies which could bear further analysis.

The importance of the message that while climate change poses unprecedented risk to the economy, a correctly modulated response to the challenge will result in a more resilient private and public sector and it is in the cooperation between these sectors, in agreeing upon and implementing the response that the foundation for the future will lie.