... when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published its third assessment report in 2001, it received scant attention in the media. Yet, in the view of Lovelock; it was the scariest document ever written.
The report spoke authoritatively about the probability of the average surface temperature of the earth rising by three degrees Celsius by 2100, with the possibility of it rising by as much as six degrees.
Some people would suggest that a rise of three degrees would be very nice, thank you very much, especially those living in the colder northern climates. However, this becomes slightly ominous when one considers that the average temperature of the earth increased by only three degrees when the earth rid itself of the last ice age 15 000 years ago.
In 1987, the United Nations sponsored Brundtland Commission made recommendations to the General Assembly as to how humankind could avoid the catastrophic consequences of global warming. It recommended that the world should seriously pursue a strategy of sustainable development. In essence, this meant that economic development should only take place with social upliftment contained by environmental protection.
Since then the United Nations and governments around the world have taken steps to address the various environmental and social issues, ranging from greenhouse gas emissions and water security to poverty. There have been numerous global summits, including the ‘Earth Summits' in Rio and Johannesburg. Various global protocols, accords and agreements have been signed and the United Nations has set up a plethora of initiatives to deal with various aspects of sustainable development. Two of the more prominent ones have been the Kyoto Protocol and the Millennium Development Goals.
The irony is that, instead of following the recommendations of the Brundtland Commission, much of the world and much of business has followed a route diametrically opposed to the Brundtland recommendations. This strategy has landed the world in the worst economic crisis since 1929, and as a consequence, much of the world's focus now centres on reviving the global economy.
However, the economic crisis does not change the situation, humankind is still under enormous threat. The simple fact is that the surface temperature of the earth has risen by almost one whole degree Celsius over the past 100 years, yet this is already changing weather patterns quite significantly. We are seeing an unprecedented number of floodings in some areas and serious drought in many others. The world has entered the era of the super hurricane and disease is spreading. World food production is declining and drinking water is under threat in many countries. The population of the world continues to grow, recently having reached six and a half billion. That is double the population of the world when President Kennedy was assassinated! Scientists believe that six billion is the maximum population the world can sustain. We have already surpassed that. It is also said that, if the standard of living of the current world population were to be magically raised to the level of the United States, we would need between six and seven worlds to sustain it.
Our current world economy is based largely on the use of fossil fuels, but that is the cause of our problem. Burning of fossil fuel results in the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which is substantially the cause of global warming. Therefore, if the world continues to burn fossil fuels, temperatures will continue to rise, and civilisation, as we know it, will no longer be possible. Indeed, the very existence of humankind could even be threatened.
So what do we have to do?
As a world we need to reduce consumption of fossil fuels as much as possible, and use alternative fuels such as nuclear energy and environmentally friendly fuels. That is not an easy task, since the world economy is addicted to fossil fuels, and alternatives are costly and less abundant. If humankind is to avert disaster, it has a serious task ahead of it. What is more, scientists believe that humankind only has a short window of opportunity to turn things around. Indeed, some believe it is too late already.
Of course this is a highly simplistic view of a highly complex issue with many dimensions. However, what amazes the writer is the attitude of many of our own members to the whole topic of sustainability. SAICA has run breakfasts and workshops, and produced publications on sustainability, but the response from our members have been lukewarm at best. Furthermore, I have found few CAs(SA) at conferences with any initiatives highlighting the dangers facing us. I find scores of engineers, human resource professionals and lawyers, but few chartered accountants. Do we not believe that this is a real issue? Are we in denial or are we just too busy?
If CAs(SA) are global leaders and strategists, then surely they should be in the forefront of the fight against the this highly significant global threat. We must be involved in finding solutions now.
Graham Terry CA(SA), is Head: Office of the Executive President, SAICA.