In July, a 73-year-old professor will paddle 1 100 kilometres down the Rio Madeira, a tributary of the Amazon River. He aims to try to inspire the commitment of corporate SA to fund a reforestation project in the Brazilian Amazon as well as pioneer a new genre of climate reporting in integrated annual reports
Fifty years ago, in July 1972, Professor Kurt Sartorius paddled down the Rio Madeira, a southern tributary of the Amazon River. He describes the changes in the majestic forest in the five decades since as shocking. And this is why he is attempting this expedition: to wake accountants up to the shocking reality of the effects of human activity on the ‘world’s lungs’. We spoke to Professor Sartorius about his endeavour.
Next month you, your son Benn, and Professor Wayne van Zijl will paddle 1 100 kilometres down the Rio Madeira to initiate a long-term climate change project. How do you feel about this endeavour?
I feel nervous; I hope I can do this and manage without being a pain in the neck to Benn and Wayne van Zijl, one of the professors in our School of Accountancy team. I suppose now and again I feel a bit excited, but more worried than excited.
You describe the changes in the rainforest since you first paddled down the river fifty years ago as shocking. Please elaborate?
In 1972, the state of Rondônia in Brazil was mostly virgin rainforest. Today, it is being decimated by slash-and-burn agriculture, mining and logging. It is estimated that more than thirty per cent of the forest cover has been destroyed. Sometimes in August, the smoke hangs over this frontier province for weeks on end. But farmers and their families have to live, so they need to keep clearing rainforests because their land only provides crops for a few years. So, it is a vicious cycle.
The Amazon rainforest is often described as the ‘world’s lungs’ and it is said that if it is destroyed, the rest of the planet would not be able to breathe?
The Amazon Basin occupies about seven million square kilometres and contains about 20% of the world’s freshwater. Burning the rainforest will exacerbate the marked change in global rainfall patterns. Although the Amazon Basin is referred to as the world’s lungs, its destruction will have a greater impact on rainfall distribution than on the world’s supply of oxygen, which comes mainly from our oceans. The ‘world’s lungs’ may sound dramatic, but the Amazon Basin acts as a carbon sink that stores CO2, and for the first time ever this forest is emitting more CO2 than it traps because of the forest fires, which are estimated to release a billion tonnes of CO2 per year.
When did your interest in climate change start and did you realise something needed to be done?
Before I came to Wits 25 years ago, I ran a rainforest project in Brazil. When I came to Wits, the then Head of School, Pat Dickson, thought I was a nutter and that I would not make the grade. Luckily, he was wrong, but I have always been concerned about deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, which has been going on for many decades − and is getting worse. Only towards 2010 did systemic climate change start to become evident, and somewhere around 2015 the impact of climate change became evident. Environmental groups emerged and personalities like Sir David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg created a bigger focus, but in many cases I noted that environmental concern groups were groups of emotional people without resources who would make a noise and not achieve much else. It was then that I thought, hang on, accountants operate at the coal face of power, brains and money: they are also strategic long-term thinkers. Then I thought, what if they pool these resources to combat climate change. So we discussed this in our school and then brought it to SAICA. A new part of the journey has begun.
How can the accountancy profession in South Africa initiate a global climate change initiative?
The accountancy profession is at the centre of corporate power. It is also often suggested that professionals have more loyalty to their profession than to their employer. Institutions like SAICA therefore have an enormous influence over corporate SA, which houses the finest strategic thinkers as well as massive resources. This influence extends to the degree of focus on sustainability and good corporate citizenship.
Recently, SAICA articulated that climate change must become a central focus for corporate SA. There is a great opportunity for the accountancy profession to demonstrate that it can initiate and (better still) manage a global climate change project. This is a big step because it moves away from lofty rhetoric to a crucial litmus test of actually implementing a global climate change project. In order to initiate this project, I would propose that SAICA use its power and influence to broadcast a climate change strategy/message to its members that includes details of the proposed reforestation initiative by Wits SOA. Members would be asked to make a donation to the Wits Centenary climate change account. Donors would contribute an amount in proportion to the 1 100 kilometres completed to the following account to receive an 18A certificate: https://devman.wits.ac.za/devman/accountantssaveplanet/giving/.
The project will be managed by the Brazilian Research Institute (INPA) and finances raised will be controlled by an SOA committee at Wits, which includes a SAICA member.
Please share more about responsible investing?
The Code for Responsible Investing in South Africa (CRISA) and the UN’s Principles of Responsible Investment (PRI) have called on the corporate world (and by inference the accounting profession) to start doing something about climate change. The implications are massive and consider all future investments in terms of their impact on climate change: from stopping investment in coal-fired energy to saving the rainforest by using plywood substitutes. In each case, we are suggesting that the climate change narrative be amplified in both corporate planning and reporting.
You say that King IV is the gold standard for corporate governance?
Interestingly, Mervyn King has directly supported the Wits SOA climate change initiative, and can be contacted in this regard. King IV is the gold standard for corporate governance and applies to all companies, including professional service firms like the Big 4. All accounting firms claim to be leading the way when it comes to responsible and ethical business (which is the core of good governance). In the context of the King 1V philosophy, ‘ethical’ and ‘responsible’ cannot be separated from environmental responsibility and asks for activism rather than mere compliance.
If you could leave one piece of advice to CAs, what would it be?
Think big and have some fun as well. Life is not just money and work. Your children would rather have you than your money; they remember happy times more than expensive presents. In the workplace, rather do important things than try and be important.