Over the past 12 to 18 months the world has experienced the worst economic crisis in 80 years. Beginning with the sub-prime disaster and the collapse of many banks around the world, the economic fallout spread to all sectors of the economy. We are now seeing signs of recovery in some European countries and parts of Asia, but the world has changed and it would appear unlikely that we will see the halcyon days of 2006 and 2007 ever again.

What has caused this change is of course the growing recognition of the enormous environmental and social challenges facing humankind. Driven on the one hand by a burgeoning global population and on the other by declining resources, it does not take a lot of brain cells to figure out that the world’s current course of rampant consumerism cannot be sustained. However, an even more pressing problem faces humankind and that is global warming, which is caused by greenhouse gas emissions resulting directly from human activity on the planet. Many scientists are saying that humankind has perhaps as little as five years to turn the emissions’ tap down, otherwise global warming could spin out of control, with disastrous consequences for humankind.

Governments and businesses around the world are responding to the challenge, but few with the necessary alacrity. To my mind, however, what is positive is that business is beginning to see the enormous incentives involved in going green. In the words of Lee Scott, CEO of Walmart, ‘sustainability is the single biggest business opportunity of the 21st Century’.
Our government, to give it its due, has recognised the importance of sustainable strategies, and South Africa was one of the first of developing countries to adopt a strategy for sustainable development. However implementation has been extremely slow in many parts of the public sector. What is needed is a dynamic partnership between government and business to co-ordinate and drive an integrated strategy for South Africa.

Undoubtedly in the next few years we will see plenty of legislation, taxes, penalties and incentives, all designed to promote greener living. Whether these will be adequate to save humankind from a nasty fate, who knows? Much hangs on the outcome of the climate change meeting to be held in Copenhagen in December 2009, where all the countries of the world will come together to find a successor agreement to the Kyoto protocol.

SAICA has recognised the importance of sustainability and the key role our members play in driving a strategy in business. Accordingly, as one of its core thought leadership programmes, it has sought to raise awareness levels amongst members and has also sought to provide tools to help members address the essential issues.

Our professional contributions could add much to our South African effort.

Graham Terry CA(SA), is the Head: Office of the Executive President at SAICA.