At the closing of COP27 last week, United Nations secretary-general António Guterres was clear: the meeting did not adequately meet the ambitions required by the state of the climate crisis. He said, “Our planet is still in the emergency room. We need to drastically reduce emissions now, and this is an issue this COP did not address.”
Despite increasingly indisputable evidence of the effect of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on the climate, and the urgent need to transition to low carbon economies, political leaders appear incapable of mobilising the necessary action to avoid the worst effects of climate change. One of the key reasons for this failure to act is corporate interference aimed at weakening and delaying action – otherwise known as negative corporate climate lobbying. In many instances this manifests itself in high-level public positions of support for the Paris goals but “closed-door undermining of climate action”.
Corporates engaged in negative climate lobbying are motivated by the need to protect their profits in a world that increasingly recognises that their products are the primary cause of harm to the environment, livelihoods, and human health and well-being. For some businesses, climate action threatens their relevance and therefore their survival, which explains the lengths their representatives will go to prevent – or at least delay – a transition to low carbon energy systems.
Just Share has published the first of three briefs explaining the role companies have played, and continue to play, in lobbying to prevent and delay climate action, globally and in South Africa.
Corporate climate lobbying
Lobbying exists everywhere and, when carried out transparently, can play an important role in democratic participation and governance. However, much of the theoretical justification for lobbying as a healthy part of the political process is undermined by the realities of who has access to policymakers, and the resources to influence their behaviour. Due to the superior resources and proximity to power of major corporations and industry associations, corporate lobbying plays an outsized role in the political process. This imbalance transforms lobbying from an exercise in participatory democracy to a potential threat to the public and the environment.
Corporate climate lobbying is pervasive, effective, and often harmful. Even where there is political will to combat the negative effects of lobbying, it can be difficult in practice to define what constitutes negative lobbying and to establish wrongdoing.
In South Africa, lobbying is completely unregulated. There is no legislation, regulation, or even corporate governance guidance document, that defines lobbying or sets any parameters for it. As a result, certain companies, and their industry association representatives, have employed various tactics to undermine South Africa’s climate change response for over a decade. A particularly effective approach has been to capture the narrative of the just transition.
Co-opting the just transition
As climate action increasingly becomes a national priority and the urgent need to transition becomes harder to ignore, the concept of a “just transition” has taken hold and, in some quarters, been misappropriated.
The just transition concept originated in the labour movement in the 1970s, when labour and environmental justice organisations collaborated to advocate for a transition to sustainable, low carbon economies that prioritised social inclusion and workers’ rights. Since then, just transition frameworks have slowly but surely been introduced into global political discourse, with its increasing emphasis on shifting equitably to low carbon economies through social inclusion and poverty eradication.
However, a large section of South African business, led by the fossil fuel industry and its representatives, and by some government departments, have in recent years co-opted the concept of justice in the transition to delay action. They have done so by ignoring the devastating social and economic impacts of climate change, and of failing to tackle it, and instead creating a false dichotomy between economic growth, poverty alleviation and development, on one hand, and the transition to low carbon technologies and renewable energy systems, on the other.
This narrative is presented repeatedly to delay and weaken climate-related regulation, such as the Climate Change Bill and the Carbon Tax Act. In the recent “joint position on carbon tax”, organised business, including Business Unity South Africa and Business Leadership South Africa, argue that the just transition requires the implementation of a carbon tax “at a pace and rate aligned to a developing economy that takes into account the challenges in South Africa including low economic growth, energy security and high unemployment” in order to “avoid just transition impacts earlier than planned and to avoid unintended and adverse consequences to an already fragile economy.” This view ignores the impacts of failing to transition timeously, and side-steps the fact that a carbon tax is intended to ensure that the costs of GHG emissions are paid for by the polluters, and not by society more broadly.
The concept of the just transition is thereby reduced to one used to delay real environmental and social justice for as long as possible for the benefit of the fossil fuel industry and its shareholders. The goal of this strategy is to focus attention on what stands to be lost in the transition (e.g., jobs in the coal sector) and away from the society-wide benefits of climate action (creating new, clean jobs, providing cheap, distributed renewable energy, and limiting climate impacts).
This is the first in Just Share’s series of three corporate lobbying briefs. Part I sets out the fundamentals of corporate climate lobbying: what it means, how it works in practice and the impact it has had, and continues to have, on global climate action. It looks at the global history of corporate lobbying against climate action, before exploring the key tactics and strategies employed by climate lobbies around the world, including in South Africa. Finally, it introduces the question of who the corporate lobbyists are in South Africa, and the role of regulation in addressing corporate lobbying, which will be explored in detail in Parts II and III, respectively.
Part II will discuss corporate climate lobbyists and their representatives in South Africa: who the key actors are and how they have effectively delayed climate action in the country for over a decade by directly lobbying against key pieces of legislation (the Climate Change Bill and the Carbon Tax Act) and indirectly, by deploying narratives that take opportunistic advantage of South Africa’s political and social challenges, further exacerbating them in the process.
Part III will take a closer look at how lobbying is addressed through legislation (taking a comparative view of other jurisdictions), investor frameworks, shareholder resolutions, and litigation. It will explore where the gaps are in accountability and why, despite decades of this practice being exposed, it continues to weaken and delay regulatory attempts to tackle climate change. Finally, it will examine the potential for South Africa to enhance accountability and adopt regulation governing corporate lobbying.