Wake Up, Everybody! Preparing for the Next Global Emergency

In November 1975, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes released a defining single entitled ‘Wake Up Everybody’. The song was written at a time of high unemployment, racial tensions, social and economic hardship, and environmental degradation. Fifty years on, the song still charges us to collectively address the pressing environmental, social and economic needs of our time.

In a previous Reflection, Rosalind Kainyah discussed how African companies could step up to making their countries and the continent more self-sufficient and better prepared to weather future storms. Actions identified included embracing Sustainability – Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) practices – as an integral part of business strategies and operations. What struck me was the reality that for many African companies, Sustainability is largely an issue of compliance – meeting requirements imposed by investors and lenders or by international companies on suppliers. Sustainability is not a priority for African businesses, and definitely not an intentional business action. As that truth hit me, I was reminded of the lyrics to Wake Up Everybody – ‘the world won’t get better, if we just let it be. We’ve got to change it, you and me’ –  the notion of moving towards collective responsibility and action.

Currently, our world is hurting in ways unimaginable. The IMF has called COVID-19 a “crisis like no other” and recommends that policymakers green their responses to prevent one crisis leading to another. But this isn’t just the responsibility of policymakers and governments. Businesses in Africa, big or small, ought to be making Sustainability a priority as well.

African economies and businesses are more fragile and the least able to respond to endogenous as well as exogenous shocks. As a continent, we would benefit from more intentional planning and actions to create a sustainably prosperous development path.

Let’s take Ghana as an example. Economically, 2019 was a good year for Ghana – expanding crude oil production and rising prices placed Ghana at the top of the GDP growth table with an enviable growth rate of 8.8%. But much of this achievement has been at the expense of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Ghana’s carbon dioxide emissions per capita have grown at an average annual rate of 4.08% since 1999 – in line with a trend in many African countries where per capita emissions have seen a rapid rise over the past five years.

Climate change and environmental degradation remain the biggest threat to our planet. As we experience the dire global economic and social consequences of a pandemic, there is cause to consider what further severe economic malady looms with a climate emergency.

While Africa currently contributes less than 4% of global GHG emissions, the continent is expected to be hardest hit by climate change. This is largely down to geography – we are already the hottest continent and expected to warm up to 1.5 times faster than the global average.

As the world’s most resource-constrained economy, there is an urgent need to think and ‘do’ ahead. African businesses can secure commercial gains by only focusing on growing their financial bottom line, but performance should be with purpose. African businesses need to awaken to this threat and its potential negative externalities on their balance sheets, and very survival, and future proof their busineses by embracing Sustainability practices that address these risks. This should be a main priority of CEOs and Boards.

Our world is going through a period of accelerating change. Corporations, governments, and individuals alike are making notable adjustments – from government policy, through to business and operational models, and to consumer patterns. Mindsets are changing to accommodate Sustainability innovations for a climate-smart future. An increasing number of countries have committed to net-zero emission goals by, or before, 2050. Some have a government minister responsible for climate action. And it isn’t just so-called ‘developed’ nations – Suriname and Bhutan have already declared themselves carbon negative. But many African nations are still discussing and deliberating targets.

There does not need to be a trade-off between (i) economic growth and job creation; and (ii) economic growth, job creation and sustainable, green development.

Each country must chart its own transition to a sustainable low-carbon and green economy. But the longer any country or continent delays such a transition, the more costly it will be in the long term. Africa and her businesses should not be left behind yet again. There is no Planet B. The businesses that will thrive when tomorrow comes are those that plan today to be climate-smart responsive and sustainability-conscious in their strategies and operations.

I turn again to the lyrics of Wake Up Everybody to cry out: ‘it’s time to build a new land, and it’s time to teach a new way’.

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