Are Thungela and Exxaro taking climate change seriously?

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Are Thungela and Exxaro taking climate change seriously?
Are Thungela and Exxaro taking climate change seriously?

With the price of coal at all-time record highs, suddenly there’s talk about expansion and new coal, demonstrating the hollowness of a lot of the ESG talk we’ve seen over the last couple of years: Tracey Davies of Just Share.

SIMON BROWN: I’m chatting now with Tracey Davies, who is executive director at Just Share. Tracey, I appreciate the early morning time as always. We’ve got the Thungela Resources’ AGM later today; we’ve got the Exxaro AGM tomorrow. Reading the notes that you and your team from Just Share have put out, I’ve got to say my sense is neither of them are taking climate change seriously.

TRACEY DAVIES: Morning, Simon. I think that’s a fairly accurate assessment. Yes, absolutely. We’ve been quite shocked to see the kind of misleading statements that these companies are making about their impact. But of course the fossil fuel industry is on the rebound now, with coal, oil and gas prices as high as they are. This seems to have given these companies some kind of new lease on life in terms of trumpeting the benefits and the wonders of coal going on forever into the future, which is crazy because the high price of coal has not changed climate science.

There’s an extraordinary level of cognitive dissonance going on here.

SIMON BROWN: Yeah, I’m from KZN and you’re right, it’s just the two different extremes, the point being I think it was actually you who was tweeting when – was it July Ndlovu from Thungela – was talking at the Mining Indaba and there was a bit of talk there.

With respect to the companies, we are not asking them to shut down tomorrow, that’s not the plan. But we’ve sort of got things in place that they can start putting into place. They can start having proper policies, being realistic about the future. And yet they’re not. That just to me seems to be frankly irresponsible.

TRACEY DAVIES: I agree. You’re absolutely right. Even though this kind of threat is something that’s bandied about by fossil fuel companies and, let’s be honest, by our politicians on a regular basis, we can’t shut down all the coal-fired power stations tomorrow. No, nobody’s even remotely suggesting that you do that. But if you are serious about climate science, that means you have a credible plan to wind down coal production. And at the moment Exxaro seems to envisage itself mining coal well past 2050, even just from its existing mines by sort of expanding its existing mines, and Thungela has plans to open new coal mines in 2022. There’s no question that that’s irresponsible from a climate-science point of view.

SIMON BROWN: I’m not sure if you have an answer to it, perhaps. But is this unique to us in South Africa or, with these booming commodity prices, is it that these mining companies the world over have almost got their swagger back.

TRACEY DAVIES: That’s such a good way of putting it. No, of course it’s not unique to us. I think you see this in the rest of the world much more intensely, I suppose around oil and gas, because coal was really on its way out – certainly in most of the developing world – if not already out.

I think what makes this interesting in South Africa is that what it shows is that, to the extent that there was a big recognition in the financial sector that coal was on its way out in South Africa, that was possibly driven more by the fact that there wasn’t a helluva lot [more] money to be made in it than there was by climate science. So now that we see that the price of coal is at all-time record highs, suddenly there’s all sorts of talk about expansion and new coal.

That really demonstrates the hollowness of a lot of the kind of ESG talk that we’ve seen over the last couple of years when it comes to coal, where all the big asset managers were happily recognising the fact that coal needed to be rapidly and urgently wound down if we are looking to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement. There’s no more of that talk now.

SIMON BROWN: Yeah, I was going to say we are very clearly throwing climate under the bus at the expense of profits. I appreciate profits, but I think that we’ve only got one planet and that perhaps is more important.

We’ll leave it there. Tracey Davies, executive director at Just Share. as always I appreciate the insight.

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