Seeking a ‘just transition’

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South Africa built its economy on cheap and abundant coal. Andre de Ruyter, CEO of its power utility Eskom, once said the challenge is to "beat our coal shovels into wind turbines and solar panels."

Surely, no country faces a more wrenching transition. Entire communities outside Johannesburg rely on coal, and national unemployment is already at a shockingly high 42% if you include people who have stopped looking.

Entrenched labor unions have been resistant to Ruyter's suggestion. Yet delaying the transition will only deepen the country's economic woes. Several of its largest coal mines are exhausted, and Eskom's aging fleet of power plants can't keep up with demand. The result is rolling blackouts euphemistically known as "load-shedding," which sounds better but still shutters factories, plunges households into darkness and disrupts mobile phone service.

Andre de Ruyter, chief executive officer of Eskom Holdings Ltd.

Meanwhile, Eskom is staggering under piles of debt, and it's not at all clear how it can both repay creditors and raise new capital to fund its wind and solar ambitions.

I spoke to de Ruyter about his daunting task—orchestrating a so-called "just transition" for South Africa that shifts to low-carbon growth while leaving nobody behind—in an interview that aired on Wednesday, which was Climate Day at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum. "Just transition" is a simple phrase. It was first coined by labor activists and is now embraced by governments, development agencies, philanthropies and others. The reality in South Africa, however, may end up being more complex.

Alan Jope, chief executive officer of Unilever Plc 

How are shoppers driving the environmental agenda of the world's biggest consumer products companies? Alan Jope, chief executive of Unilever, whose brands range from Dove to Axe and Ben & Jerry's, broke it down by generation.

Baby boomers are uninterested, he said. Members of this aging cohort "don't even pretend that brand choices are driven by sustainability considerations," he contends. Generation X is hypocritical, Jope said. They talk up environmental awareness but "don't really change [their] behavior." Millennials are on the fence: On the whole, Jope argued they are "very interested but don't want to pay more."

And then there's Generation Z. The executive said they are all-in. "Almost the only thing that's driving their brand choices is the positions of the companies and the brands on environmental and social issues."

Jope wants it to be known, however, that he remains a big fan of plastics, even as the world turns against the stuff. It's a "fantastic material," Jope explained. "A world without plastic is not a good world."

What does he mean? Governments around the world are banning single-use plastics like shopping bags, straws and stirrers. Unilever itself has pledged to make plastic packaging 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable.

Jope makes a distinction between plastics that pollute the oceans and plastics that have industrial applications. "Anyone who's had the misfortune of going to the hospital thanks to Covid will be very grateful that we have plastic," he said. "The problem is too much ends up in the environment, so we need to find a way of keeping plastic in the economy and out the environment.—Andrew Browne and Katharine Gemmell

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