Sim Tshabalala, deputy CEO of Standard Bank, says environmental sustainability is important  in the long term.

Story highlights

Sim Tshabalala is group deputy chief executive officer of Standard Bank

He says sustainability can be a business opportunity for companies

Lending money was the banking sector's biggest challenge this year, he says

CNN  — 

Investing in climate change initiatives can be a business opportunity for companies, according to the deputy chief executive of Pan-African banking giant Standard Bank.

“It makes perfect commercial sense,” Sim Tshabalala told CNN’s Robyn Curnow on the sidelines of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa. “Sustainability is important in the long term.”

Negotiators from 195 countries descended on Durban last week to discuss climate change and find ways to finance efforts to reduce CO2 emissions.

Tshabalala said it’s important that governments take the lead on policy issues and called business people to follow suit in partnership with other organs of the society.

“We, as bankers, will take direction from the authorities on what happens at COP 17, we stand ready to be supportive,” he said.

An edited version of the interview follows.

CNN: Why does it make sense for business to be leading the way perhaps when it comes to issues about climate change?

Sim Tshabalala: I think even for business, sustainability is important in the long term, it’s important because we all want to do something about environmental degradation, acting astute in financial institutions for example. We want to leave our businesses in better shape than we found them for future generations but, broader than that, it’s also a business opportunity because of the various mechanisms that apply.

CNN: So it need not be a drain on finance –investing in climate change initiatives can make money.

ST: It makes perfect commercial sense.

CNN: Why? Give me some examples.

ST: So, here in South Africa, we’ve just been through a major program: the first part of a process in terms of which the government is allowing independent power producers to enter the grid. We have approved over 12 billion rands worth of these projects, we’re participating in at least half of them.

Now they may not be granted, they may not be approved by the authorities, but there’s a large number of them where we’re participating. We perceive this as a new asset class, consistent with sustainability.

CNN: Sometimes there’s a sense that if this is going to work, it’s going to be very bottom up. The politicians can go on talking and trying to agree on targets but it’s people on the ground, it’s businesses, that are quietly doing their own thing, and you’re helping perhaps to facilitate that.

ST: Frankly, the legitimate democratically-elected government must take the lead on policy, and business as an organ of society, together with other organs of society, must follow and do what they need to do, having regard to what they do for a living.

We, as bankers, will take direction from the authorities on what happens at COP 17, we stand ready to be supportive, we support the white paper on climate change in South Africa.

So my argument to you is, yes it’s important for the authorities to take the lead, business as organs of civil society must do what they need to do in buying and selling their products and they must act in consent and in partnership with society, but wanting to make money in the process – we’re not a charity, we’re a business after all.

CNN: This is the end of the year, looking back, what have been the biggest challenges for you?

ST: The big challenges have been, as a banker, a difficulty in lending out money, because both corporate and consumers have been de-leveraging, they’ve been borrowing less than we would like them to. The result of that for a bank is that we don’t make as much net interest income, we don’t generate as much revenues as we would have liked to.

People are buying and selling fewer goods, so transactions and fees and commissions as a consequence are less. And yet, we’ve got thousands of people that we employ – we employ over 50,000 people throughout the world – the bulk of which are on the African continent, they have to be paid regardless of whether you and I transact.