In an environment of unprecedented scrutiny of corporate actions on ESG matters, general counsel have a critical role to play as “confidence givers” to both internal management and external stakeholders, says sustainability and climate change expert Rohitesh Dhawan.
“Ten years ago, the focus was getting companies to commit to action on ESG, today the focus is making sure those actions and commitments are credible, there’s no greenwashing, and that people are going to do what they say,” explained Dhawan, CEO of the International Council on Mining & Minerals (ICMM). He will deliver the opening keynote address at the GC Forum which is being held as part of the Investing in African Mining Indaba in Cape Town on 12 May.
“We’re entering into the phase where accountability will be on delivery, and whether what companies have committed to doing is credible or not,” Dhawan commented. “The role of general counsel becomes so critical, because they have the ability to give the chief executive and management team the confidence to go out and make a commitment that can be delivered, that stands up to scrutiny, and meets both the legal and moral obligations of the company.”
For external stakeholders, Dhawan added, the general counsel also becomes a source of comfort and inspires confidence, because if their voice is associated with an ESG commitment, they know “it has been thoroughly thought through, that it is robust, and it is fact based”.
The upcoming GC Forum will offer practical insights and supportive networks while addressing the rapid shift in the role and responsibilities of in-house lawyers. Dhawan, whose keynote address will explore the trust deficit between miners and their global stakeholders, says in-house lawyers must not be overly cautious when it comes to ESG commitments.
“It’s easy to say we don’t have all the answers yet for how we’re going to solve climate change, or how we can stop biodiversity loss, so let’s not say or do anything until we gain more time,” he said. “Well, time is something we don’t have. The world is in the throes of a climate and nature crisis and an inequality crisis. If general counsel or others assume the role of being a gatekeeper to ambitious action or bold ideas, that’d be a disservice to companies.”
Dhawan noted that ICMM’s annual survey of mining stakeholders shows that 30% had a more positive view of the mining industry than they did one year before (2021 vs 2020).
He believes three factors have contributed to this: the mining industry making an “unequivocally strong commitment of action” on climate change (including ICMM members committing to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and some large mining operations already being powered by 100% renewable energy); the substantial work the industry did to support local communities during the pandemic, including healthcare and vaccine delivery; and increased transparency among the industry, like ICMM members making all contracts amended or entered into from 1 January 2021 onwards public.
While there is plenty of work to do, Dhawan is very positive about the future of the mining industry as a leader in some of the most important and challenging areas our world is facing.
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