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What happened at Davos?

In a previous post I wrote about the plethora of international conferences coming up this year on issues relating to the environment. One meeting that I didn’t mention (owing to the fact that unlike the others mentioned in that post it isn’t a body empowered to reach decisions on behalf of the world’s governments) is the World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting, better known by the location it takes place - Davos, Switzerland.

According to the WEF, the meeting “provides a platform for the world’s 1,000 leading companies to shape a better future.” It has alternatively been described as "where billionaires tell millionaires what the middle class feels”.

However you describe it, Davos took place from 21-24 January this year and brought over 3,000 participants together to discuss the theme “Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World”. As has become tradition, the conference was preceded by Oxfam releasing their annual inequality report, titled ‘Time to Care’, which this year noted that the world’s billionaires (2,153 people) have more wealth than 4.6 billion people, or 60 per cent of the world’s population.

Also prior to the meeting the WEF released their Global Risk Report, which for the first time ever placed environmental risks in the top five concerns likely to have a major impact in the next decade. These concerns include extreme weather events, biodiversity loss, and climate failure, with Børge Brende, the president of the World Economic Forum, noting:

“The political landscape is polarised, sea levels are rising and climate fires are burning. This is the year when world leaders must work with all sectors of society to repair and reinvigorate our systems of cooperation, not just for short-term benefit but for tackling our deep-rooted risks. We have only a very small window and if we don’t use that window in the next 10 years we will be moving around the deckchairs on the Titanic.”

Participants at Davos discussed four key issues:

    1. How to address the urgent climate and environmental challenges that are harming our ecology and economy
    2. How to transform industries to achieve more sustainable and inclusive business models as new political, economic and societal priorities change trade and consumption patterns
    3. How to govern the technologies driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution so they benefit business and society while minimizing their risks to them
    4. How to adapt to the demographic, social and technological trends reshaping education, employment and entrepreneurship

    As might be expected, climate change featured prominently during the meeting with a number of different viewpoints aired. Al Gore, the former US Vice-President, issued a battle cry in declaring “This is Thermopylae. This is Agincourt. This is Dunkirk. This is the Battle of the Bulge. This is 9/11”, while current US President, Donald Trump, took aim at pessimism, saying that “to embrace the possibilities of tomorrow, we must reject the perennial prophets of doom and their predictions of the apocalypse” and arguing that innovation would win the day “because they are doing things that nobody thought even feasible to begin”.

    Prince Charles was also in attendance and perhaps more accurately articulated the prevailing mood ahead of meeting climate activist Greta Thunberg:

    "Do we want to go down in history as the people who did nothing to bring the world back from the brink, in trying to restore the balance, when we could have done? I don't want to. Just think for a moment, what good is all the extra wealth in the world gained from business as usual if you can do nothing with it except watch it burn in catastrophic conditions."

    At the meeting the WEF launched, an initiative to grow, conserve and restore 1 trillion trees by 2030, something that has got the support of even the climate-sceptic US President.

    While the aim of Davos is certainly noble, and reforestation is a worthy cause, it remains to be seen whether an organisation that lists companies like BP, Chevron, and Saudi Aramco amongst it’s strategic partners will ever be at the forefront of saving the planet.


    Cover image by World Economic Forum

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