Davos 2024: Were WEF announcements too little, too late on climate and nature?

More than 50 initiatives were either launched or advanced at Davos this year. But hot on the heels of COP28 and with war and artificial intelligence (AI) dominating discussions, did the 3,000 decision-makers attending move the dial on environmental sustainability?

Davos 2024: Were WEF announcements too little, too late on climate and nature?

Pictured: WEF president Børge Brende closes Davos 2024. Image: WEF / Benedikt von Loebell

Every January since 1971, hundreds of world leaders, policymakers, philanthropists and business decision-makers have descended upon Davos to jointly focus on the most pressing global issues for the year ahead and shape government and industry agendas.

What is usually a secluded skiing spot turns into a jamboree. There were more than 2,900 attendees this year, host body the World Economic Forum (WEF) has confirmed.

The sight of a handful of wealthy individuals travelling by private jet, to something of an echo chamber in one of Europe’s richest nations, has long sparked cynicism from the general public. Attendees fall under increasing pressure to develop solutions with justice baked in, that benefit not only ‘elites’ and corporates but the world as a whole.

The summit’s outsized emissions footprint and exclusive nature has been a bugbear of climate activists in particular. Greta Thunberg said of Davos 2023 that it is “absurd” to follow the lead of “the people who are mostly fuelling the destruction of the planet rather than those on the front lines of the climate emergency”.

This year, Davos was one of a few places in Europe unaffected by dwindling January snow coverage linked to the climate crisis. It began just days after 2023 was officially confirmed as the warmest on record globally. This warming contributed to all manner of particularly intense extreme weather events, from ‘monster’ flooding Thessaly, Greece, often described as the nation’s breadbasket to July heatwaves across North America, Europe and China.

The WEF’s annual risk report published just before Davos began ranked extreme weather events as the second-biggest risk facing the world for the coming two years. This was based on input from 1,400+ risk experts.

Looking out to ten years, all of the top four risks are environmental. Experts agree on a real and present risk of most planetary boundaries being crossed, with negative impacts in climate and nature cascading.

But did the focus remain on the climate imperative as the five-day summit rolled on?

Announcements or action?

At a glance, it might be easy to say ‘yes’. Almost one-third of the 50 initiatives launched, expanded, or advanced at Davos directly related to climate, energy and nature (click here for our summary).

But those on the ground have noted that green economy announcements and discussions tended to be less well-attended than those focusing on artificial intelligence (AI).

Fortune’s executive editor Peter Vanham wrote from the summit that climate was “relegated to playing second fiddle” and has “clearly fallen back on the agenda” – a view shared by former Unilever CEO and green economy thought leader Paul Polman.

Vanham stated that it is “understandable given the ongoing wars and the rollercoaster evolutions in AI – but if sustainability is not a priority now, then when?”

As well as looking at the quantity of climate-related events, where they are positioned on the agenda and how many attend, it bears also looking at the quality of the announcements and the real-world change they are likely to generate.

Some look, at first glance, promising. A new Network to Mobilise Clean Energy Investment for the Global South launched is convening 20 chief executives and national ministers to unlock financing for renewables in developing nations – something the International Energy Agency has repeatedly flagged as a cause for concern in global sustainable development and climate justice efforts.

Other initiatives are already yielding results. Corporate members of the First Movers Coalition, which exists to accelerate the low-carbon transition in hard-to-abate sectors, are now primed to spend up to $16bn per year on near-zero-emission goods and services each year this decade.

Yet Davos summits, like climate COPs, risk hosting a flurry of announcements that open more questions than they answer – chief among them concerning how delivery will be adequately financed and how organsiers will be held accountable for delivering their promised impact.

Long-term thinking

Vanham’s pondering of ‘if not now, then when’ for climate could have easily been written at last year’s Davos.

This year, the biggest perceived near-term risk by the WEF’s findings is misinformation and disinformation. This neatly fits the Davos 2024 theme of ‘rebuilding trust’.

Last year, the cost-of-living crisis topped of the near-term risk table. The WEF made clear at the time that increased investment in environmental sustainability should be accelerated as a solution by companies and Governments – not put on the back-burner as a burden for some other time.

2023 will be remembered as a year in which the misrepresentation of clean energy and climate spending as a cause of economic downturn rather than a potential solution.  A year in which Government and business resources were re-directed from long-term planning to short-term, reactionary interventions.

Here in the UK, where edie is based, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak rolled back on key low-carbon heating and building energy efficiency policies in September. He spoke of the need for a “more pragmatic” pathway to net-zero by 2050 which avoided upfront costs for the general public in the short term. Yet initial analysis shows these changes could make the transition more expensive and risky in the 2030s.

This kind of thinking has been seen not only in the UK and other developed nations. It was on display by emerging economy fossil fuel exporters like Saudi Arabia, plus some African nations concerned about energy security, at COP28.

The US stands out as an exception – the Inflation Reduction Act has posited clean energy, electric vehicle and climate adaptation investments as means of creating well-paid jobs and economic benefits even in disadvantaged communities. Yet Trump’s 2024 Presidential bid casts a shadow on the horizon for Davos attendees; this is the man who withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement.

The climate and cost culture war has doubtless impacted business mindsets. Concerningly, the WEF found this year that experts in the private sector were less likely to view environmental risks as imminent in the near-term than their counterparts in policymaking and civil society. There was a general consensus that these risks are real and will materialise to some extent over the next decade, but the WEF found less urgency from corporates and investors.

2024 will be a major election year worldwide. Plus, the consensus is that the gas price crisis will not properly ease until the late-2020s. More short-termist rhetoric is almost guaranteed in the months ahead.

Vanham wrote in closing: “Going forward, I would argue that WEF should put these longer-term challenges back into the spotlight. Davos originated as an event where business leaders could step back from the daily fray. Climate, nature, and health are the topics that matter long term. They should get the priority treatment they deserve.”

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