Resiliency, decarbonisation and regeneration: What were the key climate themes at Davos 2023?

As the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) annual meeting wraps up in Davos, edie wraps up the key climate-related themes that were discussed and how these could shape corporate sustainability actions moving forward.

Resiliency, decarbonisation and regeneration: What were the key climate themes at Davos 2023?

edie summarises the five key climate themes discussed at Davos 2023

It is often said that what is discussed at Davos will shape the corporate landscape over the coming months and years. But against a backdrop of “permacrises” relating to health, cost of living and a fragile economy, would climate action and the urgent need to shift to a net-zero transition get much of the limelight in discussions in Switzerland?

Fortunately, that answer appears to be yes, with delegates attending events, launching initiatives and forging new partnerships all aimed at strengthening international approaches to climate action, mitigation and decarbonisation.

The WEF’s own risk analysis for this year concluded that, while the cost of living is the biggest risk for the next two years, it is closely followed by extreme weather events made more likely and severe by the climate crisis. And, as we look out to the eight years beyond that, environmental risks top the list.

With this in mind, climate experts, philanthropists, billionaires and business representatives all descended on Davos to discuss how climate action can be enshrined into efforts to strengthen the economy and combat the cost of living crisis.

Here, edie summarises the five key climate themes discussed at Davos 2023, and these themes are likely to be the focal points of the broader corporate sustainability movement over the coming months.

1) Building climate resilience

An event hosted at the WEF on Thursday (19 January) stated that 2023 is a “crucial year to focus on adaptation”. This very much felt like a continuation of discussions held at COP27 in Egypt late last year, where the hosts received widespread support for a new ‘Adaptation Agenda’ to improve climate resiliency for four billion people this decade.

Climate scientists have, for many years, told us that some level of change to weather patterns is now ‘baked in’, regardless of whether humanity is successful in efforts to limit the global temperature increase in line with the Paris Agreement. The IPCC warned last year that all parts of the world will be affected, including parts of the Global North that have previously framed climate adaptation as an issue for the longer-term or purely for the most-affected parts of the Global South.

The WEF’s global risks report for this year, summarizing the views of 1,200+ experts, concluded that the increased frequency and severity of natural disasters across the world is the second-largest global risk for the next two years. The WEF deemed extreme weather risks the top short-term global risk in its 2022 edition of the global risks report. This year, the only reason it dropped a place was due to the rising cost of living taking the first spot.

The message is clear: Climate impacts are here, now, in all parts of the world. Efforts to safeguard communities by improving infrastructure must be accelerated.

When looking at risks over a ten-year period, the focus on adaptation remains. Failed climate adaptation is second only to failed climate mitigation (reducing emissions), while natural disasters and extreme weather events are in third place.

2) Accelerating decarbonisation, especially in heavy industry

Both UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and former US vice-president Al Gore used their platforms at Davos to warn that, for all the talk about the net-zero transition, global emissions continue to rise, with increased investment in clean technologies still being overshadowed by continued support for fossil fuels. This point was echoed by IEA chief Fatih Birol in a discussion with youth climate activists including Vanessa Nakate and Greta Thunberg.

Guterres said: “Today, fossil fuel producers and their enablers are still racing to expand production, knowing full well that this business model is inconsistent with human survival.  Now, this insanity belongs in science-fiction, yet we know the ecosystem meltdown is cold, hard scientific fact.”

As expected, many of the speeches and sessions focused on how Russia’s war in Ukraine is impacting the global energy transition, with many nations increasing investment in energy efficiency and home-grown renewables, but a clear grapple for coal and more home-grown oil and gas is also on show.

There was some good news on reducing fossil fuel use in heavy industrial sectors. The WEF announced that nine new industrial clusters across Europe, Asia and North America have joined its Transforming Industrial Clusters Towards Net-Zero initiative.

The initiative is striving to convene 100 industrial clusters to secure commitments to net-zero by mid-century and to build upon those pledges with public-private and cross-industry partnerships to scale solutions. It also facilitates discussion and learning between clusters across the world.

The initiative now includes 17 clusters, which collectively generate 451 million metric tonnes of CO2e each year. Read edie’s full story here.

3) Creating a nature-positive economy

Nations agreed on a new biodiversity treaty last month in Montreal, pledging to end nature degradation this decade and to bring about a new era of nature restoration thereafter. The WEF told delegates ahead of the meeting that steps must be taken “immediately” to deliver this pledge, chiefly by advancing public-private action. There was a session, specifically, on the ‘next steps’ to deliver the treaty’s 30×30 goal, which entails the protection of 30% of land and marine habitats for nature this decade.

The WEF, in its programme, emphasised that delivering a nature-positive future will make climate mitigation and adaptation smoother, while also improving human health. This joining up of climate, nature and society will doubtless be welcomed.

There was also – as is to be expected when you convene billionaires and business leaders – a focus on the financial benefits of ‘investing in nature’. Some of this will doubtless be perceived as greenwashing, an attempt to monetise what rural communities have valued for centuries, or to badge investments as ‘nature-positive’ when they are anything but. There were organisations on the agenda that have proven controversial with climate activists for years, including major meat producer JBS.

4) Financing oceans and water

One of the first spectacles attendees will have seen in Davos (after getting past protestors seeking to ground their private jets on climate grounds) was the opening concert. This year, it took the theme ‘I Sea You’, calling on policymakers to protect and restore coral reefs. There was a focus on the Northern Red Sea given the tie-in with COP27, but the IPCC has stated that virtually all coral globally would cease to thrive in a 2C warming pathway.

Nature restoration is a broad topic, and this concert set the scene for more detailed conversations and commitments on oceans and water more broadly.  With land and ocean use accounting for more than 12% of global GDP and 40% of jobs – stats that the WEF claims are “grossly underestimated” – Davos attempted to shine a light on how regenerative approaches to food, water and ocean systems could unlock economic growth.

Sessions were held in Davos on the “interplay” of food, energy and water and the synergies that exist between these sectors as well as how food systems can be revolutionised with sustainable production in mind.

One key area explored at Davos was that of the blue economy. The blue economy is a concept that seeks to assign value to – and thereby enable greater investment –  in marine resources, with a focus on ensuring long-term sustainability. It has been growing in popularity since 2016, when several academic papers attempting definitions were published.

In 2016, the OECD stated that the value of the blue economy – or ocean economy as it referred to it – was $1.5trn, and poised to grow to $3trn by 2030.

At Davos, the WEF unveiled a new strategic partnership with the Government of Indonesia to scale projects in the blue economy – namely blue carbon restoration and ocean conservation projects.

Initiated by the WEF’s Ocean Action Agenda the new partnership aims to increase demand for and access to high-quality blue carbon credits and projects. The partnership will bring together a range of stakeholders that will catalyse strategic financing opportunities to grow the market.

“Blue carbon holds immense potential for marine ecosystem restoration and coastal community resilience, while contributing to climate mitigation and helping raise critical funds to advance the urgent needs for ocean protection and conservation,” the WEF’s director of Ocean Action Agenda Kristian Teleki said. “We are excited to partner with Indonesia to start bringing to fruition this win-win-win potential.”

5) Leveraging philanthropic funding

Analysis from the IKEA Foundation – the retailer’s philanthropic arm – unveiled at COP27 last year examined what consumption and production patterns need to change in order to deliver a 1.5C world across energy, food and land use, industry, transport and buildings, whilst benefitting society.

Some of the high-impact opportunities identified are: providing target financial support to deliver an inclusive energy transition, minimising methane emissions, investing in peatland restoration globally, shifting to plant-based protein, strengthening value chains to reduce loss and leakage, investing in cooling technologies and supporting the market for electric two and three-wheeled vehicles.

While some $810bn was given by philanthropic organisations in 2021, the WEF estimates that just 2% went to projects that will be able to reduce emissions.

In response, Davos saw the launch of a new initiative aiming to scale this proportion and, in turn, to unlock trillions of dollars for climate and nature action.

Called Giving to Amplify Earth Action (GAEA), the initiative has been launched in the hope of closing the $3trn annual finance gap between current levels of backing for climate and nature initiatives and those needed to meet key international agreements, like the Paris Agreement on climate change and the recently-ratified pledge to halt and reverse nature degradation and loss.

It will do so by convening dozens of the world’s largest philanthropic organisations already involved in environmental work, alongside decision-makers managing public and private sectors. In the first instance, these leaders will identify which climate and nature solutions they are best placed to fund and how, in doing so, they can “catalyse” further financial support.

A total of 45 philanthropic organisations are signing up to GAEA. These include the Bezos Earth Fund, the Laudes Foundation, the Wellcome Trust and the Philanthropy Asia Alliance. Several funds with corporate links are among the cohort, too, including the BMW Foundation and the Ikea Foundation.

Anything else?

Alongside discussions and announcements, Davos also acted as a melting pot of the key stakeholders who will need to come together to collaborate on climate action.

World leaders were joined by ministers, investors, business leaders, tech billionaires, academics, risk specialists and others. There was also a strong activist presence, with climate campaigners seeking to hold the elite to account over their private jet use and continued support for the fossil fuel industry. In total, more than 2,700 people registered to attend the Forum.

Here, we provide a handy run-down of who said what in regard to the climate crisis, the clean energy transition and other environmental topics.

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