By Rachel Koning Beals
It’s seemingly never a waste of time or energy to get the world’s power brokers and high-minded climate-change activists under the same roof, especially when it comes to efforts to slow global warming, forest destruction and deadly heat and drought.
The powerful from both the public and private sectors have returned to Davos, Switzerland, and the World Economic Forum (WEF) , after more than two years away during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, COVID-19 bumped the usual January dates to May this year.
So what if carbon footprints inflate just to get the powerful on site in the Swiss Alps — mostly via private jet and limousine. That’s the cost of doing business?
Increasingly, such a cost does not go unnoticed, as it forms an ironic, even caustic, backdrop to the global leadership’s call for net-zero emissions goals and other lofty targets. When emissions from burning jet fuel and gasoline get trapped in the atmosphere, the Earth warms, increasing ocean levels and making damaging storms, drought and deadly heat happen more often and with more intensity.
Environmental groups, politicians, activists, social media voices and even traditional media columnists want clear action on climate change at big, expensive global gatherings. They deem it necessary to quiet the literal and figurative sound of the polluting engines from air and ground transportation that few of the powerful have yet to give up. Recall that climate hotshots were in the hot seat for transportation choices last Novembe r for the U.N.’s latest high-profile gathering.
Independent journalists especially wasted little time in highlighting on Twitter the emissions-spewing influx in Davos.
U.N. climate dignitary Mark Carney got some steps in on his way to a Davos session but faced heat on the event’s impact.
Scenic by train
WEF organizers have increasingly tried to play their part and inoculate themselves against accusations of hypocrisy: Over the last five years, they say they have offset 100% of the carbon emissions from the organization’s activities by supporting environmental projects. They encourage train travel to the event.
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg famously documented her 32-hour train ride to get to the Davos meeting in 2019, where the teenager quieted participants with a fiery speech.
For certain, the time-strapped powerful converge on the Swiss Alps with no shortage of issues at hand : soaring food and fuel prices (NYM:RB00) , Russia’s war in Ukraine, drought and food shortages in Africa, a deadly heat wave in India, ever-expanding inequality between rich and poor , and autocratic regimes gaining ground. Plus, COVID-19 hasn’t exactly gone dormant.
Even with all those issues burning, one-third of the roughly 270 panel discussions through Thursday’s finale will focus on climate change or its effects, with extreme weather, efforts to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions and finding new, cleaner sources of energy (NAS:ICLN) on the agenda.
It was in Paris 2015 at a U.N.-organized climate conference that governments set the voluntary goal to keep the global temperature from rising at least no more than 2 degrees Celsius compared to before the Industrial Revolution, and ideally no more than 1.5 degrees. Moving forward, the idea is to get more nations, and most of the private sector in turn, to abide.
The president of the next U.N. climate change conference in Egypt, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, told the Associated Press on the Davos sidelines that his event in November — Commitments of Parties 27 (COP27) — will push countries to make good on their pledges to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions and facilitate talks on compensating developing countries for global warming effects. And, he says, Egypt will allow climate activists to protest, one sign it may not just be the elite jetting in and out.
Why does it matter, anyway?
Inaction on climate change will cost the global economy $178 trillion over the next 50 years, enough loss for a 7.6% cut to global GDP in 2070 alone, a new report from the Deloitte Center for Sustainable Progress said Monday, timed to the WEF meetings in Davos. Instead of investing in new, value-adding innovations and infrastructure, the world’s productive capital would be channeled toward repairing climate damage, the report warned.
Plus, the U.S. and China’s role at the WEF on climate is important , as it is every time the two economic powerhouses share the spotlight.
“We should not allow a false narrative to be created that what has happened in Ukraine somehow obviates the need to move forward and address the climate crisis,” said U.S. climate envoy John Kerry on Tuesday, speaking on a Davos panel about energy transition . The head of a powerful energy industry watchdog agreed with Kerry.
Yet, this energy-market watcher thinks events like Davos only make climate-change efforts that much harder.
Globally, the wealthiest 10% are responsible for more than 50% of all carbon emissions, says a report by the World Inequality Lab. Combined emissions from the top 1% are more than twice those of the poorest 50%.
“Although such numbers reveal important insights, they risk masking how climate change is not simply a problem to be fixed, but an acute symptom of a highly unsustainable political economy,” write Isak Stoddard, a Ph.D. candidate at Uppsala University in Sweden and Kevin Anderson, a researcher at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester in the U.K., in a commentary .
Epitomizing this form of power is the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering in Davos, where “the foremost political, business, cultural and other leaders of society” meet “to shape global, regional and industry agendas,” they wrote in their critical piece, pulling from the WEF’s own promotional language.
And it’s the elitist taint of Davos that’s hurting climate-change efforts, they believe.
“A key form of power lies in the technocratic and top-down worldview that shapes debates, controls institutions and entrenches the dominant political paradigm,” they argue. ”Largely unchallenged it defines international climate negotiations and repeatedly delays the transition away from fossil fuels.”
On the ground, leaders including the U.N.’s Carney would say the ambition is there. And the means.
One Davos WEF climate panel, after all, is called: “Moving the climate debate from ambition to delivery.”
It sums up the enormous challenge. Will it bring action that demands more of the powerful than an appearance at a high-profile fly-in?
The Associated Press contributed .