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Kirsty Mears

Published on

January 30, 2020


As the World Economic Forum celebrated its 50th anniversary last week, the world watched as politicians, business leaders and youth activists descended on Switzerland’s small ski resort of Davos. Established as a post-world war platform to bring people together and understand how to drive change, tensions and stakes felt higher than ever at this year’s annual event, held in the midst of a precarious geopolitical situation.

Sustainability was the key theme, with climate change and the threat of a natural resource crisis dominating headlines. Other issues plagued the forum too, including data fraud, theft and cyber attacks, disinformation campaigns and the rise of populism.

But with big discussions taking place, the spotlight has also been on how effective Davos really is at spurring action on today’s major issues. In what was possibly the most publicised moment of last week, Greta Thunberg, addressing her presence at 2019’s event, said that “pretty much nothing has been done, since the global emissions of CO2 have not reduced.” This year, Greta and Donald Trump, continued, unsurprisingly, to be complete polar opposites, and they weren’t the only ones. Even the last big event of the conference saw considerable tension between US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank, who disagreed over long-term planning of climate change.

So is Davos all talk and no action, governed by the vested interest of those more powerful? Or is it a force for real change in the long-term?

It’s important not to forget how far we’ve come since the end of World War Two and the beginnings of Davos. Global average life expectancy has increased from 45.7 years in 1950 to 72.6 years in the present day. Pollution is certainly a major issue, but global average death rates have fallen by about 19% in the last decade as a result of reducing indoor pollution. Vaccines have been discovered, measles rates have reduced and mortality rates have declined significantly. In short, actions have been taken on tractable problems, and this has largely resulted in a positive impact.

It would be silly, of course, to say that these developments are firmly rooted in what came out of an annual week-long Davos event. But surely, it’s also naïve to dismiss the power of discussion, which can help us to move forward as a society?

That’s why this year’s Davos seemed particularly promising, not least by the organisers’ revamping of WEF’s manifesto, which stated a company’s purpose should be to “engage all its stakeholders in shared and sustained value creation”. What was also encouraging was the agreement amongst the world’s largest companies over environmental, social and governance measures, as set out by WEF. As Saleforce’s CEO Marc Benioff put it, “the planet is a key stakeholder”.

And businesses are starting to take proper action on this. Much discussion at Davos centred on Microsoft’s plan to go ‘carbon negative’ by 2030, while Blackrock just a few days before the summit announced a commitment to rethink its strategy in light of climate change. A key theme was certainly how global savings and capitalism can be used to make the world a better place.

With the UN climate conference taking place in Glasgow later this year, all eyes will be on how governments are preparing to make new commitments to reduce emissions under the Paris Agreement. Davos provided the platform for thought leadership, but now leaders – both of governments and of big business – must work together to put these learnings into action.

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