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Dozens of private jets flew into Switzerland in late January for the 2019 annual meeting of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF), which convened more than 100 governments and 1,000 businesses in the Alpine ski resort of Davos to discuss globalization’s future.
Yet, climate change and inequality were two of the issues that dominated the event.
Here are five things to know about the role environmental concerns played this year and the personalities that championed climate action:
“Of all risks, it is in relation to the environment that the world is most clearly sleepwalking into catastrophe,” warns the WEF’s annual risk report launched ahead of the meeting, setting the tone for the discussions in Davos.
The document found that five climate and environmental issues top the list of concerns of decision-makers and experts: extreme weather events, failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation, natural disasters, biodiversity loss and man-made disasters.
“The results of climate inaction are becoming increasingly clear. The accelerating pace of biodiversity loss is a particular concern,” notes the report, which is based on a perception survey of approximately 1,000 respondents including businesses, government, civil society and thought leaders.
“Global risks are intensifying, but the collective will to tackle them appears to be lacking. Instead, divisions are hardening,” adds the report, urging countries and organizations to forge collective solutions to collective problems.
High-level politicians and business leaders comprise the bulk of the guests at the WEF’s annual meeting, but this edition also rolled out the red carpet for broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough and chimpanzee expert and anthropologist Jane Goodall.
Attenborough received a Crystal Award for his leadership in environmental stewardship over the course of his 60-year career and participated in a one-on-one interview with the Duke of Cambridge to reflect on his work, which often focuses on humanity’s connection to the natural world.
“We have to recognize that every breath of air we take, every mouthful of food we take, comes from the natural world,” he said upon being asked what young people can do to help avoid climate disaster. “If we damage the natural world, we damage ourselves because we are one coherent ecosystem. It is not just a question of beauty, interest or wonder – the essential ingredient of human life is a healthy planet, and we are in danger of wrecking that.”
Goodall brought poverty into conversation, connecting the dots between livelihoods and the environment. “If you are living in a rural part of Africa and you are near the environment, you are going to cut down the last trees on a steep slope, even though you now it is going to cause erosion, because you have to grow food to feed your family or make charcoal,” she said. “Unless we do something to alleviate poverty, there is no way we can save chimpanzees or the forests.”
Heads of international organizations and national governments also took a stance against global warming, outlining its effects on people and the planet. The UN secretary-general António Guterres, for example, said that climate change was the most important global systemic threat for the near future.
“Climate change is running faster than we are, and we have this paradox: the reality is proving to be worse than scientists had foreseen, and all the last indicators show that,” said Guterres. According to the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, extreme weather events affected 60 million people globally last year.
The UN will hold a major summit on climate action in September with a focus on finance and innovation to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The event will take place ahead of the submission of the next round of national climate action plans in 2020, notes the UN.
World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva urged global leaders to eliminate harmful subsidies on sectors such as energy and agriculture. Subsidies have been slashed from USD 600 billion to 300 billion already, she said, but “we still have US$ 300 billion to go.”
Georgieva also supported the transition to a low-carbon economy; creating jobs in the technology space; and the need to provide more support for countries such as Niger, Chad and Small Island Developing States suffering the consequences of a crisis they did not bring about.
Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister and host of the G20 meeting this year, said climate would be on top of the G20’s agenda under Japan’s presidency, and that he would foster a global commitment to reduce plastic in the oceans.
Greta Thunberg, a 16-year old Swedish activist who has risen to recent fame for holding school strikes to protest inaction on climate change, brought in the perspective of younger generations who have not participated in the climate crisis but are set to suffer its effects.
“I want you to feel the fear I feel every day, and then I want you to act,” she said speaking at a high-level lunch. “I want you to act as if the house was on fire, because it is.”
Numerous businesses, governments and non-profits are taking steps in the right direction. The government of Peru, for example, is partnering with the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 to support sustainable rural development and reduce deforestation from the production of commodities. Deforestation accounts for more than half of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Another alliance of 50 global CEOs leading companies in more than 150 countries with a combined revenue of USD 1.3 trillion was a highlight of the Forum.
Having cut their collective emissions by nine percent since 2016, the alliance has developed so-called climate governance principles to translate climate risks into business processes – in other words, making operating models more environmentally sustainable.
For those who traveled to Davos by plane, the WEF has committed to fully offsetting the carbon footprints of their flights, “private or otherwise.”
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