Last week, some 2,000 business leaders and policymakers were in Davos for the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) annual meeting, held in person for the first time since 2019. In this special edition of Access Partnership’s Sustainability Conversations series, we round up the top 5 insights of relevance for sustainable development.
1. History is at a turning point
If COP26 closed on a note of cautious optimism, Davos began with a painful reminder of the cost of inaction. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine began with a special address on the opening day of the conference, asking assembled global leaders to recognise that the international community should have supported Ukraine to a greater extent than they did back in 2014 when Russia first annexed Crimea. Russia’s continued war in Ukraine continues to pose grave threats to global peace and progress that had been made on sustainable development. The energy crisis triggered by the war has highlighted the extend of global dependencies on Russian oil, while it has also sent food prices spiralling upwards through disruptions to Ukraine’s basket of agricultural products.
Referencing the week’s theme – “History at a Turning Point” – the President appealed for help to combat Russian aggression and focus attention on rebuilding Ukraine after the war. He laid down the challenge in no uncertain terms: “This is really the moment when it is decided whether brute force will rule the world…if so, there is no need for further meetings in Davos”. Could a parallel be drawn from the President’s words to how we continue to rule the planet by “brute force”, polluting and exploiting its resources for our short-term gain? You can see excerpts from his address here.
In addition to the war and its related crises, a sluggish recovery from COVID-19, rampant inflation, tightening monetary policy, cautious markets, and the crypto bust all contributed to a dour mood on the financing necessary transitions. Read more here on the future of finance in these uncertain times.
2. Coalitions signalled an advancing sustainability agenda
Despite beginning on a sobering note, the sustainability agenda advanced at Davos with a spate of announcements strengthening promising new coalitions. The First Mover’s Coalition, first launched by US Climate Envoy John Kerry at COP26 to scale the development of low-carbon technologies for hard-to-abate sectors, announced 20 new participating companies to bring total members up to 55. New members included BHP, EY, Google, FedEx, Ford Motor Company, Schneider Electric, and Swiss Re. Companies in the coalition represent a powerful US$8.5 of market capitalisation globally. Additionally, India, Japan, and Sweden, joined the US on the Steering Committee of the Coalition, while Denmark, Italy, Norway, Singapore, and the UK signed on as partners as well. Speaking at the press conference, John Kerry spoke to the catalysing power of the initiative: “The greatest disrupter of business will be climate crisis if we don’t move fast enough. And the greatest risk for business is not the risk of putting their money into this, it’s the risk that comes with not doing enough, with not investing.” Read more of his quotes from the press conferences here.
Meanwhile, the Forum also launched the India branch of the Alliance of CEO Climate Action Leaders. The Alliance, which was launched in 2014, counted 92 companies before Davos and now expects to have at least 12 new additions from India in the coming months. The Alliance’s goals are to align growth to the 1.5-degree pathway in the Paris Agreement and facilitate the transition to net-zero.
3. Digital transformation agreed upon as essential for the harder climate goals
Reaching the 1.5-degrees requires innovation, and technology is proving critical at the transition, particularly in the energy sector. Advancements in additive manufacturing and artificial intelligence (AI) are making significant strides. AI models are used to optimize the shape of turbines and solar panels, while creating models to predict and manage the intermittency of supply of renewables and demand for electricity. DeepMind is being used to discover new ways to control nuclear fusion reactions, providing hope that it may become a viable energy source in the not-so-distant future. Additive manufacturing is enabling manufacturers to produce more efficient solar panels that use less materials and have greater coverage for solar power. Quantum computing may help solve the energy storage challenge, by unlocking better combinations of materials and designs for future battery technology.
Technology is also facilitating the exchange of ideas and solutions to help shape the sustainable transitions. At Davos, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff highlighted the success of UpLink, a digital platform launched two years ago by WEF, Deloitte, and Salesforce, to foster mass participation of entrepreneurs, community groups, and other individuals to crowdsource new ideas to solve the climate crisis. He was quoted as saying, “We’re committed to an ecopreneur revolution — energizing incredible young entrepreneurs dedicated to the environment.” Read more here.
4. Nature is fast becoming a cornerstone of the global sustainability agenda
Biodiversity and nature loss yet again was a topic of passionate discussion, having received global attention at COP26. A nature-based urban transformation was a particularly important topic, as urban planning was highlighted as among the most significant challenges as cities adapt to the fallout from nature loss. His Excellency Ivan Duque, President of Colombia, participating in the “Returning Nature to Cities” panel, “The way we live in cities is the most precious threat to ecosystem management”. Listen to the full session here. Bringing nature-based solutions to cities across a variety of applications was discussed as the critical intervention. Read our report on BiodiverCities by 2030 with WEF here, which covers such applications and land-sparing interventions in greater detail, while outlining changes needed in urban governance, integration of nature, and unlocking the investment needed.
In other announcements, a new Global Commission on the Economics of Water was launched with the aim of redefining how water is valued and factored into policymaking and financial decision-making. The Commission is helmed by a range of senior global leaders – WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Singapore’s Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, and Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Johan Rockström. The Taskforce for Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) also announced a range of new initiatives, including the formation of “consultation groups” at the national and regional levels, including with Australia, India, the Netherlands, and the UK, and a partnership with the IUCN to engage with indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLCs).
5. Digital skills shortage holding back the green transition
Finally, the future of work received significant coverage through 13 dedicated sessions on topics from tackling skill shortages to the benefits of investment in social infrastructure. Concerns were raised on how the digital skills shortage could potentially slow the global green transition, summarised effectively by CEO of technology consultancy Capgemini SE, Aiman Ezzat: “When we talk about electric vehicles, that’s digital, when we talk about energy transition, we are in digital, when we talk about moving to a sustainable economy, all this is driven by digitalization. It’s not just about automating processes, it’s really about creating new platforms, new businesses, which has increased demand for technologies. As moving to a digital economy is one of the future drivers of economic growth, we do not have enough skills, we are slowing down the transition.” Read more from the experts here.
Many of the jobs in a new nature economy will be rooted in digital transition, underscoring the need to accelerate digital skills training. Our report on the Future of Nature and Business with WEF highlighted that while the transition to a new nature economy could create nearly 400 million resilient jobs by 2030, 87% of the underlying business opportunities that create these jobs rely on Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies. Read more on our research on the future of work here.
What is your organisation doing on these topics? Reach out to Shivin Kohli from our team to discuss your sustainability journey.