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Slaying the climate dragons at Davos

by Nik Gowing

Filed under Climate Emergency / Next Gen

I struggled with my conscience on the 90 minute early morning flight from London to Zurich. Once again I was a willing accomplice to generating polluting nasties.

But on this occasion – like many recently – if I had not filled the seat on this 100% full flight, then someone else would have bought my space. That carbon would still be burned over England, the English Channel, France and Switzerland. Buying carbon credits would have salved my conscience. But it would not have un-burned the carbon.

Nik Gowing selfie on a plane
I am headed to the 50th World Economic Forum in Davos to do my bit to help mobilise irreversibly top business and political leaders. The urgency is now: to transform their culture, mindsets and behaviour, then how they run their organisations.

There have been so many expressions of commitment in the past. Now they have to deliver. Public expectations mean they can’t keep swerving to escape.

The moment is now. Unthinkables confront us. Unpalatables loom ever more starkly. Stability is unravelling. Much we have taken for granted is no longer guaranteed. I travel up the mountain asking: surely denial or maintaining the status quo can no longer be viewed as a logical or even sane option?

I wrote at the end of Davos 2019 12 months ago that for many leaders January 2019 had been an ‘Oh Shit’ moment. They realised that complacency and a comforting ‘steady-as-she-goes’ strategy were no longer acceptable. While there was rhetoric and outward concern by many – though far from all – I wondered how much longer far too many could blague and play for time.

Pressure from the NEXT GEN

In the past year – especially recent weeks – the planet’s predicament on sustainability and the climate emergency has sharpened exponentially. And so has the response. Laggards are increasingly in a minority. Will they be named here?

The pressure coming from the hugely concerned NEXT GEN, plus 93-year-old Sir David Attenborough is finally getting through big time. In Abu Dhabi last week I heard eminent NEXT GEN voices at the Future Sustainability Summit go for the jugular. They were on a platform session with the title ‘What tomorrow’s generation demand of today’s leaders’.

“The problem for the next generation is how to be taken seriously,” said Jesse Forrester, a brilliant young African entrepreneur who was co-winner of the 2019 Zayed Sustainability Prize for sub-saharan Africa.

“Earth is talking to us and we are ignoring it. Our arrogance has to be put aside, or we face a disastrous future. We believe it can’t happen to us,” warned Akon, a hugely successful entrepreneur from Senegal who among much else is building a new sustainable city in his name.

A mindset of change

And voices of business and investment do appear to have a new, irreversible momentum. They have discovered how there is profit in sustainable purpose and tackling the climate emergency where they thought there was none.

There is far more money waiting to be invested on sustainability than can ever be spent. Investment in carbon-based industries is falling fast, although not everywhere. The talk is of investors who don’t want to find their money marooned in stranded assets which will soon have no value.

William Russell, an investment banker who is the current Lord Mayor of London, opened up on all barrels. “Monumental change is needed,” he warned a Sustainable Investment gathering, where there was standing room only. “There must be no more wait and see.” There is now an opportunity to “fix the planet”.

This is the start of a mindset change. It is well under way. How much will this be gripped and moved rapidly forward here in Davos? At this moment my instincts of scepticism are active.

The official spec for this World Economic Forum suggests the new mood here will be for irreversible change. The programme is full of sessions whose titles start with “shaping the future”. There is an “erosion of the international solidarity” in a newly “divisive world” which this annual meeting must help “reconcile”.

The urging is for those top leaders attending to “collaborate” where in the past they have resisted, obstructed or dragged their feet. But will they really be that brave?

For the first time, the top risks in the newly published Global Risk Report are all about sustainability and the climate emergency. They are stark enough. They would have been even starker except for urgings behind the scenes not to spread too much alarm.

But alarm there must be.

The giant COP25 climate change summit in Madrid in early December confirmed in a shocking way the political deadlock globally on implementing the 2015 Paris agreement. Unconstrained alarm on risks will surely embolden leaders to shift to the kind of momentous new directions expected by a fast increasing number of voters, shareholders and customers alike.

Brave, pioneering business leaders are finally well down the path. But the majority are not. The lessons from what extremes of weather have done in Australia in recent weeks underscore the huge dangers of leaders being both super complacent and in denial. The public rumble their arrogance and blindness.

I had planned to travel from Zurich to Davos by train. As always. But my efforts towards sustainability were dealt an unexpected blow when a “person on the line” forced the state railway company SBB to suspend all trains from the airport into Zurich.

So I am writing this on a diesel powered bus, winding up a valley towards Davos. The sun shines. There is new snow. It is idyllic and picture postcard in so many ways. These are the Swiss mountains I have enjoyed for decades.

But up here ghosts and dragons of complacency need to be slain. I am wondering if I will see the swords that achieve this. I hope that when the forum ends on Friday my scepticism will be thwarted and a realistic optimism for determined global action will have gripped all the leaders here.

I emphasise the word “hope”.

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