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A Reason To Be Cheerful – At Last

Leaders! Please take note! I witnessed an extraordinary celebration in the unofficial margins of the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos. Suddenly there seemed to be remarkable new hope that determined action is picking up speed to save the planet.

Top flight, heavy duty activists from environmental NGO’s and enlightened corporates were gathered for the Nature Positive dinner in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) marquee. They did so almost in disbelief. They could not believe the enormous success they and others had achieved at the COP15 biodiversity summit in Montreal a month earlier, just before Christmas.

Suddenly the mountain for action had moved in the right direction. After the disappointments of COP27 in Egypt, there were positive lessons for us all. For once there was a reason to be cheerful.

A New Determination

New standards and benchmarks had been created to preserve nature after we humans have eliminated 69% of all animal species in the last 50 years. There had been compromises. But the outcome was far more than any had believed possible. And there were also decisive political commitments that should ensure forward momentum.

Seven months earlier I had watched former US Vice President Al Gore in the very same Davos tent. I heard him issue a warning in a typically hectoring after dinner speech. While campaigning and pressurising by these organisations had been deeply impressive, Gore warned it would inevitably be crushed by the combined power of sinister corporate and government tactics.

Gore’s fears were justified at the time. The evidence for a darkening direction of travel was clear.

But six months later he was proven partially wrong. “I have noticed a huge increase in the amount of passion and attention being paid by CEO’s and other business leaders,” Gore told a separate WEF session.

‘Unthinkable’ Achievement

“What has been achieved since a year ago was unthinkable,” the creator of the SDG tent Andre Hoffmann reminded everyone with a warm grin of achievement. “This is a transformational moment” crowed Johan Rockstrom, the leading climate scientist from the Potsdam Institute whose latest scientific analyses usually make him a harbinger of doom these days. “Finally we see a pathway to follow”.

This language was remarkable.

“Victory is sweeter when hard fought for,” celebrated Marco Lambertini, the tireless, outgoing Director General of WWF International. He should know. He has just ended nine gruelling years campaigning and pressuring for just this kind of breakthrough.

What brought it about? “We set aside brands and egos” said Lambertini. He praised the organisations for together achieving an agreement that was “imperfect, but foundational”.

This public mood was almost unreal given the ever worsening condition of nature our planet. “We now have the political certainty we were looking for” said one campaigner. “We must act at speed. Our ambition must be high” said another who feared that momentum could easily be lost. “The real hard work must begin now… . there must be more nature not less … we will feel more comfortable for our children”.

Cheerful … But Conflicting Signals

This upbeat mood was all particularly remarkable because of what I then heard the following day.

I sat a few metres in front of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres when he repeated his sombre “highway to climate hell” message from COP27 in Egypt in November. “We are in trouble. In many respects we are backtracking” he warned once again. He spoke with passion and without notes…

Then he gave the mic to his UN Assistant Secretary General Sanda Ojiambo, the hugely impressive Kenyan CEO of the UN Global Compact. After interviewing 2668 CEO’s the headline of her sobering report was “CEO’s sound the alarm. The dramatic rise of interlinked global challenges forces leaders to navigate new levels of uncertainty”. She added: “the world cannot achieve the SDG’s by its current trajectory”.

That explains why COP15 in Montreal signalled such a sea change less than a month after the many disappointments from the COP27 climate change summit in Eqypt. But the full power of the message from that dramatic outcome to preserve diversity and end the abuse of nature had somehow got lost in the world’s annual pre-Christmas diversions.

Participants at the SDG tent dinner described how at previous biodiversity COPs, half a dozen executives from corporates had been seen looking lost. They had wondered what they might achieve. They asked: should they even bother to be there?

By contrast, in Montreal before Christmas there had been a thousand corporate executives. All were engaged, plugged in and realising that a huge corner was being turned. Now they knew they had to be part of the enormous change that is underway.

A New Wakening By Leaders

“Leaders are awake to the interconnected crises of climate breakdown, nature loss and inequality. Backlash and intransigence abound, driven primarily by moneyed interests and those who cling to the old power playbook. But the reality of the challenges we face has fully sunk in” wrote Halla Tomasdottir, CEO of the B Team after Davos.

Additionally “The United States is investing in climate action at scale and catalysing a race to the top”.

Just up the promenade from the SDG Tent towards the Congress centre, over three days I dropped into the salon of the Meierhof Hotel. This was the SDG Lab 2023.

Inside was a rich engine room of experts on radical city solutions from the South and North. One by one they detailed their initiatives for raising the game dramatically on making cities SDG compliant.

The blue riband award for relentless determination and vision goes to Roland Schatz of Media Tenor. For many years he has tirelessly worked to highlight progress where others could see very little. Now through the UNGSII process he and his fellow experts are seeing and recording real impact.

So I will remember Davos 2023 for the sustainability boulder finally starting to overcome the mountain of resistance and narrow mindedness. But a huge trek still lies ahead.

Acute Urgency Still Needed

“On Net Zero we are well behind the curve”, warned Keith Tuffley, Vice Chair and Global co-head for Sustainability and Corporate Transitions at Citi Bank. His job is to convince CEO’s, CFO’s and boards on how dramatic the challenge is for them and their organisations.

They cannot avoid it any longer. Tuffley described a “seismic shift” that is now underway. But it is “still too slow”. The scientific realities are sinister.

Why so?

Johan Rockstrom in Davos
Johan Rockstrom in Davos

Johan Rockstrom stood in front of a giant illuminated map inside the WEF Congress Centre. The Swedish director of the Potsdam Climate Institute is a brilliant scientist along with being one of the most impressive and compelling presenters anywhere.

“We’re taking colossal risks with the future of civilization on earth. We’re degrading life support systems that we all depend on, gradually pushing the entire earth system to a point of destabilisation.

“[We are] pushing Earth outside of the state that has supported civilization since we left the last ice age 10,000 years ago. This requires a transformation to safe and just earth system boundaries for the whole world economy”.

Realities are that stark. A total of 16 tipping points are threatened with being passed far faster than any scientist imagined, thereby creating likely new tipping points.

“This is not a climate crisis. We are now facing something deeper: mass extinction, air pollution, undermining ecosystem functions really putting humanity’s future at risk. This is a planetary crisis”.

Justice and Safety

Joyeeta Gupta is professor of environment and development at the University of Amsterdam. Alongside Rockstrom she emphasised from the stage that this is also a crisis of justice and safety. And time is running out for all of us to recognise that.

“Many areas in the world are uninhabitable. This uninhabitable zone is increasing. If we continue with our greenhouse gas emissions, then by 2070, as many as 3 billion people will live in uninhabitable zones and mostly in poorer countries. And this basically means that these people who probably have the least contribution to the climate problem have been the ones that are most exposed in times of crisis”.

While I have highlighted at least one reason to be cheerful, the corporate ducking, diving and misleading continues in the ways we have become so used to. Banks and finance institutions that have signed up to Net Zero pledges are also continuing to invest heavily in fossil fuels.

During Davos week the pressure group Reclaim Finance labelled the banks as “climate arsonists”. This was for actively deceiving the public and markets as well as going against the principles of the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero – known as GFANZ.

Yet there remains good reason to be cheerful. For once I have hope that a corner is starting to be turned. But the scale of what action is needed remans massive.

Scientists like Johan Rockstrom say we must achieve what is needed by 2030. That prospect is formidable.


“Positive change is afoot, and business leaders are re-evaluating the priorities most dear to them”, said Halla Tomasdottir of the B Team. “We are righting the rules at speed and scale, raising the bar on corporate governance for a future built on transparency, trust and accountability.”

That justifies being a little more cheerful - at last.