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2021: the year the real economy must start building a net-zero, nature-positive partnership

"The key for 2021 will be to supersize the good examples."

"The key for 2021 will be to supersize the good examples." Image: Karsten Würth/Unsplash

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How to Save the Planet

This article is part of: The Davos Agenda
  • Climate action failure, extreme weather and biodiversity loss are among the top global risks for the next decade, according to the Global Risks Report 2021.
  • We have just a decade to get things on track for a net-zero and nature-positive economy.
  • Industry, finance and government must work together to scale impacts quickly.

Buried beneath the dour daily headlines on COVID-19 infections, lockdowns and travel bans, the latest science about our planet released during 2020 makes for tough reading. Despite the reductions in air travel and the global economic slowdown caused by the pandemic, climate change sadly has not slowed down this past year.

We have only until 2030 to get things on track for a net-zero and nature-positive economy – this should sharpen our minds for action. Unfortunately, as the economic effects of COVID-19 cause government debts to rise sharply, there is now much less public money available for activities like climate protection or ecosystem restoration – this should sharpen our appetite for innovation.

How then to make the shift to a net-zero, nature-positive economy within the decade?

If there is good news, it is this: The pandemic has shown that when our backs are against the wall, incredible things are possible. The partnerships catalysed between governments, scientists and the private sector to produce a suite of new vaccines within 12 months are a remarkable testament to our ability to innovate at scale, fast, when we feel we must.

Have you read?

The state of the planet

2020 was, along with 2016, the joint hottest year on record ever – closing out the warmest decade on record ever. Global average temperatures are now about 1.2°C above pre-industrial levels. This is getting uncomfortably close to the 1.5°C cap on average warming that governments pledged to aim for when they signed the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement to avoid dangerous climate change.

What scientists observed during 2020 should worry us all. In the Arctic, temperatures are rising at twice the global rate. Floods affected more than 10 million people across China, India, Nepal, Japan and Bangladesh, and there were a record 29 tropical storms in the Atlantic, with a record 12 making landfall. Unprecedented wildfires raged across Australia and California, with the Australia fires releasing about three-quarters of the CO2 the country’s industry emitted in 2018-19.

Less visibly, more than 80% of the ocean in 2020 suffered marine heat waves, providing more energy for tropical storms, as well as impacting sea life and spoiling fish harvests for the billions of people who rely on the ocean for their food and jobs. In June 2020, the United Nations warned of an impending global food crisis, the worst seen for over 50 years, noting the "perfect storm" playing out between these environmental changes and the impact of COVID-19, especially for poorer countries.

It is no surprise then that the World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2021 identifies climate action failure, extreme weather and biodiversity loss, alongside infectious diseases, as the top global risks for the next decade in terms of impact and likelihood.

Image: World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2021

As with COVID-19, perhaps so with climate?

The climate and nature crises are now an urgent mainstream issue for many voters, especially among Generation Z. Many institutional investors are also seeing the risks and are shifting their money accordingly. Given these voter and investor pressures, an unprecedented level of collaboration and innovation is required among leading “real economy” players from industry, technology and finance, to work together and with government and civil society and make big things happen, fast.

Promisingly, for several years, especially since the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, an ecosystem of ambitious partnerships for action on climate and nature has been taking root and growing, often with the help of the World Economic Forum. We are now able to start reaping the early rewards of this harvest.

For example, the Mission Possible Partnership gets leading heavy-industry companies, banks and governments to create investment-grade “net zero” sector strategies in seven key areas of the global economy – aviation, shipping, trucks, chemicals, steel aluminium and cement. More than 200 companies and organizations are so far involved. This effort has the potential to tackle 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.


What's the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?

The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) gets leading consumer goods companies, waste specialists and banks to work with governments to create investment-grade plans for tackling plastic waste pollution, and then trigger the finance and projects to make it happen. Launched in 2018 with the Canadian and UK Governments, GPAP is now helping countries across ASEAN and West Africa to tackle ocean plastic waste. GPAP in Indonesia is helping the government deliver its national target to reduce ocean plastic waste in Indonesia 70% by 2025 and to be plastic waste free by 2040. (trillion trees) is a partnership platform that gets leading governments, business, technology companies, scientists and civil society groups to work together on initiatives that will conserve, restore and grow a trillion trees by 2030. Such “nature-based solutions” like, undertaken alongside the decarbonisation of energy and industry systems, can help provide up to one-third of the climate solution required by 2030 to keep on track with the Paris Climate Agreement.

The United States Chapter was launched in August 2020; so far more than 26 US companies, non-profits and governments have pledged to conserve, restore and grow more than 1 billion trees across the contiguous US by 2030, and committed to supporting actions such as mapping technology and carbon finance worth billions of dollars. In October 2020 the One Trillion Trees Interagency Council was established to be responsible for coordinating federal government support of in the US and internationally.


These and many other examples of public-private partnerships and alliances are helping to accelerate large scale, practical action for a net-zero, nature positive economy by 2030. They connect together states, cities, provinces, civil society groups, businesses, investors, innovators and technologists. They are also connecting business leaders, technology and finance within key industrial sectors and across global supply chains, as companies work with and learn from each other.

And they are spurring leadership groups such as the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders to engage with politicians and decision-makers, to further raise ambition and give business confidence to governments about the pathway ahead. Leaders in this CEO group already have net-zero commitments linked to companies with at least 1.5Gt of global emissions as disclosed in 2019.

In an age where transparency and authenticity are key, these partnerships and alliances work to deliver their results in line with the latest science, with the companies involved increasingly adopting disclosure and measurement systems like science-based targets and environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) metrics, such as the common framework being developed by the World Economic Forum’s International Business Council.

Coming together for impact

The key for 2021 will be to supersize the good examples of these kinds of efforts and bring them together to help shape a decade of unprecedented partnership and action to 2030. Imagine if we could bring many more companies, investors and governments together into these and other “high ambition” coalitions, underpinned by the science-based targets we must meet by 2030, and designed to drive the net-zero, nature-based transition we must create: this would bring to life a real economy that works for people and nature alike and for the long term. Indeed, one of our recent Nature Action Agenda reports, identified that such a nature positive transition could generate 395 million new jobs by 2030. That is the kind of “real economy” win-win we sorely need in our COVID recovery plan.

Inspired by the incredible public-private sprints on vaccine collaboration for COVID-19 and mandated by the universally accepted SDG 17 on revitalizing global partnerships for sustainable development, we must ensure that such large-scale, public-private collaboration for ambitious climate, nature and food security outcomes become mainstream during 2021. These are the partnership vehicles that can bring together industry, investors and civil society to speed and scale impact, drawing on wide networks of innovation, expertise and resources from across the real economy, at a time when public funds are scarce.

To spur these efforts, official climate and biodiversity events should more deeply involve government, industry, investors, civil society leaders and other key stakeholders, and be structured as annual “accelerators” focused on scaling the system change innovation, financing, job creation and partnerships required to ensure we are on track to achieve our 2030 goals. Encouragingly, the official climate COP 26 hosted by the UK in Glasgow in November seems to be leaning in this direction.

The World Economic Forum as the youngest and unique international organization for public-private collaboration stands ready to help. Our virtual Davos Agenda is bringing together leaders from government, industry, finance, civil society and the innovation community involved in the net-zero and nature-positive agenda. They are discussing how to overcome the challenges we face and how to scale and speed up the alliances, partnerships and innovative solutions we already have and that we need to get the net-zero, nature positive transition properly underway by 2030. We will progress these efforts through to our Special Annual Meeting in Singapore in May, then in partnership with others onto the UK Climate COP in Glasgow and then to our Annual Meeting In Davos in January 2022.

In this way, 2021 can become the year the real economy starts building a net-zero, nature-positive partnership. We must; there is no other option.

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World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

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