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What changes to environmental stewardship will 2021 bring? Here’s what business leaders say

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An aerial view shows power-generating windmill turbines in a wind farm in Graincourt-les-havrincourt, France, November 7, 2020. Picture taken, November 7, 2020 with a drone.  REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol - RC25ZJ9WFVGV

To address the health and economic crises, we must also address climate change. Image: REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

Gayle Markovitz
Acting Head, Written and Audio Content, World Economic Forum
Samantha Sault
Writer, Washington DC and Geneva
This article is part of: The Davos Agenda

With COVID-19 infections and deaths continuing to rise and the entire world feeling the economic impact of the pandemic, getting the coronavirus under control is an immediate priority.

But recovery goes beyond plans to vaccinate the world and return economic systems to “normal.” A sustainable recovery requires a “new normal” of environmental stewardship and addressing climate change – which Bill Gates predicts could bring greater health and economic crises than COVID-19.

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But working to save the planet now will also address the immediate health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The immediate post crisis period offers a small window to build back better by not wasting the $10 trillion that governments around the world are investing to alleviate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,” wrote World Economic Forum Founder and Chairman Klaus Schwab and Monthly Barometer Co-Founder Thierry Malleret last year.

“One way to invest smartly is to embed climate and environmental resilience into stimulus packages and recovery programmes,” they said.

A recent World Economic Forum report found that a nature-positive economy could deliver $10.1 trillion of annual business opportunities and 395 million jobs by 2030.

The Davos Agenda is mobilizing global leaders to work together virtually to discuss the next steps. An entire week of global programming is dedicated to helping leaders choose innovative and bold solutions to stem the pandemic and drive a robust recovery over the next year – with Day 3 (27 January) focused on enhancing stewardship of our global commons.

Ahead of the meeting, we invited World Economic Forum Strategic Partners to share ideas on how to save the planet – and drive recovery at the same time.

‘We need a new playbook’

Laura M. Cha, Chairman, Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing Ltd

The pandemic won’t disappear with a new calendar year, but there are now encouraging signs of recovery. This year we will need strong leadership from around the globe to build a better world. To create that positive change we need a new playbook, where sustainable business, the adoption of ESG principles and resilient and robust capital markets can provide the cornerstones of our economic recovery and long-term prosperity. The readiness of investors, issuers, regulators and market operators to link financing to ESG data and performance will be key to our future. Capital markets have a major role to play in financing the world’s sustainability journey – we already know that, we have all the pieces, we just now need to put them in play for a better and brighter future.

‘Come together’

Jim Fitterling, Chairman and CEO, Dow

None of us could have predicted all the serious challenges we’d face in 2020: countless natural disasters, a pandemic, economic hardship and continued racial injustice. 2021’s onset doesn’t naturally end any of them; they are interconnected issues, not isolated problems.

To take care of our people and protect our planet, we need to work together. We must collaborate across business, government, NGOs, academia and society to invest in and create shared solutions to mitigate the impacts of climate change, improve public health, strengthen our global economy and foster greater equality and inclusion. We all desire a better, more resilient world; it’s only achievable if we come together – civilly, thoughtfully, and wholeheartedly.

15 transitions in the three socio-economic systems could deliver $10.1 trillion of annual business opportunities and 395 million jobs by 2030
$10.1 trillion and 395 million jobs Image: World Economic Forum

‘Act like these tipping points are imminent’

Peter Giger, Group Chief Risk Officer, Zurich Insurance Group

But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn’t act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.

We need to act now on our climate. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfil our commitments to the Paris Agreement, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.

9 climate tipping points
9 climate tipping points Image: Nature

Embed climate into risk management

John J. Haley, CEO, Willis Towers Watson

Ahead of the upcoming UN Climate Conference, I think we’ll see continued pressure to accelerate a just and orderly transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy. A good sign is that environmental threats dominated senior leaders’ agendas in 2020 – even amid the COVID-19 pandemic – according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report.

To effect such change, a more strategic approach is necessary – one that not only embraces the need for a transition to a low-carbon and resilient future, but also embeds near-term climate factors into existing financial risk management strategies. Such a framework would need to take into account an organization’s people, risk and capital strategies to address the multi-dimensional nature of climate risks and opportunities.

‘Scale up’

Robert Metzke, Global Head of Sustainability, Royal Philips

2021 is the second year in the “Decade of Delivering the SDGs”. It is going to be critical to take major decisions and bring positive action to scale. This includes rethinking our economic models to become more circular, inclusive and build low-carbon solutions. Action at scale beyond our own operations means teaming up with customers and partners behind the idea that contributing to sustainable development is the only way to do business. In 2021, we will deepen and expand our partnerships to deliver solutions that make quality healthcare accessible while reducing carbon emissions in line with science-based targets and enabling service- and access-based, circular business models.

To that end, we are continuing to build coalitions to drive global change, like the Platform to Accelerate the Circular Economy. Over the past years, we have learned much about best practices and barriers. Now is the time to connect the dots, scale up and drive impact at scale.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about the circular economy?

‘Protect biodiversity’

A five-day-old baby male Western lowland gorilla looks on as he is held by his mother Buu at Bioparc Fuengirola in Fuengirola, southern Spain November 13, 2020. REUTERS/Jon Nazca - RC2I2K95M4NX
How do we protect the endangered Western lowland gorilla? Image: REUTERS/Jon Nazca

Takeshi Niinami, CEO, Suntory Holdings

COVID-19 has accelerated the shift to carbon-free society and many countries will heighten their efforts by introducing policies and regulations to combat climate change as the world moves into a post-COVID era in 2021. I want to emphasize that when we talk about the issue of climate change, protecting the ecosystem and biodiversity is just as important as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. COVID-19 has taught us a valuable lesson on the importance of protecting ecosystem and biodiversity. Countries, businesses and societies should prioritize making a long-term commitment to protecting and preserving the oceans and forests that support these ecosystem and biodiversity, which are not only essential for combating climate change but also for sustaining human well-being.

‘Use digital technologies as a key enabler to achieve climate goals’

Thomas Saueressig, Member of the Executive Board, SAP

Last year was defined by COVID-19, and 2021 will look no different. While I am full of hope that we will overcome the current pandemic, new health, societal or economic crises are likely to occur.

However, over the past few months, we have learned to find new ways to cope with unknown challenges. Digital technologies and modern enterprise software enable organizations and corporates to build resilient operations and sustain their supply chains. Innovative technology also supports governments, businesses, and society in providing transparency, allocating goods, and even distributing vaccines in our communities.

To bring about positive change in 2021 and beyond, organizations need to continue to use technology to address some of the current challenges that we all face. Right now, I see climate change as one of the biggest threats to humanity. As SAP’s Climate 21 initiative shows, software can support businesses in considering carbon emissions when making decisions. Moving forward, a priority for our global economy will be to use digital technologies as a key enabler to achieve climate goals. In 2021 and in the years to come, it is time to act – and technology can help.

‘Green growth opportunities abound’

Kevin Sneader, Global Managing Partner, McKinsey & Company

“The next normal is upon us” article

The imperative for businesses is clear along two fronts. First, businesses need to respond to the sustainability concerns of investors. It’s possible, albeit speculative, that the COVID-19 crisis foreshadows what a climate crisis could look like: systemic, fast moving, wide ranging, and global. There is a case, then, for businesses to take action to limit their climate risks – for example, by making their capital investments more climate resilient or by diversifying their supply chains.

The four transitions in this system could create over $3.5 trillion of annual business opportunities 87 million jobs by 2030
Business transitions in energy and extractives could lead to 87 million jobs by 2030 Image: World Economic Forum

More significantly, the growth opportunities that a green economy portends could be substantial. BlackRock, a global investment company with around $7 trillion in assets under management, noted in its 2021 Global Outlook that, “contrary to past consensus,” it expects that the shift to sustainability will “help enhance returns” and that “the tectonic shift towards sustainable investing is accelerating.” Green growth opportunities abound across massive sectors such as energy, mobility, and agriculture. Just as digital-economy companies have powered stock-market returns in the past couple of decades, so green-technology companies could play that role in the coming decades.

‘Now is the time for public-private partnerships to play an important role in the creation of resilient, future-oriented health systems’

Frans van Houten, CEO, Royal Philips

As COVID-19 continues and climate issues escalate, we realize even more the vulnerabilities of our society that we struggle to cope with. Now is the time for public-private partnerships to play an important role in the creation of resilient, future-oriented health systems. We need to use this momentum to accelerate the digitalization of healthcare, adopting new care models such as telehealth, and provide affordable access to care. And while we are at it, let’s do this in a sustainable way and transition to a circular economy. Led by our purpose to improve people’s health and well-being, Philips is working with all relevant stakeholders to build this future together.


What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

Find out more about World Economic Forum partners here.

Related topics:
Forum InstitutionalClimate ActionNature and Biodiversity
‘We need a new playbook’‘Come together’‘Act like these tipping points are imminent’Embed climate into risk management ‘Scale up’‘Protect biodiversity’‘Use digital technologies as a key enabler to achieve climate goals’‘Green growth opportunities abound’ ‘Now is the time for public-private partnerships to play an important role in the creation of resilient, future-oriented health systems’

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