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Davos Agenda: What you need to know about saving the planet

The Blue Ridge Fire burns in Yorba Linda, California, U.S., October 26, 2020. REUTERS/Ringo Chiu - RC2RQJ9IPM5R

How to build back better – and save the planet. Image: REUTERS/Ringo Chiu

Samantha Sault
Writer, Washington DC and Geneva
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How to Save the Planet

This article is part of: The Davos Agenda
  • 2020 showed us that action on climate change is more urgent than ever.
  • Building back better must include a focus on reaching net-zero, the energy transition and committing to circular economies and sustainable consumption.
  • The Davos Agenda will mobilize global leaders to build a healthier, more resilient planet.

A year ago at the Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos – heeding the advice of speakers including Greta Thunberg, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Prince Charles – government, business and civil society committed to take more concrete action on climate change and save the planet from a hot, smoky, polluted demise.

Throughout the week, delegates watched in horror as bushfires ravaged Australia – ultimately burning more than 11 million hectares of land and killing or displacing as many as 3 billion animals. By the end of the week, a Davos press conference about a new global threat – a highly infectious virus emerging in China – showed the world that we could no longer ignore the links between the health of the planet and the health of humans, economies and societies.

From 25-29 January 2021, The Davos Agenda will bring many of those leaders together again to discuss the innovative and bold solutions needed to stem the pandemic and drive a robust recovery – with a focus on the resiliency and sustainability of our ecosystems and infrastructure.

Have you read?
  • How to follow The Davos Agenda

With lockdowns halting human activity around the world, 2020 proved climate action is possible.

“The International Energy Agency (IEA) expects greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2020 to decline by 8%, to their lowest level since 2010,” explained Bart Valkhof, Partner Engagement Lead of Energy and Materials Industries at the Forum.

“Normally this would be reason for celebration, as the world requires an annual 6% decline in GHG emissions to meet the objectives of the Paris Climate Accords,” continued Valkhof. “However, instead of being caused by structural changes, the reduction is being caused by a devastating health crisis and a resulting economic crisis.”

It's time to take action on climate and emissions.
It's time to take action on climate and emissions. Image: UN Climate and Clean Air Coalition

The last year also highlighted the interconnectedness of public health and the environment. Air pollution increases the risk of serious illness and death from COVID-19 – and zoonotic diseases like the novel coronavirus (which likely originated in bats) are helped along by rapid deforestation, urbanization and illicit wildlife trade. Meanwhile, the focus on the pandemic response hasn’t eliminated the need to confront a range of other environmental challenges, including rising global temperatures, the 8 million tonnes of plastic waste that leak into the ocean each year, melting sea ice and biodiversity loss, to name a few.

Human activity is eroding the world's ecological foundations
Human activity is eroding biodiversity. Image: World Economic Forum

Where do we go from here?

Building back better must include building a better, healthier planet – here's how.

1. Reach net-zero

“In order to avoid irreversible damage to our societies, economies and the natural world, we must limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels,” wrote Anthony Robert Hobley, Executive Director of Mission Possible, a Forum initiative focused on getting to net-zero in the heavy industry and mobility sectors.

“But with a 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stating that global warming is likely to reach just that between 2030 and 2052 – assuming it continues at the current rate – intervention is required on a mass scale," Hobley continued.

The good news, Hobley noted, is that “net-zero commitments have doubled in 2020 during the global pandemic, according to research by NewClimate and Data Driven EnviroLab".

Interest in net-zero has been growing
Interest in net-zero has been growing Image: New Climate Institute

So far, 31 companies have signed the Climate Pledge to reach net-zero by 2040. They include Amazon, which also pledged to reach 100% renewable energy by 2030 and 100,000 electric delivery vehicles by 2030, and Microsoft, which aims to remove enough carbon by 2050 to account for all of the company’s emissions since it was founded in 1975.

The Forum’s Financing the Transition to a Net-Zero Future coordinates businesses and the financial sector to support carbon-neutral financing opportunities. Phase I commenced in April and will conclude 30 June 2021.

2. The energy transition

“To prevent a surge in GHG emissions, as happened during previous economic downturns, it is imperative that the momentum around the energy transition is not lost,” wrote the Forum’s Valhof.

“Actions often follow beliefs. If energy companies, investors and policymakers believe future energy demand and supply structures will be broadly the same as today, they will invest and implement policies accordingly, locking in the current system. If they believe rapid change is likely, they will invest in and legislate for new opportunities, speeding up the transition,” explained the Forum’s Emma Skov Christiansen and Espen Mehlum, outlining two possible scenarios for the energy transition.

“Therefore, an interconnected feedback loop between governments, technology, industry, society and finance can increase [the] speed of transition – or slow it down,” they argued.

The positive feedback loop to get to net-zero
The positive feedback loop to get to net-zero Image: World Economic Forum

3. Commit to circular economies and sustainable consumption

“It will take individual company action and partnerships in concert with collective ecosystem-level action to realize the transformative and lasting impact that is needed,” according to a Forum community paper, "Vision Towards Responsible Future Consumption".

This must include “circular-economy approaches, which aim to keep products/materials in use, by design, for as long as possible to capture their maximum value, e.g. sustainable supply chains and post-production consumption.”


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

“Fortunately, businesses are increasingly recognizing the value of going circular – a global growth opportunity valued by Accenture at $4.5 trillion over the next decade,” wrote Royal Philips CEO Frans van Houten and the University of Tokyo’s Naoko Ishii.

What is the circular economy?
What is the circular economy? Image: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

“CEOs are receiving detailed shareholder questions regarding their circular strategies, specialized private investment funds are being launched dedicated to circular companies, and public-private partnerships are being established to catalyse circular government and private-sector strategies,” the authors explained.

Forum initiatives like the Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) and Loop, a Forum-incubated business model designed to address the sustainable packaging challenge, are tackling waste and consumption head-on.

What to watch during the Davos Agenda

From 25-29 January, join us for special addresses, leadership panels and impact sessions that will address many of the challenges discussed above, including:

  • Financing the Net-Zero Transition, Wednesday 27 January 14:00 - 15:00
  • Financing the Amazon's Transition to a Sustainable Bioeconomy, Wednesday 27 January 14:00 - 15:00
  • Building a Net-Zero, Nature-Positive Economy, Wednesday 27 January 18:00 to 19:00

Speakers include:

  • Colombian President Iván Duque
  • Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore
  • Caroline Anstey, President and CEO of Pact
  • Oliver Bäte, CEO of Allianz
  • Marco Bizzarri, CEO of Gucci
  • Mauricio Claver-Carone, President of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB)

You can watch the livestreamed sessions here.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Forum InstitutionalClimate ActionEnergy TransitionCircular Economy
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