The World Economic Forum has woken up to the scale and urgency of the global climate and environmental crises, yet the business and political elites who gathered at Davos acted as though lofty words were enough to save the world, Khaled Diab explains.

Ahead of its annual exclusive gathering at the Swiss ski resort of Davos, which was reportedly attended by 119 billionaires and 53 heads of state, the World Economic Forum released its Global Risks Report.

For the first time ever, the top five most likely risks facing the world over the coming decade – identified in a survey of business, political and civil society stakeholders – were all related to the environment: extreme weather, climate action failure, natural disasters, biodiversity loss, and human-made environmental disasters.

“Climate change is striking harder and more rapidly than many expected,” observe the authors of the Global Risks report. “The near-term impacts of climate change add up to a planetary emergency that will include loss of life, social and geopolitical tensions and negative economic impacts.”

And at a time when global action is needed the most to confront the collective challenges facing humanity, the international order is fragmenting and fraying, which “threatens to undermine the international community’s ability to mitigate critical global risks by multiplying the domains in which rivalries can play out and limiting stakeholders’ capacity to address global challenges”.

Climate of loss

Two of the report’s in-depth chapters focused on the pressing environmental issues of climate change and biodiversity loss, while the chapter on public health touches on the effects the environmental crises are expected to have on healthcare.

Global Risks highlights the increasing occurrence of and warns of the growing likelihood of environment-related conflicts, especially over water issues and over potential future unilateral geoengineering efforts, such as cloud seeding, ocean fertilisation or stratospheric aerosol injections.

In addition, the report estimates the direct economic damage of global warming in 2018 alone to stand at $165 billion (€150 billion). This does not include indirect economic and societal costs, nor does it assign a value to the damage or destruction inflicted on priceless ecosystems or the mass decimation of the planet’s biodiversity.

 “For the future of climate change mitigation, 2020 is a critical year,” insist the report’s authors, echoing the position of environmentalists. “Nonetheless, achieving significant change in the near term will depend on greater commitment from major emitters.”

Dying planet

Climate change has captured the lion’s share of the popular imagination, but a more innocuous and deadly threat lurks on the margins of public awareness: biodiversity loss.

“Although the world’s 7.6 billion people represent just 0.01% of all living creatures, humanity has already caused the loss of 83% of all wild mammals and half of plants,” the report describes. “How we grow food, produce energy, dispose of waste and consume resources is destroying nature’s delicate balance of clean air, water and life that all species – including humans – depend on for survival.”

In addition to the existential threat it poses, this unprecedented loss of life, if measured in economic terms, would bankrupt the world. The goods and services provided by the world’s ecosystems are worth a staggering $33 trillion a year (€30 trillion), according to one estimate cited in the report.

Patchwork of solutions

The report does not only highlight problems, it also explores (potential) solutions. These include renewable energy (though it does warn about the risks involved in an ill-planned or hurried transition), sweeping agricultural reforms that conserve or restore biodiversity, and much more.

The much-ignored textiles sector, which one of the world’s most polluting and environmentally destructive industries, is also included. “The fashion industry could reduce its impacts on biodiversity by shifting towards transforming old clothes into new ones and creating garments that are durable rather than disposable,” the report notes.

This chimes largely with the new Wardrobe Change campaign, run by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), which promotes extending the lifetime of clothing through methods such as reuse and resale.

Despite the Global Risk report’s calls for the refashioning of the global economy, it steers clear of questioning the threadbare assumption that stitches it all together. Indefinite economic growth is a phenomenon which is not only impossible to sustain but even the notion of green growth is proving unsustainable, as revealed in the EEB’s ‘Decoupling debunked’ report.

Climate change conference?

Although some segments of the media dubbed Davos the “climate change conference”, little of substance emerged despite the high emissions of lofty words and airy aspirations.

Some environmentalists see the inaction at Davos not as a failure of imaginations but of the failure of the system those present represent. “Such climate failure is not a by-product of the economic system advocated by the WEF, it is baked into their model,” wrote Payal Parekh, spokesperson for the Strike WEF Collective. “If the rich and famous at Davos really want to tackle the climate crisis, they should make this the last World Economic Forum.”

While many of those attending Davos ignored the urgency of the warnings offered by the WEF’s own experts, some went even further and decided to close their eyes and ears to the scientifically proven reality around them. “We are clean and beautiful and everything’s good,” US President Donald Trump told the gathering. “We must reject the perennial prophets of doom and their predictions of the apocalypse.”

Environmentalists and scientists, who did not take kindly to being described as “prophets of doom” and “foolish fortune tellers”, were troubled by the fact that the man in charge of the world’s largest economy was a climate change denier and conspiracy theorist.

“To assume you can have a great, profitable America, and happy Americans without understanding the risk to Americans from climate change is astounding,” said Greenpeace’s executive director, Jennifer Morgan. “It just demonstrates the level of denial, and the capture of this government by the coal, oil and gas industries.”

Green shoots of change

Despite the general inertia at Davos, there were some promising developments, such as the announcement of plans to plant a trillion trees (though reforestation does come with risks attached).

In addition, the shifting narrative and growing public recognition of the perilous future facing life on our planet, even in the fortress of global capitalism, is an important precursor for radical change.

Moreover, some parts of the world have signalled their intention to blaze ahead with plans to make their economies and societies more sustainable. The leading example of this is the recently unveiled European Green Deal.

“Europe will be the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050. And it will do what it takes to unlock the investment, innovation and the creativity that is needed,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at Davos.

Whether efforts to make the world sustainable will gain enough global momentum or whether they will prove to be too little too late is the burning question of our times.

Keep up to date with environmental issues in Europe

By signing up, you will stay informed about critical environmental issues from the heart of Europe.

Follow the trends with weekly updates from the largest network of environmental citizens’ organisations in Europe. Get the best insights on a range of environmental issues from the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

By subscribing you will receive our weekly newsletter, META, as well as information on relevant environmental campaigns. All information we gather is processed in line with our privacy policy and you can unsubscribe at any time.