The year of the burning platformAndrew Prag, Managing Director for Policy
We Mean Business’ Andrew Prag reflects on what green businesses should take away from this year’s World Economic Forum meeting in Davos
“Burning platform” was one of the buzz phrases echoing around Davos as the global elite gathered for this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF). Panellists in the famous alpine town could be heard using it in relation to difficult decisions stemming from all manner of alarming global crises through military conflict, social unrest, distrust in government, consequences of unregulated AI and, of course, climate change. The imagery of standing on a burning oil rig and having to decide whether to stay put or take a radical leap into the unknown is troublingly more relevant than ever.
Signs of climate change’s “burning platform” abound: 2023 was the warmest ever, global temperature rise recently hit a seasonal peak of 1.48C, perilously close to the accepted limit of dangerous climate impacts; polar sea ice levels are off the scale in the wrong direction, and even Davos’s signature snow blanket was subjected to violent temperature swings even during the few days of the conference itself, when it went from -15C to positive and then back again. Globally, warning signs that we may soon cross – or may have already crossed – irreversible tipping points with severe cascading consequences are now clear – as Davos delegates could hear directly from world-class scientists camped out on the mountainside at Prof Gail Whiteman’s incredible Arctic Basecamp.
Davos was the first major gathering of decision makers since the COP28 Cliamte Summit concluded in Dubai in late 2023, with a significant step forward on internationally agreed language on transitioning away from fossil fuels. Unlike UN negotiations, the WEF does not seek any formal international outcomes. What then can be expected of it?
The concentric rings of the Davos forum are in some ways reminiscent of a medieval castle. At the heart of proceedings is the fortress-like Congress Centre, accessible to only the most V of VIPs with a coveted white badge. Inside, the main event’s overall title was “Rebuilding Trust” – though as one astute youth delegate put it, perhaps just “building trust” would have made sense for his generation. Within that programme, one of four sub-themes was “a long-term strategy for climate, nature and energy”, alongside sessions on security, jobs and AI.
So climate was very much on the radar, albeit a little less prominently than in previous years. And while the recognition that climate, nature and energy challenges are intertwined is welcome, the focus on long-term strategy must not detract from the extreme urgency needed to rapidly cut emissions and protect biodiversity. That said, energy transition conversations at the Forum tended to have a positive spin with IEA reporting historic growth in renewables and panellists pointing to practical solutions to accelerate the transition: ranging from streamlining permitting to investing in power grids to supporting clean energy growth with policies to rapidly phase-out fossil fuels.
Outside the congress centre, businesses were, as ever, out in force. The Promenade, the resort’s main drag, had once again been converted into a string of corporate showrooms and meeting hubs. Where usually you’d find ski and souvenir shops, during WEF week you find AI House, Equality Lounge, House of Trust and innumerable corporate pavilions, from accountancies to clean tech to banks.
In these outer zones, myriad events run simultaneously requiring different types of badge according to a strict hierarchy. Artificial Intelligence was undoubtedly most the common topic on delegates’ lips. But here too, while climate change was less visible on event agendas it was still being discussed pretty much everywhere – from its role as a threat multiplier, to its implications on inequality and social tensions, to the nexus of energy transition and geopolitical issues, and the interconnectedness of climate change with biodiversity loss.
While climate was not top of the bill in 2024’s highly troubled world, it is nonetheless written into the fabric of any discussion about global economic and social development, recognised as being part and parcel of the complex economic, social and geopolitical challenges the world faces. But still, for all the Burning Platform imagery, a sense of urgency is still lacking.
So with no formal outcome, what can CEOs coming home from Davos do as they put away their snow boots for another year?
Firstly, keep up pressure on governments. After COP28, governments are turning to updating their national climate plans – known in the UN lingo as ‘nationally determined contributions’ – under the Paris Agreement process. Strong, aligned and positive advocacy from business can be essential to keep up the urgency and get commitments and policy moving in the right direction. Consistent business advocacy is especially important in a major election year – with half the world’s population set to vote in 2024. Actions such as signing on to We Mean Business’s Fossil to Clean campaign can provide essential impetus in this regard.
Secondly, lead through credible action, demonstrating the economic and competitiveness benefits of rapid transition: going beyond science-based targets to set and implement clear transition plans with measurable near-term actions, maintaining capital investment in the transition, engaging suppliers in structural emissions reductions and climate risk assessment, and setting the path towards more sustainable business models.
Thirdly, get the story straight on nature. Nature and climate were often mentioned in the same breath by CEOs and CSOs on Davos panels. But often these discussions soon fell back to a more conventional discussion about actions related to climate change rather than nature. Many businesses still lack a credible integrated climate and nature strategy – including recognizing trade-offs and specifying the role of high-integrity carbon markets – and this needs to change.
Though many understandably find the eliteness of Davos problematic, it does provide a unique opportunity to keep climate and nature crises at the top of politicians’ and CEOs’ agendas, building understanding and setting the groundwork for formal international agreements elsewhere. The pianist in Davos’s ever-popular late-night Piano Bar is known to be fond of the odd Billy Joel number. The powerful gathered in Davos may claim that they did not start the fires under all the world’s burning platforms. But if they didn’t light them, they certainly now have the utmost responsibility to step up and fight them – and fast.