Personal reflections on Davos 2020 by Better Nature’s Randall Krantz.
Last year the topic of nature made unprecedented ripples at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting, with appearances by David Attenborough, Greta Thunberg and Jane Goodall featuring among the most popular. While I, among others, was pleased to see this, one had to wonder whether it was a trend or a one-off.
As world leaders gather in Davos under the theme of “Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World”, there were signs that things might be a bit different than in the past. At the release of the Global Risks Report in mid-January, the top five risks perceived by experts polled were all related to the environment, and there was a whole chapter on the risks of biodiversity loss.
Two days before Davos kicked off, WEF Founder and Chairman Klaus Schwab wrote to all inbound CEOs asking them to set a net-zero climate target. While this has been the plea of advocacy initiatives such as the Science Based Targets Initiative and the We Mean Business Coalition for a few years now, never has such a straightforward demand for action come directly from the Forum itself.
Then, the day before the fun in Davos kicked off, a new report on biodiversity was published, entitled Nature Risk Rising, which is the first of report of the New Nature Economy series. As its title implies, this report continues the trend of framing the biodiversity crisis as a risk for business, including how it fits into existing risk categories as defined in 2019 by the Taskforce for Climate-Related Financial Disclosure. It goes on to suggest the extension of the TCFD concept to nature, although it could be more explicit on how to build on the TCFD experience, as proposed by Better Nature.
In Davos itself, and building on the “Super Year for Nature” theme, there was a solid set of sessions on topics such as, “The Business Case for Safeguarding Nature”, “Champions for Nature”. The Forum’s Annual Meeting site even had a dedicated page for anyone interested in watching sessions about How to Save the Planet, including 38 live-streamed sessions on this theme alone. Some such as “Debunking the Limits to Growth” featuring radical economist Mariana Mazzucato looked at our planetary crisis from a top-down perspective, while others such as “Forging a Sustainable Path towards a Common Future” brought in the views of teenage activists Greta Thunberg and Autumn Peltier.
Trees were popular in Davos this year, with a session on tropical forests and a plenary on “Securing a Sustainable Future for the Amazon”. The surprise star of the nature agenda was the launch of 1t.org, a global initiative to grow, restore and conserve one trillion trees around the world in a bid to restore biodiversity and help fight climate change. This was the biggest media story for a while, and even received surprise backing from President Trump. As sponsor Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, said, “Trees are a bi-partisan issue – everyone’s pro-trees.”
On the sidelines and behind closed doors, there were many more sessions on nature and biodiversity. A “Champions for Nature” meeting brought together leaders committed to raising ambition for nature in the run-up to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity COP15. Also supporting the CBD COP was a session in support of a new coalition, “Business for Nature”, which unifies a broad set of voices to demonstrate business action and amplify a powerful business voice calling for governments to reverse nature loss.
On a more practical level, I had the privilege to join the Science Based Targets Network, which brought together its members to explore how to further the development of an “apex” science-based target on biodiversity, to be translated for companies and cities, expected to be developed through quantified metrics around “no net loss” by 2030 with a massive step up on restoration. This will be paired with work by scientists of the Earth Commission, and eventually enabled by the “Systems Change Lab, all under the umbrella of the Global Commons Alliance.
Another of my highlights was a dinner hosted by the Green Economy Coalition and Fondation MAVA exploring possibilities of sustainable economic reform. While some argued that this was yet another event preaching to the converted, it went a long way to gather diversity of those converted. At my table was a representative from Extinction Rebellion (XR), CEO of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, who were both coming to the same conclusions about the need for political-economic rule change from very different directions.
It turns out that XR had a strong presence in Davos, with seven representatives and a series of “fire circle” sessions seeking to create new dialogue and connections in places of influence and bring about ‘internal disruption’ to transform individuals, organisations and systems. Now that they have got the world’s attention and built up a sizable network, this seems like a more systematic approach to change, by connecting and converting those who make the rules through thought-provoking human engagement. I also learned that they are looking beyond climate, in part through Wildlife Rebellion, and are in the process of launching an Ocean Rebellion.
In addition to the grass-roots support for the Ocean, there wrere two high-profile sessions on the Ocean in the Congress Center. Hidden Worlds in our Ocean, starring the venerable oceanographer Sylvia Earle, relied on a sense of wonder and appreciation to build awareness and support for the plight of blue nature. Another session, “What’s at Stake: Our Ocean” took a look at marine protected areas (MPAs), both from the need to increase their coverage, and a desperate need to ensure that MPAs actually are enforced to adequately serve their intended purpose. This conversation was also pursued behind the scenes at an invite-only private session hosted by the Friends of Ocean Action, where the enforcement of MPAs was also debated, alongside overfishing, plastic pollution, and decarbonizing shipping.
Overall, it is great to see so many sessions addressing our planetary emergency. While there is still a rift between the agenda of most Davos participants and the salvation of nature, that rift is getting perceptibly smaller.
Or is it? One analysis would suggest that increased mainstream interest in ideas and movements considered radical in their approach is a way that the status quo envelopes and overcomes threats that challenge it. When such a profound transformation to our political-economic system is required is it any wonder that the governing elites assuage those who are challenging them with with incremental and evolutionary moves, rather than with transformational ones that represent an existential risk?
A week before Davos, Larry Fink’s annual letter to CEOs warned that an intensifying climate crisis would bring about a “fundamental reshaping of finance,” with a significant reallocation of capital set to take place “sooner than most anticipate.” This same tension hung over many sessions in Davos, both on stage and behind closed doors, including rumours of oil and gas CEOs getting told by top bankers that they need to shape up before they become uninvestable. Are these examples of the transformation that is needed taking shape, or are they powerful moves by the current status quo to maintain itself? Time will tell, but is this time we still have?
While many of the conversations on nature are pegging unrealistic expectations on the UN multilateral processes, conversations around how to transform the current financial system into one that is nature positive are encouraging. Marc Benioff said, “Capitalism as we have known it is dead. This obsession that we have with maximising profits for shareholders alone has led to incredible inequality and a planetary emergency.” I believe the rumor of capitalism’s passing may perhaps be premature, especially if being reported by a billionaire, but word on the street is that this was no ordinary Davos. As the snow settles, let us hope that the shift from awareness to action is real and accelerating.