The World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting swapped out snowy Switzerland for virtual conference rooms this year, but the gathering of global leaders was more high-stakes than ever. Davos 2021 might have been the most ambitious edition yet, as the global tipping point facing us forces a collective reckoning onto the docket. But were the outcomes as monumental as the agenda itself?
Like many global gatherings, WEF’s flagship conference receives its fair share of criticism for its inability to generate meaningful change. This year was no exception. Greta Thunberg said as much in a message to participants, calling out world leaders for the sluggish pace of change and the mess that’s been left for her generation.
As the world prepares to hit the “Great Reset” button — are the right ideas there?
The famed economist Milton Frieman is often quoted for saying: “When a crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” Well, as the world prepares to hit the “Great Reset” button — are the right ideas there? Have the alarm bells rung loud enough to make a difference? Here’s where Davos landed on three major topics for the planet.
1+ Net zero: we’re still looking for silver bullets
Net zero has become the North Star of climate action. It’s where we know we need to head to secure a thriving future for people and planet, but the recent Forum made it clear that there is a lack of consensus when it comes to the how. While it’s refreshing to hear the chorus of support for net zero sing louder and louder, we need to go beyond just “getting it” — we need to get it right.
To align with a net-zero economy, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stressed the need for businesses to prioritize deep emissions reductions across the value chain first and foremost, and avoid distractions. Beyond reductions, carbon removals are an important tool for capping global temperature rise to 1.5˚C, but we can’t rely on removals alone to get us there. (Read more about the science behind reductions vs. removals here.)
And yet, many of the net-zero solutions to come out of Davos positioned removals (sequestering carbon in soils or trees) as a sort of magic pill. One example is the Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets’ blueprint for carbon offsetting, which could open the door to the selling of billions of new carbon credits globally. Though Mark Carney, the UK’s United Nations climate envoy who presented this work, emphasized that offsetting represents only one piece of the complex net-zero puzzle, he missed a critical point: it’s not just one equally-sized, equally-important piece. For removals, it’s the final piece that should be carefully placed into the puzzle after companies have reduced fossil and land-based emissions as much as possible. Credit trading does not buy us more time.
There’s a similar flag to raise with highly-publicized efforts like the WEF’s Trillion Tree Initiative. These types of initiatives have admirable intentions, but in practice they are built on a simplistic and flawed understanding of net zero, namely that 1 tonne of CO2 drawn down and stored in a tree stand neutralizes 1 tonne of fossil CO2 emissions. This type of accounting confuses two discrete concepts in sustainability science: inventory and impact. (Learn more here.)
Natural climate solutions have a key role to play, but we can’t just throw all of our excess at nature and call it a day. There’s no silver bullet. Companies need to transform their business models with a science-based climate strategy that enables them to maximize their contribution to net zero.
2+ We won’t flatten the curve on plastic without treating the source
Plastic was a much-needed agenda item at Davos. We’re slipping deeper into the plastics crisis, which is becoming even more serious than its already-stark outlook. A 2020 report by SYSTEMIQ and the Pew Charitable Trusts showed that even if the current commitments made by major companies and governments are achieved, the rate of plastic leaking into the oceans will only drop by 7%. We need a paradigm shift — not just a bandaid — to stop the leakage.
To wrap up the week, the WEF shared the top impacts from the Davos Agenda. One of them is a multistakeholder initiative to support 2,000 waste pickers in Ghana with an innovative approach to connect them with buyers of plastic waste. The public-private partnership will enable waste pickers to share data about the types of plastic collected that will then be analyzed and fed into a software that connects them to buyers and recyclers. Businesses can — and should — join the partnership alongside some of the leading companies already on board to tackle plastic pollution. There’s no doubt this could bring improved conditions for communities and the environment. But we can’t stop (and shouldn’t start) there. The level of action and the speed we need requires accountability and for companies to dig deep into their value chains. They must address plastic leakage from the onset, blocking it from reaching nature in the first place.
Last year, Quantis and EA launched the Plastic Leak Project (PLP) to help companies do just this. With PLP as the starting point, Quantis and the 3R Initiative, EA and South Pole have developed guidelines for corporate plastic stewardship to go even further. With a new framework to assess plastic footprints, identify actions across value chains and set credible commitments, there will be no more excuses for companies that fail to act.
3+ Leaders are getting bold about the big stuff
This year’s gathering felt like the most ambitious Forum in terms of words. Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab, released his new book, Stakeholder Capitalism causing a ripple effect of buzz. He argues that our current economic system has led us down an unsustainable path and calls for a shift towards one that’s inclusive, sustainable and resilient — one that works for people and planet.
Similar calls to action were made loudly and clearly by the very world leaders and institutions at the helm of the economic status quo. French President Emmanuel Macron said, “The capitalist model together with this open economy can no longer work in this environment.” A similar point was made by Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, “Unless capitalism globally brings people closer together, we won’t be winners after this crisis.”
CEOs and business leaders from companies like Microsoft to Salesforce jumped up to applaud the strong stances, embracing this call for change without hesitation. But are businesses truly ready to disrupt the system that’s gotten them where they are? With this shared vision as our compass, it’s time to walk the talk — now.
In the words of our CEO, Dimitri Caudrelier, “It was refreshing to hear leaders at Davos raise the stakes and call for a future that aligns with nature. The science clearly indicates the path forward; now it’s time for courageous leaders to jump into action. At Quantis, we’re ready to usher business through the transformative change necessary. This means challenging companies to ask the tough questions and guiding them to align with planetary boundaries.”
So, as we collectively hit the reset button, let’s not simply land on a new way of doing “business-as-usual”. Let’s build a new, better path forward. How will your business meet the moment? Not sure how your company fits into this planetary equation? That’s why we’re here.