Davos Takes Up Paris

As it celebrates a half-century of existence and its 49th annual gathering, the World Economic Forum seeks to push the private sector to do more to save the habitability of the planet.

The annual Davos conference will celebrate 50 years with its gathering in late January, and as usual, its theme telegraphs its ambitions: “Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World.” The gathering, at a Swiss Alps ski resort, brings together world headliners—heads of state and other prominent politicians, business leaders, economists and a range of pundits—and this year will focus on the fight to stem global warming.

The 2015 Paris agreement has produced disappointing results. Its commitments—which scientists deem inadequate in the first place—aren’t enforceable. Even so, few countries have lived up to their weak voluntary pledges. The accord’s powerful opponents include the US government, which announced it will withdraw because its own prior commitments impose, as President Trump put it, “intolerable burdens on our economy.”

“People are revolting against the economic ‘elites’ they believe have betrayed them, and our efforts to keep global warming limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius are falling dangerously short,” Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, which hosts the Davos gathering, wrote on the organization’s website.

This year’s Davos program emphasizes the need for business to supplement the work of governments. Efforts to harness corporate power for social good have a long history at the WEF, which prides itself on emphasizing responsibility to customers, employees and society, in addition to shareholders. This idea, presented at the first Davos meeting in 1971 and presented again in a manifesto dated 1973, will be expanded in 2020 with the publication of a new ESG [environmental, social and govenrance] scorecard, by the WEF’s International Business Council, currently chaired by Brian Moynihan, chairman and CEO of Bank of America.

“With the world at such critical crossroads,” Schwab added, “this year we must develop a ‘Davos Manifesto 2020’ to reimagine the purpose and scorecards for companies and governments. It is what the WEF was founded for 50 years ago, and it is what we want to contribute to for the next 50 years.” How to do that will be the front-and-center question at five days of meetings and debates.

But climate change and its challenges won’t be the only matters receiving scrutiny at Davos next month. An increasingly difficult global business environment and the questions it poses for corporate leaders will also be top of mind. Political tensions are worsening and stakeholder expectations are rising in many parts of the world, and everywhere technological change is accelerating. Trade wars and street revolts are complicating executives’ efforts to predict where they should invest and what products and services to offer.

On the social front, a key topic will be how to “upskill and reskill” a billion people in the next decade. Powerful technologies like artificial intelligence could have serious impacts on unemployment and income distribution. A related topic is how to create a global consensus on the deployment of these “Fourth Industrial Revolution” technologies and avoid a “technology war.” Informal meetings, meanwhile, are projected to kick-start an effort, in the “spirit of Davos,” to resolve conflicts in global hotspots.

But climate change remains the banner issue. Casting itself as a real-life example of how to reach ambitious environmental goals, Davos 2020 has announced it will be “the most sustainable international summit ever held.” The meeting will be fully carbon neutral, organizers say, noting that the WEF was awarded for meeting ISO 20121 standards for sustainable events in 2018. Last year’s event was widely mocked because so many of the privileged attendees traveled to the Swiss resort town on private jets.