Sustainability at Davos 2023

Explore the key sustainability messages from Davos 2023.

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The backdrop of the World Economic Forum 2023

Last week, world leaders, ministers, investors, business leaders, academics, activists and more descended upon Davos to set the tone for the year ahead and consider ‘Cooperation in a Fragmented World’. With growth slowing in the global economy, climate change and its repercussions on the rise and the ongoing war in Ukraine, the return of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos was situated against an ominous backdrop. Whilst this naturally led to more sobering headlines, Reuters reported that Davos concluded with a cautious optimism surrounding the global economic outlook for 2023.

Short term solutions were certainly prioritised due to the urgent economic crises at hand, so much so that certain leaders didn’t attend in order to focus on these issues at home. However, it was abundantly clear that the climate can no longer be compromised and many at Davos worked to ensure that this remained prominent on the agenda.

The WEF’s risk analysis for 2023 concluded that whilst the cost-of-living crisis is the biggest risk for the coming two years, this is closely followed by extreme weather events. Over the next decade, failure to mitigate climate change is the number one risk.

Ending the “addiction to fossil fuels”

To mark the beginning of Davos, activists Helena Gualinga, Vanessa Nakate, Greta Thunberg and Luisa Neubauer penned a ‘Cease and Desist’ letter to fossil fuel CEOs laying out in blunt terms the fragile state of the world. The letter has since been signed by over 900,000 people including António Guterres and Al Gore. It demands that fossil fuel companies “immediately stop opening any new oil, gas, or coal extraction sites, and stop blocking the clean energy transition we all so urgently need.”

At the event, Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN starkly stated: “The battle to keep the 1.5C limit alive will be won or lost in this decade”. Guterres highlighted the urgent need to close the emissions gap by ending the “addiction to fossil fuels”, phasing out coal and supercharging the renewable revolution. This was echoed by many at Davos including the likes of UK Labour Party Leader, Kier Starmer, who criticised new oil investments. Irene Vélez, the minister for mines in Colombia announced: “We have decided not to award new oil and gas exploration contracts, and while that has been very controversial, it’s a clear sign of our commitment in the fight against climate change,”

Addressing inequality

The annual Oxfam report on global inequality was published in conjunction with the start of Davos and outlined that for the first time in 25 years, extreme wealth and extreme poverty have both gone up. Since 2020, the richest 1% have captured nearly two-thirds of new wealth in the world. Despite this, wealth equality and wealth distribution were not a prominent part of the programme.

Guterres reiterated the need to double adaption finance, as promised at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, and for the biggest emitters to unite around a Climate Solidarity Pact in order to keep 1.5 alive. Pakistani climate minister Sherry Rehman pushed for loss and damage funding, another key agreement from COP27.

The Earth Commission revealed that it has scientifically quantified, for the first time, a ‘long-term safe and just corridor for humanity at a global scale’. Soon to be published, the new ‘safe and just Earth System Boundaries’ will outline a set of boundaries, much like the 1.5ºC limit for climate, but for a more extensive set of biophysical domains, all of which are critical for the world economy, social stability and for human wellbeing.

Financing a low carbon economy

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry discussed how to meet the global warming targets of the Paris Agreement: “How do we get there? The lesson I have learned in the last years … is money, money, money, money, money, money, money.”

On day two, WEF launched the new initiative, Giving to Amplify Earth Action (GAEA), which will leverage philanthropic capital to help generate the $3 trillion needed each year from public and private sources to tackle climate change and nature loss.

The landmark U.S. Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) permeated dialogues at Davos. The IRA was signed into law in August last year and in part, directs new federal spending toward reducing carbon emissions whilst driving investment in domestic clean energy. It has proven somewhat controversial with worries of global companies being excluded from US markets and investment opportunities.

In a pivotal moment for the EU, Ursula von der Leyden, President of the European Commission announced that the ‘Green Deal Industrial Plan’ is in development with the ambition to “make Europe the home of cleantech and industrial innovation on the road to net-zero.” This plan will encompass regulation, the appropriate upskilling of workers, financing the transition and promoting the trade of cleantech and low-carbon industrial products. Under the plan, a new ‘Net-Zero Industry Act’ will be formed, offering clear goals for specific technologies and state aid to deliver these. This is being touted as the EU’s answer to the IRA and a bid to prevent firms from moving to the US.

Purpose-driven tech

WEF, in partnership with Accenture and Microsoft, unveiled the first prototype for a “purpose-driven metaverse” – Global Collaboration Village – where organisations can convene to learn about and take action on the world’s major challenges. Currently, 80 organisations have joined as Village Partners to bolster more diverse global collaboration and large-scale action.

Underpinning discourse around AI, innovation, tech and blockchain was the importance of maintaining human connection and striking the right balance between digital and physical.

Circular Economy

The annual Global Circularity Gap Report, published by Circle Economy in collaboration with Deloitte was launched at WEF. The report outlines that the global economy is currently only 7.2% circular and argues that “A global circular economy will allow us to fulfil people’s needs with only 70% of the materials we now extract and use,” within the safe planetary limits. The report identifies 16 transformational circular solutions, one of which being ‘eschew fast fashion in favour of sustainable textiles’, which calls for local textile manufacturing, the reuse and recycling of garments and higher quality and more durable clothing.

Fashion industry representation

Whilst it is evident that the fashion sector must play a significant role in influencing the climate trajectory and addressing social inequality, the Davos programme was not indicative of this and there were no fashion industry-specific activations on the official agenda. This undoubtedly must shift at future forums. GFA will continue to embolden its network of committed stakeholders and give them a platform for impact, accountability, alliances, collaboration and education. For those who wish to explore how the fashion industry can have a positive impact, The GFA Monitor is a guide for fashion leaders on how to reach a net positive industry through the consolidatation of existing knowledge, clear actions, proven best practices, data insights and solutions.

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