Davos strapped between old and new as economy, war and climate set to dominate agenda

Davos during its 2015 annual meeting, after a snowier start of the year on 20 January. Switzerland experienced the warmest recorded temperatures in December 2022, which experts have attributed to climate change.(Geneva Solutions/Paula Dupraz-Dobias)

Three years after its last live January meeting set in a snowy Davos, the World Economic Forum is expecting “record participation” at its global annual hobnobbing event. Its agenda suggests a mix between economic discussions over a waning global economy and responding to emerging global crises, with climate concerns in the forefront.

Launched in 1971 as the European Management Forum, the meetings first brought together CEOs of the region’s top companies to promote American management methods. Its name was changed to its current one in 1987.  With every year, the guest list expanded to more of the global elite.

With nearly 600 of the world’s top CEOs, 52 heads of state, roughly 300 government ministers and 13 international organisation bosses expected to attend this year, the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) annual meeting has long dispelled the image of a quaint conference of minds around a fire.

Hundreds of panel discussions, organised by the forum, are planned this year, while lots of events and networking will happen beyond their confines.

Amid the “unprecedented multiple crises” this year, Klaus Schwab, the WEF’s founder told journalists the meeting will “make sure leaders do not remain trapped in a crisis mindset and adopt a longer-term constructive perspective, and shape the future in a more sustainable, inclusive and resilient way”.

The theme of this year’s session, beginning Monday, is “cooperation in a fragmented world”, demonstrating a constancy in the forum’s ability to formulate all-encompassing names to suit the occasion.

The UN’s Geneva counterpart

Having often presented itself as a counterweight in Geneva to the more bureaucratic United Nations organisations to tackle global issues, the WEF’s management have set their bar high in terms of expected achievements through next week’s sessions. In a virtual press briefing, members of the forum’s board said discussions will seek to overcome the lack of cooperation and complexities of issues, including geopolitical, social, economic, environmental and humanitarian challenges, faced by leaders.

Schwab, 84, defined WEF on Tuesday as the international organisation for public-private cooperation. Børge Brende, former Norwegian foreign minister and president of the forum said, “We have the key players globally” to avoid an escalation of crises.

On Wednesday, the forum’s Global Risk Report 2023 sounded the alarm for the “polycrisis” the world is facing. Saadia Zahidi, WEF managing director, said, “The short-term risk landscape is dominated by energy, food debt and disasters,” while climate and human development need to be central to leaders’ concerns.

Brende said that the meeting provided “opportunities” to avoid an escalation of the situation. Many heads of state and ministers were expected from Europe, a region that has managed to resolve to a certain extent its gas supplies amid the Ukraine crisis, he said. A “large Asian footprint”, with delegations from China, Korea and the Philippines, was also scheduled to attend.

“Record” numbers of finance ministers, as well as a multitude of central bank governors and trade ministers, are also expected during the weeklong sessions.

Representation from the UN community will include secretary António Guterres, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director general of the World Trade Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization chief and Filippo Grandi, head of the UN Refugee Agency. Leaders of many civil society organisations, including from Indigenous communities, aid groups and other NGOs are also expected.

A delegation is expected from Ukraine, though details were not provided for security reasons. On the other hand, since Russia’s invasion of the country last February, Moscow and its wealthy oligarchs have been frozen out of invitations to the gathering.

Climate focus

Gim Huay Neo, who assumed the role of the forum’s Centre for Nature and Climate chief at the start of this month, said the meeting will “première” a plenary of international scientists on the state of the global commons, or the earth’s shared natural resources.

“Today, climate change and ecosystem collapse are the biggest threats to humanity,” she said, citing the sharp rise in climate-related disasters, a harrowing increase in global temperatures, habitat destruction from deforestation and rising plastic pollution.

WEF’s 53rd edition, Gim Huay said, would focus on how to redefine agribusiness and reshape consumption and production models.

Taking place two months after mostly inconclusive results at the UNCop27 climate summit in Egypt, discussions expected around the business case for necessary climate adaptation were aiming to motivate needed investments that governments have been unable or unwilling to deliver.

On Thursday, two WEF reports said that investment in green technology and jobs in agriculture, education and energy would contribute to achieving environmental and societal goals.

The United Arab Emirates, which will host this year’s Cop28 and whose state oil company boss and minister of industry and technology, Sultan al-Jaber, was  nominated this week to preside the climate summit, will have one of the largest country representations in Davos.

As for the participants themselves, the forum encouraged the use of public transport to access the Alpine town, providing discounts to all choosing to travel by train. Earlier meetings at the ski resort, before they were suspended due to the outbreak of Covid-19 in 2020, saw public criticism of double standards by some attendees who jetted or drove in.

Business interests

While the forum’s agenda has expanded over the years, the overarching focus for many of its participants is on how global matters may affect and drive the economy and business.

The organisation that now employs some 800 worldwide, is funded by members, most notably its strategic partners representing over 100 global businesses from all sectors, including tech, food, agriculture, finance, automotive and energy.  The elite partners pay CHF 600,000 for the privilege and access to the forum. The pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine however hit the WEF’s purses, with contributions cut by over CHF 40 million in 2020/2021, according to its annual report.

When asked by a journalist what required media attention amid the many crises to be discussed at Davos, WEF’s president Brende’s response was no surprise.

“If I were to pick, it would be to agree on a global growth agenda, to avoid a global recession, that would include agreements on trade and investment,” he said quickly. “If you have economic growth, you have trade, you also create jobs and prosperity.”

With the rates of decoupling economic growth to higher fossil fuels energy use still low, climate activists will be looking out to see how committed industries are to the green transition.

Recently the forum estimated that the implementation of green, or what it calls nature-positive, policies by business and government could generate some $10 trillion annually and create 395m jobs. This would involve transitioning land and water use, infrastructure, buildings, energy and the extractives sector.