Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development

Davos 2014: Achim Steiner insider diary

January 25, 2014

Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP, sees much progress, but Davos is but one moment on the long road to change.

After three days in Davos, solving the world’s problems in 90 minute sessions through facilitated discussions leading to the ‘one big idea’ begins to challenge common sense.

While the WEF sees itself as a ‘solution space,’ it really is best understood as a mega teach-in with participants being both the object and the live actors on the subject.

Yesterday began with the launch of UNEP’s report on global land use. It included the latest science and trends translated into an uncomfortable but hopeful conclusion; agriculture in the 21st century must and can reinvent itself.

Next came ‘short-lived climate pollutants’ – part of this years’ Davos focus on climate change. After working in UNEP for five years to mature cutting edge science into options for action, one of those Davos moments happened.

Major business leaders and public officials agreed to join hands in moving on HFCs, methane and black carbon, which drive global warming but also affect our health and economies. Its like teeth wheels clicking into place – you know you have changed gears.

Next came ‘stranded assets’ – potential source of systemic risk in capital markets’. Classic Davos framing of an interesting question. If the world decides in 10 or 20 years to restrict the use of coal or oil due to absolute pollution limits, what happens to our pension funds and savings that are invested in these companies?

Do our financial regulators need to start thinking about protecting them and us from the ‘too big to fail syndrome’? The accountants, we heard, won’t address this issue as climate is not a balance sheet issue. So track the carbon exposure of your investment and don’t be misled by audited accounts which may be in the black when in reality your company or investment, five to 10 years down the line, may be sitting on ‘stranded assets’.

‘Catalysing Green Investment’ was another 90 minutes of, in Davos speak, reframing problems into business opportunities where one participant cautioned against ‘the Davos virus of optimism breaking out’.

The fact is that more and more opportunities in the green economy space are emerging. Whether its new technologies, legislation, consumer power or commitment by CEOs to simply do the right thing, greening consumption and production is moving corporate thinking.

Major shifts in the global palm oil market were announced in the session on ending deforestation. If genuine and adhered to, they will change the tragic palm oil-tropical forest dynamic of the past 50 years.

In all of this, it is always striking how much individual leadership can be key to making things happen. Oddly enough, in assembling corporate and political power, the World Economic Forum puts the spotlight on the ‘power of one’ to accept the responsibility to lead.

We must not dismiss the importance of leaders such as Al Gore, still one of most renewable sources of inspirational energy on climate, Paul Polman of Unilver, Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace, UN Secreary General Ban Ki-moon or World Bank president Jim Kim in moving the agenda.

But in the end, it is ‘public sentiment’ that is actually driving the agenda. The collective impact of activism, be it trade unions or environmental and consumer groups or indigenous peoples and human rights activists, is registering on the Richter scale of political and corporate leaders. And that is good news – even if the annual gathering in Davos is but one moment in the long, too long, journey of changing course.

Achim Steiner is the executive director of UNEP.

Read the original article in The Guardian here.