The 44th annual Davos World Economic Forum is taking place this week, bringing together 2,500 of the world’s most powerful business and political leaders to discuss pressing international issues. The spotlight will be focused on Iran, as its President, Hassan Rouhani, seeks investment for his hard-hit, sanctions-laden country; Syria, as its bloody civil war rages on; Europe, as it faces unemployment, inflation, and continued financial vulnerability; and China, as it exerts ever-growing social and economic influence.
The changing role of technology (including cyber crime and Internet Security) is a hot topic of discussion at the Forum. Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer set the stage with a proclamation in her opening comments that 2014 will be a “tipping point” for digital technology, with Internet traffic from mobile devices eclipsing desktop activity. Internet privacy issues and corresponding legal changes are also top of mind, particularly as governments across globe lick the wounds that have resulted from Edward Snowden’s revelations.
An optimistic Bill Gates offered some interesting food for thought with a prediction that “by 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world. Almost all countries will be what we now call lower-middle income or richer. Countries will learn from their most productive neighbors and benefit from innovations like new vaccines, better seeds, and the digital revolution. Their labor forces, buoyed by expanded education, will attract new investments.”
Yet, with all of the urgent issues, tragic topics, exhilarating visions, innovative concepts and breakthrough ideas being explored at Davos, I have yet to read about a focused discussion on solutions for a sustainable future. While I realize that the next big climate talk—the 21st Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP21)—isn’t scheduled to take place until 2015 in Paris, talk of the environment is conspicuously, even disturbingly, absent (with the notable exception of actor Matt Damon’s address on global water issues).
This void is particularly poignant this week, in light of alarming headline news that Europe is considering repealing some of its climate-change regulations, emissions standards, and renewable energy mandates due to ongoing economic difficulties. According to the New York Times, “High energy costs, declining industrial competitiveness and a recognition that the economy is unlikely to rebound strongly any time soon are leading policy makers to begin easing up in their drive for more aggressive climate regulation.”
Rather than upholding national targets for renewable energy production and emissions reductions, the European Union is proposing an overall European goal, which would be much more challenging to enforce.
The European Commission affirmed that this proposed strategy doesn’t signify a reduced commitment to implementing climate change solutions (citing other advances like a plan to reduce Europe’s overall carbon emissions by 40% by 2030). Nonetheless, the proposal was viewed by environmental groups as “counter to everything that climate science tells us to do” and a “substantial backtrack.” We will undoubtedly see the dynamics of this climate versus economy debate play out between critics, who have vowed to fight the approval of such action, and the European Commission member states and European Parliament.
Unfortunately, the very real need to mend Europe’s economy today is trumping what the New York Times calls the “increasingly dire warnings from scientists about the cascading effects of increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide and other global warming pollutants in the atmosphere.”
According to Brook Riley, climate and energy campaigner for the environmental group Friends of the Earth, the European Commission has “fallen for the old-think industry spin that there must be a trade-off between climate action and economic recovery. This position completely ignores the huge financial cost of dealing with the impacts of climate change and the 500 billion euros the E.U. is spending every year on oil and gas imports.”
We’ve seen this movie before here in the U.S., in which myopic, short term desire trumped long-term vision. The results—a multi-year, incredibly painful recession—weren’t pretty.
With all of the brainpower, leadership, and influence collected in Davos this week, I can’t help but wonder: why are we still looking at economic need and environmental necessity as a zero sum game? Why must the environment suffer in order achieve economic stability? Certainly, reverting back to 20th century approaches doesn’t represent the pathway forward. How can we capitalize on Davos and other similar leadership forums to generate real plans that will help us truly reshape the world?
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