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At Davos, new hope that business can drive radical emissions cuts

With international discussions on climate in a crucial phase in 2014, the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos this week is a chance to gauge how seriously the need for action on climate change is being taken by the global elites who are the Forum’s carefully cultivated constituency.

On the face of it, the answer is, pretty seriously. With the UN promoting a “different kind” of climate summit in September, presenting proposals for action to be taken forward in a final round of negotiations on new global agreements scheduled for 2015, Davos is giving the issues an airing in a generous sprinkling of sessions. It is one of the “global destiny challenges” which WEF founder Klaus Schwab describes as involving the highest stakes possible: “If we do not master these issues, our whole destiny as mankind will be in some way put into question”, he said at the meeting launch.

Johan Rockström, Executive Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and leading proponent of the notion of “planetary boundaries” believes there has been real progress in bringing climate into the centre of the Davos agenda.

“I would say that if you look at the WEF over the last five years there has been a systematic trend line for CEOs to recognise that global environmental change is one of the major risks – this Davos meeting is really the culmination of that. Climate change has never been so high up the Davos agenda.

And it is not framed as an environmental issue – it is about stability, jobs, stress – I find that helpful.”

He says the prominence of climate at Davos this year is unprecedented. Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, agrees, counting 23 sessions dedicated to climate change in the programme.

On the other hand, Davos is – in some senses – inclusive, and climate change is just one of the challenges to discuss, on a list that includes social inclusion (Davos code for gigantic income inequalites), and disruptive technological innovation. And the meeting also features myriad other sessions on everything from global health to gender equity to trust in institutions.

The Davos organisers stress that the meeting’s strength is that it involves delegates of many kinds – politicians, CEOs, NGO representatives and cultural luminaries – and that this should be an advantage. According to the Guardian, 196 people from academia are registered to attend, the fourth highest sector after government, banking and press. Forum official Saadia Zahini says, “no one entity can move” on climate change, and Davos offers a unique platform for bringing people together. She hopes to see new public-private collaborations seeded at Davos as part of the build up to the UN meeting.

This is in line with thinking outlined in the report from the grandly titled Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations, published last October.

The Commission, a body which included a good many Davos regulars, warned of “gridlock” on climate change, again among other vital issues. A way forward, they suggested, might be strengthening coalitions between countries, companies and cities, formalising lower level agreements to set targets and act. This is the kind of thing which Davos can expedite, and also very much on the minds of those programming the UN summit in September.

Is Davos irrelevant?

But is any of this radical enough, in the face of the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions, or will it just be more talk? Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation dismisses the Davos meeting as an irrelevance, mainly on the grounds that it operates on the assumption that continuing economic growth is the key to solving other problems.

Not coincidentally, Simms was a leading contributor to a two-day meeting at the Royal Society’s London headquarters before Christmas which sought suggestions for more radical action on emissions. The premise of that meeting, organised by the UK Tyndall Centre, was that replacing infrastructure is possible, but too slow, and major carbon emission reductions are needed in the meantime.

That meeting also had its critics. One commentator on Twitter dubbed it a "climate fanatics' echo chamber". But it did allow an extended consideration of how radical one might need to be to meet a two-degree average warming target.

Radical reductions

Radical emissions cuts through reduced demand would avoid radically bad consequences of larger global average temperature rises. But at what cost? It was pretty clear that the kind of emission cuts envisaged – 80 or 90 per cent in the UK by 2030 was the sort of shift people had in mind – would almost certainly go along with radical means.

True, there were a few examples of such reductions being achieved already. Well, perhaps only one, but it was undeniably impressive. Neil McCabe, a Dublin fireman, related how he devised and implemented a detailed "green plan" for one fire station, with the result that it is now carbon neutral.

That worked so well that it is being rolled out across the fire service, to save money as well as carbon emissions. But in most other areas, what we have are demonstration projects and plans. Lots of plans, covering everything from retrofitting houses to radical reductions in shipping, road transport or building emissions. The point made many times was that even without magical (or is radical a better word?) technical breakthroughs there is a great deal that can already be done.

Since it is not getting done at either the scale or the speed needed to meet carbon targets, and the hurdles are not technical, the general conclusion was that they are social, psychological, political, or cultural – or some combination of these.

Suggestions for overcoming these were numerous. Some focussed on radical measures to shift behaviour. Anthropologist Richard Wilk of Indiana University emphasised the power of shame as a social regulator. Publicising individual households' water use has had an impact on conservation in some communities. Perhaps the same would hold for carbon emissions.

The trade-offs here between semi-coercive measures and inducing behavioural change by persuasion are familiar from many arguments about public health. But there were plenty of speakers who had more radical, and less individually focussed, moves in mind. The presentations covered a spectrum, including those who were prepared to sign up for radical social and political change because of what they saw as the urgency of the climate problem, and who embrace climate risks as adding to the case for radicalism they are already campaigning for. They mostly agreed on being anti-growth, anti-consumerism, anti-capitalist, anti-corporate; and pro reducing inequality, and in favour of more reflective, and more fulfilling values and ways of living. There was less agreement whether any of this is possible democratically. Some think the answer is more democracy, enhancing the ability to challenge vested interests' grip on the current system. Others wonder if democracy can meet the challenge at all.

History repeats

All this is pretty familiar to anyone who has paid attention to political or environmental discussion since the 1970s. How much will it matter that, as most at this meeting agreed, that discussion is now taking place in a new context, in which the future is radical whatever we do? The urgency this induces prompted references to wartime mobilisation, another familiar idea, or a Marshall Plan for climate. However, Laurence Delina, summarising an analysis recently published in Energy Policy (2013, 58:371-380), pointed out that governments are unlikely to invoke the emergency powers required except in the face of an immediate perceived threat, and with support from a large majority of the population.

That pointed to one thing which united quite a few speakers in London – that progress in the direction needed to reduce energy demand would depend on building a social movement. That might give politicians license to act when a climate related crisis evoked broader concern.

What might such a movement look like? For Naomi Klein and others, it was a natural extension of anti-globalisation activism. But although her keynote address was impressively argued, this does have the drawback for this particular issue of aligning climate activism with the Left.

Some contributions, though, did suggest a middle way, less obviously politicised along left-right lines, to some of the ingredients for a radical solution – either combining activism with immediate practical measures, or working at a level between individual action and national or even global initiatives.

The Dublin fire service project could be seen as an example of a social movement started inside one institution by one person, built around a series of local changes. Similarly, Charlie Baker from URBED in Manchester described work to retrofit houses through a self-managed carbon co-op. The idea here is to contribute to normalising the change. Once, say, one household in every ten has adopted necessary technologies, the effects cascade outwards – provided we can also free up the finance to do the work on the vast bulk of an old country's housing stock.

Another optimistic note was struck by Fred Steward of the University of Westminster, who has helped catalogue efforts by "mainstream" European cities to institute radical system innovations. "There is a lot going on at city level", he said, and it adds up to a portfolio of projects demonstrating real possibilities for radical efficiency gains in key sociotechnical systems.

That, just maybe, takes us back to the kind of discussion possible at a meeting like Davos – one many of the contributors to the London gathering would decline to attend, but that nevertheless involves many who work at the level of cities and are open to the kind of coalition proposed by the Martin Commission.

While capitalism remains the only game in town, Davos can still register signs of hope, according to Rockström, who has been involved in planning for the meeting over the last year and is taking part in half a dozen sessions, including one reviewing the latest scientific findings on climate change.

The role of Future Earth

As he says, “Consider the context. In 2009, everyone was in Copenhagen. When things crashed, politicians went into a post-Copenhagen trauma. But business didn’t. They continued to take the science seriously, and report risks”. He thinks this is good news for Future Earth. “As a scientist, it is a sign that Future Earth’s ambition is clever in terms of co-production, involving stakeholders. Business leaders want to have more science, more meetings. Top business executives need intelligence about what will happen in then environment”.

And it is gradually changing thinking in boardrooms, he believes. “Now climate and environment are more central to many companies’ agendas – it is not just a corporate social responsibility issue, but global change is increasingly positioned at the heart of the corporate discussion”.

Neither of this unlikely pair of meetings is in the business of reaching firm conclusions, or issuing communiques. But they do usefully locate the poles of the discussion in the run up to the UN meeting in September and the crucial negotiations of 2015. And they are twin reminders that, as well as asking how to turn talk into action, there is a great deal to discuss about what kind of action to take.