Home » Heads of state, billionaires, and business leaders gather at Davos amid global backdrop of chaos and crisis

Heads of state, billionaires, and business leaders gather at Davos amid global backdrop of chaos and crisis

by Madaline Dunn

This year, more than 60 heads of state and government have descended on the small Alpine town of Davos, part of a 2,800-participant list featuring everyone from billionaire business leaders to celebrity guests. 

Flying in on private jets, dining on decadence and sipping champagne, the world’s elite come together at the World Economic Forum’s Davos meeting each year to discuss the world’s most pressing issues. 

But this year’s annual meeting is set against perhaps its grimmest backdrop for some time. 

The world officially had its hottest year on record in 2023; conflict-related deaths are at a 28-year high, the global cost of living crisis is crippling millions, inequality is deepening, and ongoing political crisis has created widespread instability and turmoil globally.

This year’s theme is “Rebuilding Trust” in a fractured world, a timely focus considering public trust is, in many countries, at an all-time low – something highlighted by UN Secretary-General António Guterres at the meeting today. 

Indeed, the glitz, glamour and cocktails of Davos have raised eyebrows when contrasted with the world’s current state of chaos, and many will undoubtedly be wondering what is being bought at this steeply-priced pay-to-play event.

As the event hits the mid-week point, ESG Mena runs through some of the topics being discussed in the quaint Swiss resort town this week.

The climate crisis & ESG 

While ESG has come under the regulatory spotlight with a shift towards standardisation, 2023 saw significant political backlash, with some dubbing ESG as “woke capitalism.” As such, before Davos, many warned ESG would likely be off the menu this year. 

However, other commentators have suggested it’s just likely to undergo a rebranding, and indeed, research shows that momentum toward greater corporate responsibility and more environmentally friendly practices has not been lost. 

Further, following the recently concluded COP28 climate summit hosted in Dubai (which some are calling the ‘new Davos’), climate issues remain at the forefront at the WEF meeting, aligning with WEF’s recently published Global Risks report.

Indeed, the report showed that extreme weather, critical changes to earth systems, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, natural resource shortages and pollution rank as the most severe risks over the next ten years.

Reiterating the urgency of action that he relayed at COP28, UN Secretary-General Guterres said today: “Let me be very clear again: the phase-out of fossil fuels is essential and inevitable. No amount of spin or scare tactics will change that. Let’s hope it doesn’t come too late.”

Also in the spotlight at the event is the climate-health nexus, with Davos regular Bill Gates outlining in an interview at Bloomberg House that global health spending is central in the climate fight. 

Nature has also come into the frame, with discussions on such topics as nature-based solutions. The TNFD also confirmed that 320 organisations from over 46 countries have committed to start making nature-related disclosures based on the TNFD Recommendations.

AI hopes and fears in the spotlight 

AI, which topped the risks outlook for 2024, is also front and centre this year, with many concerned about its unrestrained growth and misuse. 

Indeed, today, the UN secretary general, António Guterres, told the World Economic Forum that the world is lacking a strategy to deal with the risks from both AI and climate change. 

While noting its potential for sustainable development, Guterres warned that urgent action is needed to mitigate the risks associated with its rapid development and deployment. 

“Powerful tech companies are already pursuing profits with a reckless disregard for human rights, personal privacy, and social impact,” he said. “We need governments urgently to work with tech companies on risk management frameworks for current AI development; and on monitoring and mitigating future harms.”

“And we need a systematic effort to increase access to AI so that developing economies can benefit from its enormous potential. We need to bridge the digital divide instead of deepening it,” he added.

Yet, despite continued calls – including from the heads of OpenAI and Google Deepmind – to keep AI development in check, progress has been slow. 

Some have also raised concerns that AI, like other tech innovations, can act as a distraction from proven solutions. Writing in a piece earlier this month, Peter Herweck, Chief Executive Officer, Schneider Electric, said the same, noting that the emergence of AI “must not distract us” from deploying existing technologies like renewables, electric vehicles and heat pumps, and automation and building management software.

Similar arguments have been levelled at so-called ‘clean tech solutions’ such as carbon capture technologies, but at Davos, such companies will no doubt be vying for investors’ attention, especially after the COP28 Global Stocktake outcome effectively gave them the green light. 

The wealth divide and growing inequality 

The glaring opulence of Davos and its attendees can not be ignored, and fittingly, just before its launch, Oxfam released research that revealed the world’s five richest men have doubled their fortunes since 2020, reaching $869bn (£681.5bn). In the same period, over five billion people became poorer. 

The report explores what it calls a ‘decade of division,’ one where the divide between the rich and poor has grown massively. Indeed, the report highlights that billionaires are now US$3.3 trillion or 34 per cent richer than they were at the beginning of the decade, their wealth growing three times as fast as the rate of inflation.

Signalling the building of momentum around this issue, over 250 billionaires and millionaires have signed an open letter to Davos with a request to have their wealth taxed: “We ask you to tax us, the very richest in society. This will not fundamentally alter our standard of living, nor deprive our children, nor harm our nations’ economic growth. But it will turn extreme and unproductive private wealth into an investment for our common democratic future.”

“Every moment of delay entrenches the dangerous economic status quo, threatens our democratic norms, and passes the buck to our children and grandchildren,” the letter writes.  

Indeed, the open letter is accompanied by a revealing poll from Survation, conducted on behalf of the Patriotic Millionaires, which found that 75 per cent of respondents – individuals from G20 countries with investable assets totalling more than US$1 million – support a 2% tax on billionaire wealth. 

The same calls have been made before to no avail, and so far, it’s uncertain whether the gathering will result in any progress on the biggest challenges it sets out to tackle, and of course, many question whether such shindigs should have such influence to begin with. 

Stay tuned for more updates. 

By Madaline Dunn, Lead Journalist, ESG Mena.

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