UN Leaders Highlight Climate, Sustainability, Human Rights at WEF
Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth
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UN leaders attending the 47th World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland highlighted current threats to businesses from megatrends such as population growth, migration, climate change and water scarcity.

Numerous sessions showcased solutions and examples of leadership in tackling sustainability challenges.

Convening under the theme, 'Responsive and Responsible Leadership,' the WEF drew over 3,000 participants from almost 100 countries.

20 January 2017: UN leaders attending the 47th World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland highlighted current threats to businesses from megatrends such as population growth, migration, climate change and water scarcity, while numerous sessions showcased solutions and examples of leadership in tackling such challenges.

Convening under the theme, ‘Responsive and Responsible Leadership,’ the WEF drew over 3,000 participants from almost 100 countries.

In opening remarks delivered on 19 January, UN Secretary-General António Guterres noted the increasing interconnection of global megatrends, including population growth and movements of people, climate change, food insecurity and water scarcity, all of which create increased potential for conflict. In the face of these challenges, he highlighted that the full implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) could bring in around US$30 billion in profits for companies, including through a “fourth industrial revolution” in new technologies such as genetic engineering and artificial intelligence.

Guterres stressed that the priority for the UN and the international community should be conflict prevention, which, he stated, should include not only diplomatic action, but also the prevention of natural disasters.

Guterres stressed that the priority for the UN and the international community should be conflict prevention, which, he stated, should include not only diplomatic action, but also the prevention of natural disasters. This agenda, he noted, includes action on peace and security, sustainable development and human rights. He urged all concerned to use the agreements of 2016 – the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its SDGs, and the Paris Agreement on climate change –  to form partnerships for conflict prevention in this broad sense.

Other UN leaders also addressed such challenges. In the lead-up to Davos, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called on business leaders to stand up for human rights, urging companies not to tolerate abuses anywhere in their operations or supply chains. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Secretariat drew attention to the WEF 2017 Global Risks Report, which investigates threats to global security, including from extreme weather events, large natural disasters and failure to curb greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The report concludes that the environment “dominates the 2017 global risk landscape.”

The WEF took place from 17-20 January 2017, and featured more than 400 separate sessions highlighting efforts and leadership focused on tackling sustainability challenges. Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary, UNFCCC, discussed at several WEF events how leaders and the international community can accelerate implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change. The events included a discussion on the SDGlive platform with Erik Solheim, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP or UN Environment), a panel discussion titled ‘Climate change: COP out?’, and another session titled ‘A new chapter for climate action.’

In a discussion on how extractive industries can contribute to achieving the 2030 Agenda, Helen Clark, UN Development Programme (UNDP) Administrator, called for: ensuring that laws, regulations and policies on the extractive industries are informed by the SDGs; making clear the business case for mining companies to work towards fulfilling the SDGs (for example, by supporting community development so as to avoid costly conflicts with local communities); and aligning industry investments and practices with national SDG plans. She drew attention to UNDP’s joint initiative with WEF, which aims to scale up the contributions of the extractive sector to the SDGs.

Other discussions that took place included a panel event with top economists and organization leaders. Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard University, Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University, and Dambisa Moyo of Barclays Bank, were among the speakers. Addressing the panel, Naoko Ishii, CEO of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), stressed that there is “no other option” than a fundamental transformation of the world’s economic systems, if humanity is to avoid pushing the Earth beyond the limits of its resilience. Speakers agreed that both political and market forces are important in protecting the global commons and the global economy.

Also on 19 January, the Government of Norway launched a fund that aims to raise US$400 million by 2020 to support deforestation-free agriculture investments. Agriculture is a major contributor to deforestation, and the fund will potentially protect five million hectares of forest and peatlands around the world, as well as help small-scale farmers improve their productivity. The fund was launched in partnership with the GEF, UN Environment, the Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH) and several large food companies and environmental NGOs. Norway contributed US$100 million to the fund.

The WEF provided opportunity to applaud businesses that are leading in the circular economy effort by using recycled materials and seeking to eliminate “end-of-pipe” waste from used products. Two sporting goods companies, Nike and Patagonia, won a joint award in the 2017 round. The prize confers recognition by ‘The Circulars,’ an awards programme run by Accenture Strategy and the WEF’s Community of Young Global Leaders. Fortune magazine, the official media partner of ‘The Circulars’, reported that Nike had been chosen for its commitment to sustainability given its use of recycled material in 71% of all its clothing and footwear, while Patagonia was chosen for various innovations, including its practice of encouraging consumers to repair worn-out items rather than purchasing new ones.

On 20 January, UNEP launched the Green Digital Finance Alliance, a partnership among financial institutions using digital technology to advance green finance in lending, investment and insurance. The two founding partners are UN Environment and ANT Financial, a mainland China company that provides online financial services. One of the innovations emerging from the partnership is an app that uses algorithms to show users their carbon impact, based on their financial transactions. The app, which also allows users to earn green energy credits, has 72 million users.

Commenting on the initiative, Simon Zadek, Co-Director of the UNEP Inquiry into Design Options for a Sustainable Financial System, said that financial technology, or fintech, will reshape the global financial system, society and ecosystems. He said it will pose some regulatory challenges, but has the potential to reshape behavioral norms in favor of sustainability.

The WEF convenes annually to engage with political, business and other leaders to shape global, regional and industry agendas. It was established as a not-for-profit foundation in 1971 and is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. [WEF 2017 Website] [UN Opening Press Release] [UN Press Release on António Guterres’ Remarks] [Text of António Guterres’ Remarks] [Text of Helen Clark’s Remarks] [GEF Press Release on Economists’ Panel] [GEF Press Release on Deforestation Fund] [UNFCCC Press Release] [Fortune Magazine Article][‘The Circulars’ Programme Website] [SDG Knowledge Hub Story on WEF 2017 Global Risks Report] [UNEP Press Release on Green Digital Finance Alliance] [Simon Zadek’s Guest Article for IISD’s SDG Knowledge Hub]


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