Davos must focus on an energy future that leaves no one behind

2nd February 2018 Rachel Kyte

Each year before Davos man arrives in the Alps, the World Economic Forum surveys participants for a sense of where they see the greatest global risks and challenges.

This year, climate change, inequality and conflict were at the top of the chart. But no matter how resolute the collective wisdom on these issues might have seemed, once inside the congress centre, hopes for the global economy and excitement over nearing technological advances quickly swept Davos man past all three.

That’s not to overlook the good that came out of this year’s forum.

A short while ago, discussions on energy were dominated by a back-and-forth on peak oil. Renewable energy talks took place in small break-out rooms. No longer. This year, the transformative impact of renewable energy on energy generation and the energy mix also coloured debate around the potential to improve water and food security, transportation and human health.

Energy executives sounded more confident in their ability to manage the energy transition.  This can in part be put down to their general optimism about the global economy, but it said as much about their growing faith in technology. Leadership too is more widely distributed, with China dominating discussions and the Americas’ Pledge movement of mayors and states taking up some of the slack of a receding US administration.

In fact, while the media continues to focus on the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, participants were more animated by the announcement of new trade barriers on solar imports to the States. My sense was that most thought this would create more losers than winners. At the same time, investors have stepped up significantly and the impact of divestment and corporate commitments to renewable energy is sending a strong signal of opportunity.

For China, it is a message of leadership at home and abroad that captures imaginations. The Chinese commitment to renewable energy, the scale of their investment – particularly in solar – and its determination to manage down greenhouse gas emissions and deliver better air quality, have had a significant impact on markets. All eyes will of course be tracking the manner in which China invests in its One Belt, One Road project, not least to assess how green and sustainable this actually shapes up to be.

The energy conversation is shifting from a focus on supply to one on demand. Blockchain, artificial intelligence and other technological leaps that will allow us to manage energy demand at grid level were on the agenda, but so too was the role of the individual consumer. It is worth noting that while energy efficiency could lead to a 40 percent drop in emissions, efficiency remains very much the stepchild of the energy debate.

The harder truth to face is that we remain far from a two-degree world. Just over a billion people have no access to electricity, and around three billion cannot cook cleanly, pushing their health and the health of the planet to its limits.

When the barometer rises, so normally does Davos man’s mood. With growth strong in all regions, it’s not surprising that there was a bigger spring in his step. Yet little discussion appeared focused on how to use the good times to correct the inequality many say they believe threatens long-term prosperity.

I am concerned that, as Davos rolls around each year, the tendency of participants is increasingly to act as though corporate philanthropy can play the role of sweeper in achieving the global goals and the Paris Agreement. As the Addis Ababa Agenda underlines, we need policy coherence, strong tax bases and plugs on illicit flows, as well as an open, constructive trade regime.

What keeps getting left behind at Davos is precisely that we “leave no one behind”. That is what lies at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement, and, if it still inspires us, Davos man.

About the Author

Rachel Kyte Headshot

Rachel Kyte

Rachel Kyte is CEO and Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL), a global platform working with leaders to broker partnerships and unlock finance to achieve universal access to sustainable energy.

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