The Mint despatches Guy Dauncey to Switzerland, a decade into the future, to report on the global summit.
It was pouring when we arrived in Davos. The local news channels were full of complaints about how useless the artificial snow-machines were in the rain. Everyone knew the continuing climate crisis was to blame. Their glum expressions said it all.
When the invitation arrived for The Mint to send a journalist I volunteered because I wanted to see how my Tesla Raven Model 5 would manage the 1,000km, 12-hour journey on just one recharge, ride-sharing with three others. Success. We arrived with 154km still in the battery.
How can I describe the mood among the delegates? The world had entered the final year of the 2020s, and the steady reduction in global emissions along with the full-on engagement by China and India made many people feel optimistic. But the ongoing litany of disasters, including the massive flooding in Holland and the forest fires in the Amazon, made most still feel fearful.
There were many speakers, but the one who attracted the biggest crowd was the 27-year-old Greta Thunberg, lecturer in climate economics at the Free University of Berlin and UN Climate Ambassador. Over the past ten years, she told us, a number of factors had persuaded countries to reduce their emissions by far more than most climate analysts had foreseen.
“By 2022 the sense of urgency was widespread.”
By 2022 the sense of urgency was widespread. The Covid-19 pandemic had shaken people to the core, and when we emerged, with so much of the economy in tatters, there was a huge, worldwide determination that we had to rebuild the economy along different lines, emphasising the economics of kindness, rather than the economics of greed and shareholder value maximisation. Ten countries joined Finland in setting a goal to reduce their emissions to zero by 2035. China, having shown what was possible when it built a 1,000-bed hospital in Wuhan in ten days, installed a million residential solar systems in a week.
Thunberg asked: what had caused the global ramping up of effort? Alongside the shockwaves from the pandemic, pressure from the persistent climate protests and the continuing litany of climate disasters, it was the financial impacts that finally hit home, she said, starting with the collapse of a major global re-insurance company and the financial crisis that followed, so hot on the heels of the one we were just crawling out of.
Back in 2020, she reminded us, the Bank of International Settlements had warned us that an unexpected event caused by the climate emergency was likely to trigger a financial crisis. And when it did, pressure from financially-literate climate activists persuaded the Bank of England, the European Central Bank and the People’s Bank of China to act decisively. They started by using green quantitative easing to purchase climate action bonds from governments, pumping billions into the energy transition. They pledged to act as buyer of last resort for all climate-related loans, thereby providing credit security for the trillions in investments that were needed to finance the transition to 100% renewable energy. And in 2024 they went a big step further, issuing green credit guidance which effectively prevented the banks from creating any credit for new fossil-fuel projects.
At the same time, the climate divestment movement was pressuring institutions and pension funds to rid themselves of all their fossil-fuel holdings. What had begun as a small student movement had morphed into a massive global movement, reaching investment giants like Norway’s Sovereign Wealth Fund and Black Rock, with its $7 trillion of investments. Fossil-fuel expansion projects, which had lobbied their way to approval, found themselves starved of the investment needed to proceed, pincered by the central banks and the divestment movement.
“The climate divestment movement had pressured institutions and pension funds to rid themselves of their fossil fuel holdings.”
The widespread adoption of Green New Deals played a crucial role, Thunberg said, removing resistance to change by providing income security for fossil fuel workers as they retrained for careers doing home retrofits or installing wind and solar.
2022 was the year when something shifted, she said. Until then, scientific confusion, political cynicism and climate doomsterism had combined to make many people believe that action was useless and climate collapse inevitable.
“Remember Glastonbury in the summer of 2022?” she asked? Whoops, whistles and applause from dozens of people acknowledged the reference.
The 2021 festival had been cancelled. Thunberg had been invited to speak in ’22 and she was scheduled to follow a set from a high profile old rocker who was still a crowdpuller. Towards the end of his set he got into a preamble to a song with a “live-for-now-‘cos-we’re-all-gonna-fry,” message. Tens of thousands of people in the audience were there for Thunberg as much as his band so a stir picked up – they didn’t want to hear that message. The stir gathered volume and soon the torrent of derision actually drove him to slope off stage making profane gestures to the crowd.
Amid the commotion Greta calmly took to the stage to a tumultuous roar. She scrapped her notes and gave an impassioned speech, from the heart, about determination and her rational refusal to give in to defeatism or despair. “If you are watching your soccer or basketball team play,” she had said, “you can afford to be pessimistic or optimist, depending on the game. But if you are a player, that’s irrelevant. You are either determined or you are defeated, and if you are defeated I don’t think your coach will want you to play.”
“For a player,” she said, “there’s only one thing that matters: being determined.”
“I hope you are all players,” she said. “Because if you are, we can do this!” The crowd responded with massive cheers, and she had an inner feeling that the climate movement had just turned the corner.
Ten years ago, Greta Thunberg castigated the élites for doing nothing about the climate emergency, and President Trump blasted her for being a prophet of doom. Meanwhile, racist populism was coming to the boil and the Covid-19 pandemic was just around the corner.
Today, she said, there was huge global consensus on the need for urgent, unified, global action. The parade of private jets to Davos was gone. The menu was vegan and zero-emissions rabbit and deer.
Our global emissions may have fallen, she said, but people had by now realised that the climate emergency was not caused by our emissions, but by our accumulated emissions, by the overburden of carbon in the atmosphere, which is still increasing.
“The parade of private jets to Davos was gone, and the entire menu was vegan.”
“Getting to zero is only the beginning,” Greta insisted. She emphasised that we have to reduce atmospheric carbon to the level it was before the Industrial Age, which will require an ecological transformation of the way we manage our farms, forests, oceans and peatlands. From this perspective, she said, “Our work has hardly begun.”