I feel like Davos has started to turn into the White House Correspondents Dinner where it becomes — for many — just a place to see and be seen (started? some say it’s been this way for a while). An opportunity to feel self-important and rub shoulders with world leaders and celebrities alike, all touting their causes. Don’t get me wrong — if I got an invite of course I’d go. But it is a bit of a bubble, isn’t it? Who’s been invited to whose party? Did you see Bono? What about Justin Trudeau? Is Elton John going to Tina Brown’s party? What about the Clintons or Macron?
Participants would say there is a lot of good being done for the world at the World Economic Forum’s annual meetings nestled in this alpine Swiss ski resort town. Historically, they are right. There have been memorable moments or key policy breakthroughs: in 1992 when Mandela attended with de Klerk, or in 1994 when Arafat and Peres reached an agreement on Gaza and Jericho (which I remember as I was working for Gergen in the Clinton White House at the time and this was ahead of the Peace Treaty Signing on the South Lawn). And WEF over the decades has contributed to huge policy changes globally. But now, I get the impression that it’s more pomp and circumstance than real commitments and change.
A private jet burns as much fuel in one hour as a car does in a year
But what really gets my goat is people not committing personally to causes they ascribe to globally. Change starts on our own doorsteps. Stop talking about it and do it. The climate change issue has been a big one with WEF for decades. But that doesn’t stop the 3,000 participants (plus all their entourages this bloats to around 15,000) from taking private jets, helicopters, limousines and SUV’s to get there. The theme of the week, “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World”, sorta says it all doesn’t it? So fractured that they cannot see how they are adding to the very problems they are discussing.
Grist analysed the estimated carbon footprint of all the participants in 2013 and how much each would have produced to get to Davos. They used a figure of .21 kilograms per passenger per kilometre for a flight, and 22 kilograms for a three-hour train trip, per person. The total CO2 emissions just for travel by the participants to get there was estimated at 2,520 metric tonnes. Not a huge amount in the scheme of things, but with a global urge to reduce fossil fuels, this doesn’t jibe. And this analysis doesn’t include anyone else (entourage, travelling staff) or anything used outside of plane and train travel.
In 2015, it was reported that there were 1700 private jets flying to/from Zurich (closest airport). To put into perspective, a private jet burns as much fuel in one hour as a car does in a year. This year reports show that number is closer to just over 1,000 which, if true, is a good reduction. But still the number of private jets arriving at local airports has spiked from an average of 65 flights/day to 218.
I don’t necessarily blame the participants, either. WEF is as much – if not more so – responsible for changing this irresponsible personal habit (or luxury to the rest of us). Why not move the location to somewhere more easily accessible and not so tiny? They could require participants to carpool (or jet-share, if that’s a term). Hey! Cate Blanchett! Got room in your limo for one more? Prince Turki, President Joko Widodo of Indonesia needs a ride back. Could he hitch a ride on your private plane?
They could work with Swiss authorities to charter special trains to bring the participants up the mountain en masse. They could ask participants who are renting SUV’s or limos to make sure they are FULL before heading up the mountain (full disclosure: I went to a conference once where the topic was environmental sustainability and everyone was driving their own individual SUV everywhere). They could move the whole event to an enormous field in Devon a la Glastonbury or California a la Coachella. They could do the whole event all online and tout it as the first global online videoconference and get tech geniuses from around the world to make it excellent quality.
We are all to blame for our own excesses, but we have to start somewhere if we are really going to change and save the world. My husband plunges us into darkness with his electricity saving techniques (he’s convinced the secret to financial success is going to be from the money we save as a result of low electric and heating bills). The thermostat is a constant battle. The brain surgery precision that comes with separating (and washing) the recycling in West London will do anyone’s head in. But I can’t win with any arguments I throw at him and ultimately I’ve caved. He’s right. I’m culpable. We all have to do our little part to help. It’s likely going to inconvenience us all a bit, but these are 1st world problems, not 3rd. If that means you drive an electric car, or take your canvas bags to the supermarket, great. Whatever it takes.
WEF leaders and participants could learn from Leo DiCaprio’s mistakes. Last July, he got called out for taking a private plane to accept an environmental award and realised the hypocrisy. He has now ditched the private plane (I know, tragic, right?) and flies commercial. But bravo for starting somewhere. We are so used to having a choice, and these things are all luxuries, relatively speaking. Seriously. We all need to be inconvenienced a little more. Every drop in the bucket helps. And think about it, if you saw several world leaders sharing a ride in a Prius to go to one of these events, the power of the words and policies they deliver will be that much more effective.