World's elite head to Switzerland for Davos

Oscar Williams-Grut
Senior City Correspondent, Yahoo Finance UK

Presidents, prime ministers, chief executives, and billionaires will descend on a small Swiss skiing resort this week for the annual gathering of the world’s elite.

Around 3,000 people are set to travel to Davos for the World Economic Forum’s 49th annual meeting. Attendees this year include Bill Gates, US President Donald Trump, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, new European Central Bank chief Christine Lagarde and German chancellor Angela Merkel.

The event is a chance for decision makers and power brokers from around the world to meet and discuss the issues of the day. This year, the climate crisis is at the top of the agenda.

17-year old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg is one of the highest profile attendees of Davos this year. Photo: Reuters

“The planet is heating, the ice is melting, and we see that the library of species are on fire,” Borge Brende, president of World Economic Forum (WEF), said at a press conference in London last week. “It’s really, really serious.”

Davos 2020 is titled “Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World” and WEF said last week environmental concerns are the highest priority for its members. Corporations like BlackRock, Deutsche Bank, and McKinsey have all published reports on the issue ahead of the gathering.

READ MORE: BlackRock vows to address climate change: 'Climate risk is investment risk'

One of the most high-profile guests this year is Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old climate activist from Sweden, returning for the second year in a row. TIME’s Person of the year 2019 will be using her position to put pressure on global elites to act now on climate change.

“We demand that at this year’s forum, participants from all companies, banks, institutions and governments immediately halt all investments in fossil fuel exploration and extraction, immediately end all fossil fuel subsidies and immediately and completely divest from fossil fuels,” Thunberg wrote in an article published by the Guardian.

While ‘Davos man’ says he is sympathetic, Thunberg’s demands are unlikely to be met.

“It’s not just about abandoning oil,” Peter Giger, chief risk officer at Zurich Insurance, told Yahoo Finance UK at the WEF event last week.

A general view shows the congress centre, the venue of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland. Photo: Reuters

“We will need continued investment in oil, even in the most extreme de-carbonisation scenario. We still need a level of investment even then, to support the transition. To support the energy needs during the transition.

“Unfortunately, as always, once you look at the technicalities, the world is more complicated, it’s not black and white.”

The elephant in the room is the US. Donald Trump has pulled the US out of the 2015 Paris Agreement, which bound almost 200 nations to meeting UN sustainability goals. The US contributes around 15% of all carbon emissions annually and so meeting the goals will be difficult without US cooperation.

READ MORE: Tackle 'Titanic' climate challenge before it's too late, leaders told

Cynics also charge that Davos is little more than a talking shop that fails to yield much beyond boosted egos.

“Over the last ten years it is questionable as to what if anything these annual gatherings have achieved, apart from a significant boost to the Swiss economy,” Michael Hewson, a senior analyst at trading platform CMC Markets, said. “The reality is that for all the heat and light, to paraphrase William Shakespeare, it will probably be much ado about nothing.”

Perhaps mindful of its elitist image, UK prime minister Boris Johnson has this year pledged not to go and banned his ministers from attending, although chancellor Sajid Javid is reportedly exempted.

Davos officially begins on Monday evening with panels starting in full on Tuesday.

READ MORE: World Economic Forum: These are the biggest threats to the world