A police officer stands on the roof of a hotel in Davos (Markus Schreiber/PA)
16 January 2023

What to expect as world’s elite gathers in Davos for first time since pandemic

16 January 2023

The World Economic Forum is back with its first winter meetup since 2020 in the Swiss Alpine town of Davos, where leaders are seeking to bridge political divisions in a polarised world, buttress a hobbling economy and address concerns about a climate change, among many other things.

Sessions will take up issues as diverse as the future of fertilisers, the role of sports in society, the state of the Covid-19 pandemic and much more.

Nearly 600 chief executives and more than 50 heads of state or government are expected, but it is never clear how much concrete action emerges from the elite event.

Here is what to watch as the four-day talkfest and related deal-making get under way in earnest on Tuesday:

– Who is coming?

Back in the snows for the first time since the pandemic and just eight months after a springtime 2022 session, the event will host notables like European Union Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, US climate envoy John Kerry, and the new presidents of South Korea, Colombia and the Philippines.

Chinese vice premier Liu He addresses the gathering on Tuesday, a day before his first meeting with his US counterpart, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, in Zurich.

Ms Yellen will skip Davos.

– Who else is missing?

US President Joe Biden, Chinese president Xi Jinping, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and French president Emmanuel Macron.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, of course: Envoys from his country has been shunned because of his war in Ukraine.

Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska was on her way to Davos and will speak Tuesday, while her husband, President Volodymyr Zelensky, will give a remote address on Wednesday and other officials from Ukraine are appearing on panels.

Outside the main convention centre, a themed venue known as Ukraine House is hosting a concert, photo exhibits, seminars, cocktail events and other meetings this week to drum up support for Ukraine’s efforts to drive out Russian forces.

– Economic focus

The slowdown in the global economy will be a major theme at Davos, with officials ranging from International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva and European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde speaking in sessions.

Inflation soared as the world reopened from the pandemic and Russia invaded Ukraine, driving up food and energy prices, and though it has started to slow in major economies like the US and those in Europe, inflation is still painfully high.

Ms Georgieva said in an IMF blog post on Monday that divides between nations, the theme at Davos this year is “Cooperation in a Fragmented World”, are putting the global economy at risk by leaving “everyone poorer and less secure”.

Ms Georgieva urged strengthening trade, helping vulnerable countries deal with debt and ramping up climate action.

– Prioritising climate

A major climate theme emerging from the forum’s panel sessions is the energy transition from fossil fuels to clean energy.

Former US vice president Al Gore will be talking about decarbonisation, efforts to build clean energy infrastructure and ensure an equitable transition.

It follows a strong year for the energy transition: Many countries passed incentives for renewable energy in 2022.

One hot topic on the agenda, harnessing nuclear fusion, focuses on science that offers immense potential but is many decades away from a commercial rollout that could feed the world’s skyrocketing thirst for energy.

Sessions on issues like adaptation to climate change and panels on deforestation, biodiversity and the future of environmental protection will give a greener hue to the gathering.

– Critical voices

The elite gathering is regularly skewered by critics who argue that attendees are too out-of-touch or profit- or power-minded to address the needs of common people and the planet.

Throughout the week, critics and activists will be waiting outside the Davos conference centre to try to hold decision-makers and business leaders to account.

It started on Sunday, when dozens of climate activists, some with clown makeup, braved snowfall to wave banners and chant slogans at the end of the Davos Promenade, a thoroughfare now lined with storefront logos of corporate titans like Accenture, Microsoft, Salesforce, Meta, as well as country “houses” that promote national interests.

Greenpeace International also blasted use of corporate jets that ferry in bigwigs, saying such carbon-spewing transportation smacks of hypocrisy for an event touting its push for a greener world.

It said over 1,000 private-jet flights arrived and departed airports serving Davos in May.

Forum President Borge Brende acknowledged on Sunday that some government leaders and chief executives fly in that way.

“I think what is more important than that is to make sure we have agreements on how we, overall, move and push the envelope when it comes to the green agenda,” he said.

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