There is always lots of “instant reaction” post-Davos along the lines of “my big take-away was ...” but I think it’s better to let your brain thaw out a bit — both figuratively and literally — after the trek back down the Magic Mountain before you deliver a verdict on the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting.
So, after a few days of reflection in the relatively balmy climate of the Gulf, here are my two big Davos lessons: First, climate change is the single biggest item on the minds of political and business leaders for 2020; and second, Saudi Aramco is going to lead the field in finding ways to tackle that big challenge.
One Davos participant, the director of the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy, Jason Bordoff, said that the meeting in Switzerland was virtually a climate conference, such was the ubiquity of the issue. But it was not just the presence of the Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, though she was among the show-stealers at the event, eclipsing even US President Donald Trump as a star of the entire WEF show.
From the publication pre-Davos of the WEF’s global risks report — which ranked climate change as the number one issue among global thought leaders — to the publication by consulting firm PwC of a very pessimistic survey of CEOs, also rating climate as a serious challenge, through to the decision by leading global investor BlackRock to divest from some fossil fuel investments, environmental issues dominated the proceedings at Davos.
Despite President Trump’s dismissal of such people as “fortune tellers,” there was a real momentum to do something tangible and practical toward meeting climate change goals.
The announcement by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella that the company would be carbon neutral by 2030 and carbon negative by 2050 was probably the most notable public affirmation of this new thinking by business leaders.
An even more definitive commitment to environmental goals came from Saudi Aramco, but went comparatively unremarked, probably because it was made at a small private gathering rather than in the full glare of the Congress Hall.
At an invitation-only gathering of many of the leading lights of the energy world, Aramco’s CEO Amin Nasser produced probably the strongest pledge to environmental security of the entire Davos. “We are confident we can use our technology to remove carbon dioxide and methane from the atmosphere,” he told guests.
Notice the word “remove,” not simply “reduce.” That is quite a pledge from the biggest oil company in the world, which is regularly — if unfairly — labeled as a major polluter despite having the best track record in the world on ‘clean’ crude and methane as measured by scientists.
Aramco believes it has the technology to get rid of environmentally-polluting chemicals from the energy industry altogether. The event — in the imposing Intercontinental Hotel — was a celebration of Aramco’s impressive technological expertise, as well as the big investment it is continuing to make in energy technology, most of it solely aimed at producing cleaner products from fossil fuels.
That theme was reiterated by Prince Abdul Aziz Bin Salman, the energy minister of Saudi Arabia, from the stage during a session on the Kingdom’s G20 priorities. He told delegates that the Kingdom was preparing a major initiative on two of the most pressing aspects of the environmentally-concerned energy business: Carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) and the future role of hydrogen as an “green” fuel.
These two issues will be further discussed at a major International gathering in Riyadh at the end of next month, when energy experts will gather to discuss the concept of the “circular carbon economy” — in which CCUS and hydrogen play a key role — that Aramco and the Kingdom have been promoting for some time. Expect some dramatic revelations.
Whatever Trump said, the rest of the world is convinced that climate change is a clear and present danger. Aramco has taken that message on board, and is devoting the resources of the biggest listed company in history toward meeting the climate challenge. That is what I learned in Davos.