Climate change is back on the global agenda, with debate in the corridors at Davos given fresh impetus by US President Barack Obama and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon both highlighting it as top priority this week.
Yet business leaders are still struggling to find the economic incentives to change practices.
The World Economic Forum has not held back in its own assessment of the dangers, with former Mexican president Felipe Calderon warning of “a climate crisis with potentially devastating impacts on the global economy.”
IMF managing director Christine Lagarde summed it up for any Davos doubters: “Unless we take action on climate change, future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled.”
However, there is a disconnect between increasing evidence of extreme weather — from Hurricane Sandy in the US in October last year to record heat in Australia this month — and the limited response from politicians and businesses.
In some cases the clash is stark, as highlighted on Friday when Greenpeace activists shut down a Shell gas station near the forum’s meeting in protest at oil drilling in the Arctic that is made easier by a warmer world.
Many companies tout the opportunities presented by a shift to a low-carbon economy, yet the reality is that the continuing economic crisis has discouraged businesses and governments from developing a truly long-term view.
The rapid growth in shale gas — a greener alternative to coal when it is burned, although not when it leaks into the atmosphere — has also made renewables comparatively less attractive, adding to the challenge.
The result is that while global investment in renewables is rising, the world still needs to spend US$700 billion each year to curb its addiction to fossil fuels, according to a study issued by the forum last week.
“There is a clear lack of urgency in the climate debate,” Greenpeace executive director Kumi Naidoo said. “Big business is holding us back.”
Business, in turn, complains that the failure of governments to provide a clear regulatory framework limits its ability to plan for the future.
Governments aim to work out a new UN plan to address climate change in 2015, but it will only enter into force from 2020.
Also chiming with business leaders is Obama’s argument that the US cannot afford economically to fall behind in a global clean-energy race dominated by countries like China, South Korea and Germany.