Maybe Gulf delegates were too busy a little further east in Manhattan, where the United Nations was getting into its stride for the annual general assembly; maybe they were still en route for the big Bloomberg Global Business Forum later in the week, where a top-level delegation from the Middle East are expected.
Their absence from the WEF event was certainly not because of an inherent lack of interest in the subject matter. Several Gulf countries — notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE — have written sustainability into the strategic plans they have adopted to oversee economic development over the coming decade.
The Saudi ambassador to the UN, Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, underlined the Gulf’s strategic interest in sustainability when he likened the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 strategy to the UN’s own Agenda 2030.
You might argue in fact that the debate over sustainability was more important to the oil exporters, because the various plans to reduce carbon dependency will have a direct financial impact on oil and gas producing countries, hitting them straight in the exchequer.
There was general agreement at the summit that carbon was a bad thing. Speaker after speaker underlined their sustainability credentials by pledging to stop oil and gas exploration, or to phase out the internal combustion engine, or to become carbon neutral by some date in the future.
There was little debate about what that meant for the countries who currently make their way in the world by producing and exporting energy raw materials to fuel the economies of the rest of the planet.
The summit had three main heroes — all male politicians — on its opening day. Former Vice President Al Gore is the darling of the environmentally-aware, and delivered a strong statement of intent on behalf of sustainability. The US was going to look after the global environment to the best of its ability, regardless of President Trump’s posturing on the Paris Agreement, he insisted.
Another is Jerry Brown, governor of California, who has taken the lead in making that state a standard bearer for the cause of sustainability. In an enthusiastic plenary speech, he invited the world to a climate change summit in San Francisco next year, fired off another salvo against the President’s denial of climate change (“such a statement of nonsense”), and said he was winning over conservative Republicans and business people to his position at a fast rate.
Traditional energy producers from Middle East needed to push sustainability agenda.
The third star of the opening day was Nicolas Hulot, green activist and radical journalist who has wound up as French minister of environment and energy in the government of President Macron. He reiterated his pledge that France would be carbon neutral in 2050, ten years after it had phased out all petrol and diesel cars and also stopped all new oil and gas exploration. The carbon will be left in the ground, he said to much applause.
As they were winning over hearts in the plenary hall, a stream of initiatives and projects was announced by the WEF in pursuit of the sustainability agenda.
A new strategy to identify, fund and build new ventures that can “harness technologies that could transform the world” with the collaboration of Stanford University and consulting firm PWC, the “4IR for the Earth” initiative.
Then there was the “major push to end the hidden human toll and pollution behind the smartphone and electric car battery industry, the “Global Battery Alliance,” backed by some of the world’s biggest companies in mining and chemicals.
There was also a 10-point plan to stop tropical deforestation, the “Tropical Forrest Alliance 2020” backed by 100 governments around the world as well as groups representing civil society.
It was an impressive opening day show of sustainable solidarity by the WEF, reinforcing its stance that the planet had reached the limits of its self-recovery powers. “The earth cannot fix itself. Cities, energy food and industry much change,” was the message.
But it missed an authentic voice from the traditional energy producers — mainly from the Middle East — whose co-operation is crucial in the sustainability cause, and whose economies will be among the most affected by the rush to a carbon-free world.