Food crisis knocks climate off top of Davos agenda

Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports ‘a weapon of war’ with global repercussions

Climate change, which topped the agenda when political and business leaders last gathered in Davos in early 2020, has remained at the forefront of the minds of the organisers of the World Economic Forum (WEF) summit this week, the first since the outbreak of Covid-19.

On Tuesday, US climate envoy John Kerry was rolled out as the star speaker on the issue, amid a dizzying array of panel discussions this week on environmental challenges – from the need to improve transparency among companies about their decarbonisation plans to how deforestation and livestock farming are heating up the planet and exposing a world, still struggling with Covid-19, to new pathogens.

Kerry, the most senior US official at Davos this year, used the stage on Tuesday to warn that the global energy crisis sparked by the war in Ukraine should not be used as an excuse for the world to deepen its dependence on fossil fuels.

Speaking on a panel with Frans Timmermans, European Commission vice-president and head of the EU's green strategy, Kerry promised the US would help bridge the shortfall of Russian gas and conceded more oil production from the Middle East may be need to ease inflationary pressures. But he warned that does not mean there should be a "massive build out" of fossil-fuel infrastructure.

“If we make the right choices here, we can win all of these battles,” he said. “But we cannot be seduced into believing that this suddenly is an open door to going back and doing what we were doing, which created the crisis in the first place.”

Growing crisis

However, a growing global food crisis, stoked by the war in Ukraine, has emerged as the key immediate issue exercising many leading delegates at Davos this year.

Climate change has, undoubtedly, exacerbated the frequency and severity of droughts that have now left regions of the eastern Africa on the brink of the worst famine in decades and prompted heatwave-struck India to suspend wheat exports. Covid-19 has also done its part to disrupt food supply chains around the world.

But Russia's blocking of Ukrainian ports, stopping the bread basket of Europe from exporting wheat and sunflower oil seeds, was described by European Commission president Ursula van der Leyen as a weapon of war with global repercussions.

The Kremlin was using “hunger and grain to wield power”, she said, adding that “global co-operation is the antidote to Russia’s blackmail”.

Head of the UN's World Food Programme David Beasley said in a Davos panel discussion that "the failure to open the ports is a declaration of war on global food systems" and leaving the world facing its worst humanitarian crisis since the second World War. The UN estimates that about 200 million people are now facing acute hunger, double the figure of five years ago.

Even for households in western countries that are lucky enough to still get their hands on food, the price of ingredients such as wheat, maize and vegetable oil have surged since the onset of the war.

"We have had commodity price shocks in many countries. We have seen oil prices decline, but food prices continue to go up and up," said International Monetary Fund managing director Kristalina Georgieva at the WEF. "We can shrink our use of petrol when growth slows, but we have to eat every day."