What did we learn from Davos 2020?

Larry Elliott in Davos
Photograph: Denis Balibouse/Reuters

Since 1971, politicians, business leaders, academics, journalists and representatives of civil society have been travelling to the Swiss ski resort of Davos, the town immortalised by Thomas Mann in his novel The Magic Mountain.

The meeting – described as the place where billionaires tell millionaires how the middle classes should live their lives – ended on Friday. So what did we learn from the 50th gathering?

For some, the penny has dropped about the climate emergency

This was the “global heating Davos”, with session after session devoted to the topic. For Mark Carney, in his last weeks as governor of the Bank of England before stepping down, the story was not the near unanimity among policymakers, but that the financial sector – including the big banks of Wall Street – now understands the investment risk of global heating and is starting to adjust its behaviour accordingly.

The past year has turned Greta Thunberg from a Davos curiosity into a household name and global force

At the start of the 2019 Davos, Thunberg was a 16-year-old Swedish student going on strike from school to protest against the lack of action on global heating. She electrified last year’s WEF and was even bigger news this time, going toe-to-toe with Donald Trump and members of his cabinet, and getting the better of the exchanges. Most seasoned Davos hands thought Steve Mnuchin, the US treasury secretary, had blundered when he said he would only start listening to Thunberg when she had a degree in economics.


Davos is a Swiss ski resort now more famous for hosting the annual four-day conference for the World Economic Forum. For participants it is a festival of networking. Getting an invitation is a sign you have made it – and the elaborate system of badges reveals your place in the Davos hierarchy. The meeting is sponsored by a huge number of international banks and corporations.

For critics, “Davos man” is shorthand for the globe-trotting elite, disconnected from their home countries after spending too much time in the club-class lounge. Others just wonder if it is all a big waste of time. 

The 2020 meeting is being advertised as focusing on seven themes: Fairer economies, better business, healthy futures, future of work, tech for good, beyond geopolitics and how to save the planet. Young climate activists and school strikers from around the world will be present at the event to put pressure on world leaders over that last theme


Davos has a love-hate relationship with Trump

For the second time in three years, Trump turned up at the annual festival of globalisation – more visits than Bill Clinton and Barack Obama managed between them in the combined 16 years of their presidencies. The chief executives of the multinationals that flock to Davos find Trump strangely compelling in spite of his anti-globalist views. He was comfortably the biggest draw of the week. There were a few titters as Trump boasted of the economic miracle he has created in the US, but privately American big business likes tax cuts, likes deregulation and would rather have him in the White House than any Democrat.

The mood among the UK business community is more upbeat following the election

It would be wrong to imagine that UK plc is jumping for joy that Britain is leaving the EU at the end of next week, but there is a sense of relief that much of the uncertainty is over. A year ago, when Theresa May was struggling vainly to get her withdrawal bill through parliament, businesses were putting investment on hold because they were in the dark about how Brexit would unfold. Following last month’s general election, some of the projects that were mothballed have been given the go-ahead. The global economy may also have bottomed out.

There wasn’t much of a UK presence

Along with Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau, Boris Johnson decided that hobnobbing with people Theresa May once called the citizens of nowhere was not the best political look. At one time it looked as if there would be no UK cabinet minister in Davos, but in the end Sajid Javid was left to fly the flag. There were plenty of ex-ministers around though: the former Labour foreign secretary David Miliband, the former prime minister Gordon Brown and the former chancellor George Osborne among them. May also did a turn to the citizens of nowhere at a PwC drinks reception.

The cybersecurity threat got personal, but Davos didn’t want to talk about it

On the first day of Davos, the Guardian broke the story that the Amazon boss, Jeff Bezos, had apparently been hacked by the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman. Cybersecurity is always on the agenda and there was a personal twist this year, because many of those attending Davos came into contact with Prince Mohammed on the trip when he met Bezos and maybe also exchanged mobile phone numbers with him. The Guardian tracked down three of them: Mnuchin; the Apple CEO, Tim Cook; and the Microsoft boss, Satya Nadella. However, despite their public commitments to openness and transparency, none was prepared to talk about it.

A sombre Davos had its amusing moments

There wasn’t an awful lot to laugh about in Davos, what with the backdrop of global heating, cyber-threats, and the coronavirus. But there were the odd moments of levity. Trump provided one of them, albeit unwittingly, with his claim that the US was enjoying a “boom the likes of which the world has never seen”. That would only be true if American history began on the day he was elected president. Javid provided one of the others. Pressing the flesh at a CBI lunch, he was asked by one business leader: “Who are you?” Not realising he was being teased, a visibly taken aback Javid replied: “I’m the chancellor.”

Planes, trains and automobiles

Davos says it gets the existential threat of the climate crisis, but does it really? Prince Charles flew to Switzerland by private jet, before switching to an electric car to give the WEF the benefit of his wisdom on how to save the planet. One delegate, kept waiting in the cold while Trump was being whisked from the conference centre to his hotel, tried to count the number of cars in the president’s motorcade and wasn’t quite sure whether there were 37 or 39. The WEF says most attendees arrived by train and that the Zurich group will plant 13,000 trees: one for every one of the bright blue bobble hats it has handed out for free.