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Davos Dialog Will Downplay Carbon, Talk Up Energy And Infrastructure

Organizers may have created a low-carbon, green zone for the occasion of the 40th annual global gabfest in the Swiss mountain two on Davos, but it may no longer be the best environment for high-profile chatter on climate change.

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With little progress in talks at last December’s UN Copenhagen conference, and with economic growth still tepid, expect discussions of carbon emissions and climate change to take a back seat at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting this week.

“There was a lot of focus on climate change leading up to Copenhagen,” says Jon Sohn, climate change expert at law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP. “It is not surprising they wouldn’t be the focus because we’re so fresh off of that.”

Carbon emissions and climate were headline items at last year's Davos conference, but this year's theme—"Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild"—promises to look at more ways to rework the world economy than simply making it low-carbon.

Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC, says while the low billing climate change is getting at Davos this year can partly be explained bu conference’s organizers rotate their themes, other venues may now be more important to top-level discussions on climate change.

“People are trying to let the dust settle” after Copenhagen, he says, adding that 75 percent of last year’s Davos sessions were on climate change. “In Copenhagen, you had a much greater engagement by heads of governments and heads of corporations than we’ve ever seen on any issue.”

Even corporate members of Davos’ climate change task force, like Intel won’t be sending climate change representatives to this year’s event. Microsoft says one of its attendees could talk about climate change.

In addition, many of the large environmental groups focused on carbon emissions are also passing on Davos this year, even if they they are citing restraints on travel budgets in doing so, rather than the diluted agenda. (Even Al Gore isn't expected to attend.)

But just as cap-and-trade policy may morph into a green, clean-tech jobs-creation program in the U.S., climate change concerns in Davos are likely to show up in discussions about how we rethink our consumption patterns, redesign our energy systems and rebuild cities and structures to be more energy efficient.

There is “massive opportunity” in showing how countries and regions tackle the inefficiency of their aging energy and industrial infrastructure and the impact it has on their citizens’ well-being and on the global climate, says Andrea Moffat, senior director of corporate programs at Ceres, a Boston-based network of institutional investors and activist groups focused on climate change solutions.

“I think people need to get practical, need to be specific,” she says. “If you look at the capital needed to reset the energy system, that’s not the kind of investment you look at for a three-year term.”

“The transition to a low-carbon economy is more about getting existing technologies to scale than it is about finding new technologies,” says McKenna Long’s Sohn, adding that the Davos agenda has often emphasized the latter than the former.

In that way, some expect a subtle, yet important, shift on the climate change issue at events like Davos in the future from what to do to how to do it.

That also means climate change, as an issue, has some staying power, says NRDC’s Schmidt, whose organization joined 80 corporate partners—including Boston Scientific , Honeywell and Alcoa —last week in an ad campaign calling for the U.S. government to “unite behind bi-partisan national energy and climate legislation” that creates jobs while cutting emission and preserving “national security.”

“A lot of attention will turn to what action nations will take,” he says. “It’ll turn towards the actions and away from negotiating dynamics."

For the carbon markets, the next big date on the calendar is January 31, when countries are to deliver their carbon emissions mitigation commitments as outlined in Copenhagen.

The Carbon Challenge - A CNBC Special Report - See Complete Coverage
The Carbon Challenge - A CNBC Special Report - See Complete Coverage

That could create some chatter,” says Kyle Danish, coordinator of the climate change and emissions trading practice at law firm Van Ness Feldman, noting the date coincides with the end of the Davos conference.

"The January 31 deadline will be a first test of whether the Copenhagen accord established a durable process for generating further actions and commitments, or represented setback in international negotiations, he says.”

He adds that it will be crucial to see “whether countries like China, India, and Brazil register emission mitigation commitments consistent with the commitments they floated before the Copenhagen talks.”

But even if climate change isn’t at the top of the agenda at Davos, it’s still one of the first significant international finance and development events since Copenhagen, says McKenna Long’s Sohn.

Given the overlap with the Copenhagen accord’s deadline, he says you could still see news made on the carbon emissions front.

“It provides an opportunity for several global leaders, public and private, to signal whether or not the [Copenhagen] accord has momentum and what the governance structure of future international efforts [on climate change] might look like,” he says.

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