As usual, the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, held last week, attracted major global players such as U.S. President Donald Trump, Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng, European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde and many other heads of state and business leaders. But one thing was different this year. The air in Davos was dominated by the sentiment that everyone should get on board to stop global warming and reduce plastic waste. Big corporations and governments alike were also constantly being asked what they could do to help realize the creation of a sustainable society.

Even Trump, who dedicated much of his speech at Davos to boasting about America’s economic growth under his watch, pledged that the United States will join the One Trillion Tree initiative mapped out by the World Economic Forum (WEF), which aims to combat climate change by planting saplings.

If there was ever a time to act to create a more sustainable Earth, it is now. This sense of urgency must be shared across the world, including Japan, which failed to send any Cabinet-level government leaders to Davos this year.

In addition to 17-year-old Swedish environment activist Greta Thunberg, who stated “Our house is still on fire,” young activists were equally vocal at this year’s conference. In an unprecedented move, the WEF invited 10 teenage environmental activists who have made changes in their home countries. They earned the spotlight during the conference and their presence made the WEF annual meeting “no longer a gathering of old elites.”

During a session titled “Breaking Free From Single-Use Plastics,” panelists Melati Wijsen, 19, who has been striving to reduce plastic waste in Bali, and Takeshi Niinami, CEO of Suntory Holdings Ltd., engaged in a heated debate over the use of plastic bottles. Niinami stated that in Japan, 90 percent of PET bottles are collected for recycling and the actual recycle rate is as high as 85 percent, and that recycling is the optimal way to reduce plastic bottle waste. Wijsen, however, asserted that stronger goals are needed. “We will not wait until 2050. How much longer do we need to wait? What is the challenge and barriers that keeps companies from changing? I don’t see why we are not moving faster,” she said.

Other panelists in the session included former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and Akira Sakano, chair of Tokushima-based Zero Waste Academy. The world uses about 5 trillion single-use plastic bags and produces 300 million tons of plastic waste a year. Gore pointed out that by 2050, the weight of all plastic waste in oceans will exceed the weight of all the fish living in that same water. Japan has been heavily criticized by the international community for relying on energy derived from fossil fuels and for using a massive amount of plastic bags.

Though many Japanese business leaders like Niinami attended the annual meeting, Japanese policymakers were glaringly absent. Because the Diet’s regular legislative session had just started last week, the only politician who attended the Davos conference from Japan was Kenji Wakamiya, the state minister for foreign affairs.

The Davos meeting is not a place to reach concrete agreements or solutions, but it certainly provides a platform for global leaders to actively engage in discussions and to form partnerships among governments and companies to tackle the world’s pressing issues.

By skipping such talks, Japanese lawmakers are failing to share the sense of urgency held by other global leaders. Furthermore, they are missing opportunities to keep abreast of emerging issues involving new technologies and science, as what is discussed at Davos often becomes the global norm soon after.

For example, artificial intelligence and the Fourth Industrial Revolution became an agenda item during the annual meeting in Davos several years ago; now AI has penetrated our daily lives. And current participants, including Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon (known collectively as GAFA) and big Chinese tech companies, are taking initiatives to set global standards and necessary rules for emerging industries, such as drones, autonomous vehicles and digital currencies.

Also last week at Davos, the WEF launched the Global Consortium for Digital Currency Governance to bring together leading companies, financial institutions, government representatives, academics and international organizations to discuss solutions for a regulatory system over digital currencies at the global level.

It is expected that new regulations and ethical codes will be required as innovative technologies come into our lives. Japan should not miss opportunities to take part in international rule-making frameworks like this.

With climate change taking place, the global temperature matters. At the same time, Japanese policymakers and business leaders should actively participate in international conferences like Davos so they can feel the temperature of the heated discussions taking place among the world’s leaders, which are aimed at creating a better future for the next generation.

The Japan Times Editorial Board

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