Climate crisis named top global risk by World Economic Forum

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Inaction on the climate crisis represents the biggest threat to humanity, according to a new WEF report   (PA)
Inaction on the climate crisis represents the biggest threat to humanity, according to a new WEF report (PA)

The worsening climate crisis has been named as the biggest global risk by the World Economic Forum (WEF).

In the WEF’s new Global Risks report, "climate action failure" was named as the number one global risk by severity, ahead of extreme weather and biodiversity loss, which came in second and third, and which are both related to the climate crisis.

The report is based on the views of over 12,000 people, which the WEF described as "country-level leaders" from 124 countries, gathered through the WEF’s Executive Opinion Survey.

"Our planet is on fire and we have to deal with it," said WEF president Børge Brende. "This is a risk we really know, so we cannot say we are faced with a blind spot."

He said the report identifies two key challenges: "A lack of implementation of what was agreed at Cop26, [as well as] a lack of implementation on the net zero way of thinking in this century."

And he said the second set of challenges are "then related to the effect of lack of implementation and reaching 1.5C: Dramatic weather consequences, droughts, floods, wildfires”.

After climate action failure, extreme weather and biodiversity loss, the fourth most severe risk to humanity was social cohesion erosion, followed by livelihood crisis, and infectious diseases.

In total, 84 per cent of the people who responded to the survey said that overall they were worried about the outlook for the world.

The report states that while "governments, businesses and societies are facing increasing pressure to thwart the worst consequences [of the climate crisis], a disorderly climate transition characterised by divergent trajectories worldwide and across sectors will further drive apart countries and bifurcate societies, creating barriers to cooperation".

The authors said: "Given the complexities of technological, economic and societal change at this scale, and the insufficient nature of current commitments, it is likely that any transition that achieves the net zero goal by 2050 will be disorderly.

“While Covid-19 lockdowns saw a global dip in greenhouse gas emissions, upward trajectories soon resumed: the GHG emission rate rose faster in 2020 than the average over the last decade.

"Countries continuing down the path of reliance on carbon-intensive sectors risk losing competitive advantage through a higher cost of carbon, reduced resilience, failure to keep up with technological innovation and limited leverage in trade agreements.

“Yet shifting away from carbon-intense industries, which currently employ millions of workers, will trigger economic volatility, deepen unemployment and increase societal and geopolitical tensions."

The report also raised concerns about geo-engineering solutions to the climate crisis, and carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which it is hoped may help reduce levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, but remains unproven on the scale required to make a difference.

"Adopting hasty environmental policies will also have unintended consequences for nature," the report said.

"There are still many unknown risks from deploying untested biotechnical and geoengineering technologies – while lack of public support for land use transitions or new pricing schemes will create political complications that further slow action.

“A transition that fails to account for societal implications will exacerbate inequalities within and between countries, heightening geopolitical frictions."

Comparing the relatively slow nature of the climate crisis to the sweeping upheavals caused around the world by Covid-19, Peter Giger, from Zurich Insurance Group, one of the speakers at the launch of the report on Tuesday, said: "Humans are not good in the boiling frog scenario, which is climate change, they’re much better in the fight or flight scenario, which has been the pandemic."

He also warned that commitments following the Cop26 meeting were "falling well short" of those required to keep temperatures from rising 1.5C above what they were in the pre-industrial era.

The WEF report said: "Increasing concern with climate action failure reveals respondents’ lack of faith in the world’s ability to contain climate change, not least because of the societal fractures and economic risks that have deepened."

Commenting on the publication of the report, Tanya Steele, the chief executive of WWF-UK, said: “Businesses and policy makers are waking up to the very real risks posed by both climate change and nature loss. They are two sides of the same coin, and their devastating impacts are being felt all around the world.

“As they gear up to the biodiversity summit in China, world leaders should put nature at the heart of their national climate plans and commit to halting and reversing the destruction of nature by 2030.

“The cost of inaction far outweighs the cost of action and the UK Government must lead by example. Building a greener future now will save money in the long term and provides opportunities for better jobs, improved health and a thriving natural world.”

As well as the direct threats posed by the climate and nature crises, the "scars of Covid 19" are identified as a key obstacle to effective responses to these threats, and include social cohesion erosion, livelihood crises and mental health deterioration.

"This societal scarring compounds the challenges of effective national policy-making and reduces the attention and focus needed on international cooperation for global challenges," the WEF said.

The organisation said the risks highlighted in their survey "are likely to inform national decisionmaking and provide a perspective on how short-term risk national priorities may compare with global risks and perspectives".

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