The most critical threat to the world

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THE World Economic Forum’s 2022 Global Risks Report has tagged climate action failure as the most critical medium- and long-term threat to the world.

Climate action failure refers to the failure of governments and businesses to enforce, enact or invest in effective climate change adaptation and mitigation measures, preserve ecosystems, protect populations and transition to a carbon-neutral economy. It is believed to have the highest potential to severely damage societies, economies and the planet.

Aside from climate action failure, four other environmental risks — extreme weather events, biodiversity loss, human-caused environmental damage and natural resources crises — were viewed to be among the most severe over the next 10 years.

Global risk, as defined by the report, is an uncertain event or condition that, if it occurs, can cause a significant negative impact for countries or industries.

Chapter 2 of the report, titled “Disorderly Climate Transition,” states that, “Accelerating and widespread climate change manifests itself in irreversible consequences. The overwhelming weight of scientific analysis points to environmental adjustments and cataclysmic feedback loops that will push ecosystems beyond tipping points.”

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.

Although not all rejoiced in the outcomes of the Glasgow Climate Pact, passed during the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in the United Kingdom last November, it concluded with important steps toward the 1.5-degree Celsius scenario:

– Governments from 153 countries to update and strengthen their nationally determined contributions;

– Strengthened climate adaptation finance efforts; and

– Continued mobilization of billions of US dollars for climate funding and trillions to be reallocated by private institutions and central banks toward global net-zero.

The pact, for the first time, made an explicit mention of the importance of transitioning away from coal but did not commit to “phase out” inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. However, reaching the 1.5 C target remains unlikely, as revealed by the United Nations Environment Program’s 2021 Emissions Gap Report.

An agreement on the fundamental norms related to Article 6 of the Paris Agreement was another key outcome. Businesses and governments also agreed on more aggressive investment in clean technologies, including a faster transition to electric vehicles and landmark pledges on methane emissions and deforestation.

Completing the top 10 global risks, meanwhile, were social cohesion erosion, livelihood crises, infectious diseases, debt crisis and geo-economic confrontation.

“Social cohesion erosion” and “livelihood crises” are the two risks said to have deteriorated the most globally. The report states that these risks and the pandemic itself (“infectious diseases”) are also seen as being among the most imminent threats to the world. This compounds the challenges of effective national policymaking and reduces the attention and focus needed on international cooperation for global challenges.

The report also identifies “debt crises” as an imminent threat for the next two years, reaching their most critical point in three to five years. It said government stimulus was vital to protect incomes, preserve jobs and keep businesses afloat but debt burdens were now high and public budgets would continue to be stretched after the pandemic, even as they are needed for financing just and green transitions.

“Geo-economic confrontations,” meanwhile, are expected to emerge as a critical threat to the world in the medium to long term and are viewed as one of the most potentially severe risks over the next decade.

While pressing domestic challenges require immediate attention, the pandemic and its economic consequences have proven once again that global risks do not respect political frontiers. Humanity faces the shared and compounding threats of economic fragmentation and planetary degradation, which will require a coordinated global response.

Distinct resilience goals of governments, businesses and communities will help ensure that agendas are aligned in achieving a whole-of-society approach to tackling critical risks of any nature, the report emphasized.

The author is the executive director of the Young Environmental Forum and a nonresident fellow of the Stratbase ADR Institute. He completed his climate change and development course at the University of East Anglia and an executive program on sustainability leadership at Yale University. You can email him at [email protected]