Pandemic aside, humanity's biggest threats are climate and biodiversity-related, WEF warns

For the second year running, climate-related risks have topped the World Economic Forum's (WEF) ranking of long-term risks by likelihood and severity, alongside the new risks posed by Covid-19.

The WEF publishes a list of the 10 most likely and 10 most impactful risks every January

The WEF publishes a list of the 10 most likely and 10 most impactful risks every January

The WEF publishes a ranking of the top 10 risks to humanity in the long-term in terms of how likely they are, and how severe the direct and knock-on impacts would be, every year ahead of its summit in Davos.

In this year’s list of most likely risks, extreme weather events has taken the top spot. The UN has recorded more than 7,000 extreme weather events between the start of 2000 and the end of 2020, collectively affecting more than 4.2 billion people and resulting in 1.23 million deaths. It is warning that events are likely to become more frequent and more severe in the coming decades.

Climate action failure, environmental damage, infectious diseases and biodiversity loss are named as the other most likely risks. The WEF has taken care to note that all of these risks are interconnected.

For the first time, infectious diseases were named as the top risk in terms of impact, with the WEF considering the social and economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic to date.

“The immediate human and economic costs of COVID-19 are severe,” the body said in a statement. “They threaten to scale back years of progress on reducing global poverty and inequality and further damage social cohesion and global cooperation.”

The UN has already warned that the pandemic will either slow progress or result in net-negative outcomes against several of its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Adverse impacts include difficulties rolling out vaccines for conditions like malaria in developing countries and slowed investments in clean energy. The world was already off-track to delivering against the SDG agenda pre-pandemic.

One of the WEF’s report panellists has told news outlets that the body also considered the likelihood of some nations “hoarding” more doses of vaccines than they need and failing to support a roll-out in less developed nations. 

Pandemic aside, the WEF also named climate action failure, biodiversity loss and natural resource as the most impactful long-term risks, alongside weapons of mass destruction. The body said it has taken note of research proving that the impacts of biodiversity loss and global temperature increase are materialising far more rapidly than expected and are likely to be exponential unless action is accelerated in the near-term.

Delaying Davos

In August 2020, the WEF announced that it was delaying the physical event in Davos for the first time in its history, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The organisation hosted a virtual press briefing earlier this week outlining key themes for digital alternatives. “How to save the planet” is listed as the first theme.

In place of a physical event, the WEF will broadcast a series of “Davos Dialogues” – speeches and panel discussions featuring world leaders, thought leaders and business executives – online, beginning on 25 January. It is then hoping to host an event which is physical – either in part or in full – later in the year.

One of the biggest Davos side events, Energy Week, is going ahead this week in a virtual format.

Sarah George



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