The crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) is the most pressing issue facing the world as we enter the third decade of the 21st century. However, in the long term, there are various other risks that the world must prepare for, as we gradually recover from the economic effects of the coronavirus.
The Global Risks Report is published annually by the World Economic Forum (WEF) to highlight the major risks and challenges faced globally. The Global Risks Report 2020, titled An Unsettled World, recognizes environment-related risks as among the most likely to materialize and having the greatest impact. In fact, the 2020 report points to “climate action failure” as the greatest risk identified by the multistakeholders in terms of impact for the coming decade. The most prolific risks facing the world in 2020s are as follows.
A major concern today is that extreme weather is fast becoming a norm, coupled with climate inaction and environmental policy failure. Natural disasters, such as storms and floods, continue to claim lives, damage infrastructure, and cost countries millions of dollars. Climate change is also causing widespread biodiversity loss, resulting in the extinction of living species, and harming ecosystems, including forests and oceans.
Another great environmental risk is the impact of the sea-level rise on coastal cities and communities. Today, 570 coastal cities are home to over 800 million people around the world. Rising sea levels not only threaten property and infrastructure over the next 10 years, but also have an adverse impact on drinking water, energy, sanitation, internet, and tourism.
The global economic situation has deteriorated due to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, causing many countries to enter a recession. Major economies around the world are poised to report negative growth in the 2020 financial year, and the global economy is expected to take a few years to recover from this disaster. In addition, income and wealth disparities, particularly within countries, continue to rise, negatively affecting their social and economic setups.
The global debt burden, at about 226 percent of the GDP, is also dangerously high, with many low- and middle-income countries facing debt distress. Moreover, with high financial market volatility and potential asset bubbles in major economies, the possibility of another financial crisis in the next 10 years cannot be ruled out.
Human and Biological
The coronavirus pandemic has affected millions of people, and killed over half a million, around the world. Another outbreak of this pandemic in the next few years cannot be ruled out, according to medical experts. Similarly, diseases such as Ebola, MERS, Zika, and yellow fever have affected over 44 million people since 1970.
Today, around 700 million people worldwide suffer from mental health problems, linked to the technological, societal, and work-related transformations that are taking place around us. While depression is undoubtedly becoming more common, psychological stress – which results from a lack of control in uncertain times – is another growing phenomenon.
Tensions between major world powers have been on the rise – from the prospects of a worsening trade war between USA and China to territorial disputes both on land and sea. Military standoffs between some countries pose a threat to peace, as does the pursuit of competing interests by major and regional powers in the troubled Middle East.
Multilateralism continues to weaken as countries like USA withdraw, or threaten to withdraw, from international agreements and institutions, and adopt a selective approach in upholding norms and rules. Among the various geopolitical risks, the use of weapons of mass destruction – though not very likely to materialize – remains the greatest risk in terms of impact.
While technology creates convenience and efficiency, it also brings with it risks of data fraud and cyberattacks. Such risks are profound for the financial sector, with many central and commercial banks becoming targets of cyberattacks in recent years. Enormous data breaches have revealed new hardware weaknesses, while research has pointed to the potential use of artificial intelligence to perpetrate such attacks.
Identity theft and fake news are among other technological vulnerabilities that are likely to increase in the coming years, necessitating countries and organisations to strengthen their systems to counter such risks. In addition, the loss of privacy to governments and corporations has been identified as a major technological risk in the current decade.
Food crises may be triggered in the coming years due to extreme climate conditions, such as droughts and floods, as well as pandemics like the coronavirus. Similarly, water crises in various parts of the world, continuing since several decades, are also expected to characterize the coming decade.
Involuntary migration poses serious challenges to the migrants as well as the communities hosting them. The response to the migrant crisis has already divided many countries along political and social lines. Other significant societal risks facing the world in the coming years include social instability and failure of urban planning.
The world must address these risks in a timely manner in order to avoid a catastrophic outcome – as has been the case with the outbreak of the coronavirus. As the Global Risks Report 2020 argues, “There is still scope for stakeholders to address these risks, but the window of opportunity is closing. Coordinated, multistakeholder action is needed quickly to mitigate against the worst outcomes and build resiliency across communities and businesses.”