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WEF's top 5 global risks for 2020 are all about the environment

Key Points
  • Economic and political polarization will rise in 2020, according to the World Economic Forum's latest Global Risks report, but severe threats to the climate account for all of the top five long-term risks.
  • The report published Wednesday, just days before the annual WEF event kicks off in Davos, Switzerland, forecasted a year of increased domestic and international divisions as well as economic slowdown.
Burnt trees are seen in Mallacoota on January 15, 2020 , Australia. The Princes Highway between Mallacoota and Orbost remains closed to public due to the risk of falling trees following the devastating bushfires that have swept through East Gippsland in recent weeks.
Luis Ascui

Economic and political polarization will rise in 2020, according to the World Economic Forum's latest Global Risks report, but severe threats to the climate account for all of the top five long-term risks.

The report published Wednesday, just days before the annual WEF event kicks off in Davos, Switzerland, forecasted a year of increased domestic and international divisions as well as economic slowdown.

Respondents were asked to assess both the likelihood of a global risk occurring over the course of the next 10 years, and the severity of its impact at a global level if it were to occur.

For the first time in the survey's 10-year outlook, the top five global risks in terms of likelihood were all environmental, with extreme weather events, human-made environmental damage and disasters and major biodiversity loss and natural disasters from earthquakes to tsunamis all the likeliest risks in 2020. In terms of the severity of impact over the next 10 years, the top risk was deemed to be the failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation.

"Geopolitical turbulence is propelling us towards an 'unsettled' unilateral world of great power rivalries at a time when business and government leaders must focus urgently on working together to tackle shared risks," the report stated.

WEF said that collaboration between world leaders, businesses and policy-makers was needed to stop severe threats to the climate, environment, public health and technology systems.

"The political landscape is polarized, sea levels are rising and climate fires are burning. This is the year when world leaders must work with all sectors of society to repair and reinvigorate our systems of cooperation, not just for short-term benefit but for tackling our deep-rooted risks," Borge Brende, president of the World Economic Forum, said.

Climate risks

Over 750 global experts and decision-makers were asked to rank their biggest concerns in terms of likelihood and impact and 78% said they expect "economic confrontations" and "domestic political polarization" to rise in 2020: "This would prove catastrophic, particularly for addressing urgent challenges like the climate crisis, biodiversity loss and record species decline," the report, produced in partnership with Marsh & McLennan and Zurich Insurance Group, stated.

"This points to a need for policy-makers to match targets for protecting the Earth with ones for boosting economies — and for companies to avoid the risks of potentially disastrous future losses by adjusting to science-based targets."

The report's publication comes as minds are concentrated on climate change with record temperatures and drought fuelling Australian wildfires that continue to ravage the natural habitat of parts of the country, causing 28 deaths so far, the loss of thousands of homes and biodiversity loss.

John Drzik, chairman of Marsh & McLennan Insights, told CNBC that the report's findings were striking. "Environmental risks have been growing as a concern in the report over that ten-year period, but this was very striking to see the top five all in the climate sphere," he told CNBC's Joumanna Bercetche.

"A new area that's really been rising in the risks report is around biodiversity loss and the concerns both of its direct impact as well as its intersection with climate." He noted that it was getting harder for countries to tackle issues like climate change together as the geopolitical environment becomes more fractured.

"The natural institutions to try to resolve things on a multilateral basis have been weakening, and so it's harder to tackle an issue like climate in a multilateral, multi-stakeholder approach." This year marks the 50th anniversary of the World Economic Forum in the Swiss Alps, with the theme this year being "Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World."

Stakeholders

Among the high-profile guests are President Donald Trump and the 17-year old climate activist Greta Thunberg. Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission; Sanna Marin, prime minister of Finland (and the world's youngest serving prime minister) and Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil are also attending.

WEF noted that respondents to its global risks report who were born after 1980 ranked environmental risks higher than other respondents, in the short and long-term.

Almost 90% of these respondents believe "extreme heat waves", "destruction of ecosystems" and "health impacted by pollution" will be aggravated in 2020. They also believe that the impact from environmental risks by 2030 will be more catastrophic and more likely.

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