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2020: a litmus test for environmental risk

Published on 27 January 2020

Dr. Katherine Kramer

The World Economic Forum, a hotbed of business and industry leaders, published its Global Risks Report 2020 on the 15th of January. For those who care about the planet, it is not comforting to see their worst fears reflected in others’ risk assessments.

For the first time, all five global risks deemed by the survey participants as ‘most likely’ were environmental. In order of perceived probability these were: extreme weather, climate action failure, natural disasters, biodiversity loss and human-made environmental disasters

WEF graphic 1
Long-term Risk Outlook 2020 (Global Risks Report, p. 17)

Three of these – climate action failure (1), biodiversity loss (3) and extreme weather (4) – also made it into the top five risks with greatest impact. Compared to weapons of mass destruction (2), biodiversity loss was arguably underrated for its risk: biodiversity is a fundamental component of the life-support system of the planet and its loss is a world-wide risk, something not necessarily true of WMDs.

Wef graphic 2
The Global Risks Landscape 2020 (Global Risks Report, p.3)

The five ‘most likely’ risks are not orthogonal factors. For example, climate change contributes to increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events and biodiversity loss, and is a human-made environmental disaster. Biodiversity loss, through the destruction of carbon-rich ecosystems, is a significant driver of climate change. It may be that the clustering of these issues in the assessment actually reflects these interrelationships.

The fact that these five were seen as more probable than risks like interstate conflict (and there has not been a year in modern human history without a war somewhere) is depressing and concerning in the extreme. It shows that there is little hope in the WEF’s stakeholder group that humanity will act effectively to reduce and start to reverse these risks.

These fears are shared by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, whose Science and Security Board includes 13 Nobel Laureates and, for the first time this year, members of The Elders. Their symbolic ‘Doomsday Clock’ represents Earthly risk, with midnight representing planetary annihilation. Failure to tackle climate change, nuclear proliferation, and cyber-based disinformation concerns have meant that for 2020, the clock measures 100 seconds to midnight, the first time it has been measured in seconds, not minutes.

But, 2020 is our best chance for some time for humanity to start to effect a new, and more sustainable, relationship with the world. Public mobilization, which will only increase from the existing successes of Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for the Future, will hopefully drive a more hopeful set of environmental predictions from the WEF in 2021. Litmus tests of whether this will happen include the UN biodiversity and climate summits, in October and November respectively. These will be important expressions of global political will to make positive changes to how people interact with, and impact, the atmosphere and biosphere.


At the last UN climate summit in Madrid in December 2019, all countries “reemphasize[d] with serious concern the urgent need to address the significant gap between the aggregate effect of Parties’ mitigation efforts” and Paris’s 1.5ºC goal. They also “stresse[d] the urgency of enhanced action in order to ensure the highest possible mitigation... by all Parties”.

While this was not the unequivocal mandate for all countries to enhance their ‘nationally-determined contributions’ (NDCs) in line with limiting warming to 1.5ºC that many had hoped for, there is still a widely-held strong expectation that there will be progress, even if not all countries (US…? Saudi Arabia…?) come up with stronger plans of action. Already 108 countries have expressed the intention to ‘enhance’ ambition or action in their NDC this year, and a further 37 (including the EU) plan to ‘update’ theirs. But these are mainly smaller emitters: together they still only comprise 27.1% of global emissions.


The Convention on Biological Diversity is expected to agree a new 10-year Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, setting new targets to slow and reverse biodiversity loss. The recent Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services report found that 1 million species are at risk of extinction.

This potentially catastrophic loss of life at the species level also presents a major risk to the ecosystems on which many of the world’s poorest people rely for food and other basic life-sustaining commodities. It also presents a risk to the global climate: biodiverse ecosystems are generally regarded as being more stable – including to disruptors, such as climate change impacts, which can then release stored carbon back to the atmosphere.

Unless there is commitment to action from business interests, such as the WEF stakeholders, and political will to deliver it from world leaders at the two UN summits, fears that the ‘high risk’ outcomes will have even ‘higher likelihood’ in 2021, and beyond, can only increase.