On Jan 23–26, global leaders gathered once again in Davos, Switzerland, on the occasion of the 48th World Economic Forum annual meeting. In the past few years the global landscape has changed substantially economically and politically, putting our planet seriously in danger, and for the first time these environmental threats were put at the centre of the debate. According to the World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report 2018, released a week before the meeting was held, the most pressing threats that are perceived as having the biggest impact in the next 10 years are extreme weather events and natural disasters, failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation, water crises, biodiversity loss, and air and soil pollution. Before 2010, environmental risks had never topped the global risks report, but have done so three times since then.
What has changed so dramatically to justify this elevation? What has made the environmental so important suddenly? Why are global leaders putting the environment in the spotlight?
Economic collapses, triggered by oil price shocks or financial crises, were frequently considered to be the most likely risks to cause significant global disruption before 2011. Back then, environmental issues such as extreme weather events and natural disasters took a backseat. In the past 7 years this attitude has changed strikingly; not because economic risks have been melted way or resolved but because they have been surpassed by concerns over the lack of action on the environmental front.
Today it is not difficult to see how the environment tops the list, given the extreme climate events of the past few years. 2017 for example was characterised by the three frightening Atlantic hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria; extreme temperatures; and a rise in carbon dioxide for the first time in 4 years. Storms and high temperatures have imposed a huge economic burden on the governments of many nations—the economic losses from global disasters was estimated to be as high as US $306 billion in 2017, almost double the amount recorded in 2016 of $188 billion. The USA was the most damaged. The three storms losses were estimated to have contributed $93 billion to the annual economic losses from global disasters, but they were also the leading cause of human displacement and insecurity. According to the report, in 2016, 76% of the 31·1 million people displaced were forced from their homes as a consequence of weather events. 2017 was also the hottest year on record; temperatures were 1·1°C above preindustrial levels and further increases are expected. Rising temperatures and frequent heatwaves are expected to strain agriculture systems. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, heat, drought, and flood events will cause a fault in the production of maize in the two biggest growers (the USA and China). Loss in biodiversity is occurring at disturbing rates. Destruction of forests for farming, mining, and oil and gas production, not to mention infrastructure development, remains the main driver of biodiversity loss. And as if these challenges were not enough, air pollution is not making our life on this planet any better. More than 90% of the world's population live in areas with levels of pollution exceeding WHO guidelines.
2018 is not looking a more promising year. As we move towards an era of decarbonisation, new risks are expected to arise. Drastic changes in the way energy will be produced are likely to pose new risks on economies, societies, and our planet.
Unfortunately, not enough has been done to mitigate climate change and to preserve our planet. Scenarios from the fifth assessment report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that keep the temperature rises to less than 2°C above the preindustrial level rely on the implementation of carbon dioxide removal (negative emission) technologies during the latter half of the century. However a broader range of scenarios that do not place the burden on future generations should employed, as highlighted in a commentary in Nature Climate Change. There, the authors argue that to support international policymakers in limiting climate change we need a more realistic and earlier deployment of interventions.
We live in era characterised by a great technological, scientific, and financial development. The current generation are facing today a big challenge to use available resources in a sustainable way to build a more resilient future. Scientists, policymakers, global leaders, societies, and governments across regions and nations have the responsibility to reduce the global risks by setting more realistic targets and work together to build a better world for all.