Our planet on the brink of catastrophe

The impact of hurricanes and environmental risks may lead to serious disruption of critical infrastructure

Environmental risks have grown in prominence over the 13-year history of the Global Risks Report, and this trend continued in the latest World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Risks Perception Survey.

All five risks in this category occupy the top-right quadrant of the Global Risks Landscape 2018, indicating higher than average perceptions of both likelihood and impact. Among the most pressing environmental challenges facing us are extreme weather events and temperatures; accelerating biodiversity loss; pollution of air, soil and water; failures of climate-change mitigation and adaptation; and transition risks as we move to a low-carbon future.

However, the truly systemic challenge here rests in the depth of the interconnectedness that exists both among these environmental risks and between them, and risks in other categories — such as water crises and involuntary migration. And as the impact of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico has starkly illustrated, environmental risks can also lead to serious disruption of critical infrastructure.

Extreme Weather Patterns

Extreme weather events in 2017 included unusual frequent Atlantic hurricanes, with three high-impact storms — Harvey, Irma and Maria — making landfall in rapid succession. According to the Accumulated Cyclone Energy Index, which is used to measure the intensity and duration of Atlantic storms, September 2017 was the most intense month on record. It was also the most expensive hurricane season ever.

Extreme rainfall can be particularly damaging — of the 10 natural disasters that caused the most deaths in the first half of 2017, eight involved floods or landslides. Storms and other weather-related hazards are also a leading cause of displacement, with the latest data showing that 76% of the 31.1 million people displaced during 2016 were forced from their homes as a result of weather-related events.

Last year also saw numerous instances of extreme temperatures. When the data were finalised, 2017 was expected to be among the three hottest years on record — the hottest was 2016 — and the hottest non-El Niño year ever. In the first nine months of the year, temperatures were 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels and further increases are inevitable — the most ambitious target included in the Paris Agreement envisages increases only to 1.5°C.

Average changes are giving rise to localised extremes: During 2017, record high temperatures were experienced from parts of southern Europe to eastern and southern Africa, South America, and parts of Russia and China. California had its hottest summer ever, and by the end of November, wildfire burn across the US was at least 46% above the 10-year average, and was continuing into December. Chile had its most extensive wildfires ever — eight times the long-run average — while in Portugal, more than 100 wildfire-related deaths were recorded.

Agricultural Disruption

Rising temperatures and more frequent heatwaves will disrupt agricultural systems that are already strained. The prevalence of monoculture production heightens vulnerability to catastrophic breakdowns in the

food system — more than 75% of the world’s food comes from just 12 plants and five animal species, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, and it is estimated that there is now a one-in-20 chance per decade that heat, drought and flood events will cause a simultaneous failure of maize production in the world’s two main growers, China and the US.

This would cause widespread famine and hardship. Fears of “ecological Armageddon” are being raised by a collapse in populations of insects that are critical to food systems: Researchers in Germany found falls in such populations of more than 75% over 27 years.

Biodiversity Loss

More broadly, biodiversity loss is now occurring at mass-extinction rates. The populations of vertebrate species declined by an estimated 58% between 1970 and 2012.

Globally, the primary driver of biodiversity loss is the human destruction of habitats including forests — which are homes to approximately 80% of the world’s land-based animals, plants and insects — for farming, mining, infrastructure development and oil and gas production. A record 29.7 million ha of tree cover was lost in 2016 — an area about the size of New Zealand. This loss was about 50% higher than 2015. Pollution moved further to the fore as a problem in 2017: Indoor and outdoor air pollution are together responsible for more than one tenth of all deaths globally each year, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). More than 90% of the world’s population live in areas with levels of air pollution that exceed WHO guidelines.

Deaths are overwhelmingly concentrated in lowand middle-income countries, where health problems caused by pollution exacerbate strains on already stretched health systems and public finances. In November 2017, a public health emergency was declared in New Delhi, India, when air pollution reached more than 11 times the WHO guideline levels. Some 24 urban air pollution is likely to worsen, as migration and demographic trends drive the creation of more megacities.

Soil and water pollution causing about half against many deaths, according to findings published in October 2017 by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health. The Commission estimates the overall annual cost of pollution to the global economy at US$4.6 trillion (RM17.94 trillion), equivalent to around 6.2% of output.

Man-made Risks

Many of the associated risks to health are still not well understood. Research suggests, for example, that the huge volume of plastic waste in the world’s water — approximately eight million more tonnes every year — is finding its way into humans. People eating seafood could be ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of micro-plastic every year. Microplastic fibres are found in 83% of the world’s tap water. One concern is that these micro-fibres could bind with compounds containing toxic pesticides or metals, providing these toxins with a route into the body.

The growing urgency of acting to halt climate change was demonstrated in 2017 with the news that emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) had risen for the first time in four years, bringing atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to 403 parts per million, compared to a preindustrial baseline of 280 parts per million. The

increase in emissions last year was partly a result of developments in China, where the heatwaves mentioned above led to a 6.3% increase in energy consumption, and extreme drought in the north of the country led to a switch from hydro to coalfired power generation.

There are reasons to expect further upward pressure on CO2 concentrations in the future. Having absorbed 93% of the increase in global temperatures between 1971 and 2010, the world’s oceans continue to get warmer, and studies suggest that their capacity to absorb CO2 may be declining.

Research also suggests that tropical forests are now releasing rather than absorbing CO2.

Political Factors

The risk that political factors might disrupt efforts to mitigate climate change was highlighted last year when US President Donald Trump announced plans to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement. However, several other major economies — notably China — reaffirmed their support of the Paris Agreement during 2017.

In addition, many US businesses, cities and states have pledged to help deliver on the country’s emissions reduction targets.

In addition to meeting the immediate environmental challenges that we face, we also need to focus more acutely on the potential economic and societal risks that may arise as transition to a low-carbon and environmentally secure world accelerates.

Structural economic changes in affected countries and regions could also stoke societal and geopolitical risks. There is no scope for complacency about the sufficiency of global efforts to deal with climate change and the continued degradation of the global environmental commons. Equally, however, it is time to prepare for the structural challenges and changes that lie ahead as those efforts gather pace.

  • Extracted from the 13th edition of Global Risks Report 2018, recently published by the World Economic Forum.