Scars left by the Covid-19 pandemic have deepened the global divide between rich and poor countries and will make it harder to find common cause in the fight against global heating, according to the World Economic Forum.
A WEF report puts climate or environment-related threats in the top five slots in its list of the 10 long-term risks but warned a “vaccine divide” was making collaboration to limit temperature increases more difficult.
Børge Brende, the WEF’s president said the report showed the cost of inaction on the climate emergency was far greater than the cost of action. “Our planet is on fire and we have to deal with it”, he said.
In its annual global risks survey, the WEF – which has postponed its annual meeting in Davos until the summer because of the rapid spread of the Omicron variant – said the mood among its members was downbeat.
Only 16% of those who responded to the survey said they were optimistic about the outlook for the world, and just 11% believe the global recovery will accelerate. Most respondents envisaged the next three years to be marked by either volatility and shocks or by a widening of the gap between winners and losers.
Saadia Zahidi, the WEF managing director, said: “Health and economic disruptions are compounding social cleavages. This is creating tensions at a time when collaboration within societies and among the international community will be fundamental to ensure a more even and rapid global recovery.
“Global leaders must come together and adopt a coordinated multi-stakeholder approach to tackle unrelenting global challenges and build resilience ahead of the next crisis.”
Looking 10 years ahead, the WEF report found failure to act on climate change to be the biggest global risk, followed by extreme weather, biodiversity loss, natural resource crises and human environmental damage.
Peter Giger, the group chief risk officer at Zurich insurance group, which helped to put together the report, said: “The climate crisis remains the biggest long-term threat facing humanity.
“Failure to act on climate change could shrink global GDP by one-sixth and the commitments taken at Cop26 are still not enough to achieve the 1.5 centigrade goal. It is not too late for governments and businesses to act on the risks they face and to drive an innovative, determined and inclusive transition that protects economies and people.”
The report said the economic fallout from the pandemic was adding to already existing pressures – such as widening digital, education and skills gaps – that risked splitting the world into different trajectories.
“In some countries, rapid vaccine rollout, successful digital transformations and new growth opportunities could mean a return to pre-pandemic trends in the short term and the possibility of a more resilient outlook over a longer horizon,” it said.
“Yet many other countries will be held back by low rates of vaccination, continued acute stress on health systems, digital divides and stagnant job markets. These divergences will complicate the international collaboration needed to address the worsening impacts of climate change, manage migration flows and combat dangerous cyber-risks.”
Respondents to the survey said the two years since the start of the pandemic had led to heightened “societal risks”. Mental health had deteriorated, livelihoods had been damaged and social cohesion eroded, they said.
Brende said the report highlighted the global nature of current and future challenges and urged countries to adopt a “prosper thy neighbour” rather than a “beggar thy neighbour” approach.
“The pandemic doesn’t travel with a passport. We are not out of the woods yet”, he said.