“Climate action failure,” said Emilio Granados Franco, “is an existential threat to humanity that is going to start showing its face over the next five to 10 years.”
Granados, the Head of Global Risks and Geopolitical Agenda at the World Economic Forum, gave this sober warning about the all-too-immediate future in his opening plenary session at Engineers Australia’s Climate Smart Engineering Conference 2021.
“I don’t need to tell you about hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, and polar ice melting,” Granados said. “These are, by now — or should be by now — things that we all know by memory.”
The risk of climate action failure, Granados said, has both a high likelihood and a high impact — a particularly dangerous combination. And it is, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Risks Report, one of the top five global risks as rated by likelihood as well as by severity.
And it is not the only environmental risk identified by the report, an annual global risks perception survey that the World Economic Forum has conducted since 2007. Extreme weather and human environmental damage, for instance, are also significant threats to the economy, society and planet.
“Environmental risks … have really taken the top spots both by likelihood and impact,” Granados explained.
“Twenty-twenty was the first year in the report’s history when five of the top five likely risks were all environmental.”
Immediate concerns and spillover effects
This year, infectious diseases — such as COVID-19 — made the list, but apart from that, concerns remained focused on environmental issues.
And although immediate environmental impacts of climate change are severe enough, what Granados called the “spillover effects” are also cause for alarm.
“For example, health issues,” he said. “Poor quality of air and food will only lead to [a] higher incidence of infectious diseases.”
This includes not just mosquito-borne diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever, but also new diseases emerging from other species.
“We will also continue to see food and water prices [increase], because food production needs to double by 2050,” Granados said.
“Another spillover effect is in migration. In 2020 alone, 30 million people were far from their homes, but going forward, over the next 30 years, that number could amount to more than 200 million at risk of displacement.”
That could lead to geopolitical disputes, particularly among middle-power nations like Australia. And other political challenges could emerge, such as control over a newly ice-free Arctic Sea, disputes about overfishing, and collapsing ecosystems as a result of reduced biodiversity.
“Also, as we saw in COP26, geopolitical tensions over climate are going to expose fossil-intensive economies that may see fewer incentives or higher challenges to strongly committed climate action,” he said.
Engineers will matter
These risks mean that a transition to net-zero carbon emissions is a necessity, and that effort will require engineers.
“We have to transition to net-zero, but it’s still not clear how,” Granados said. “We know some of the most potential gains will come from technological transformation. My concern is personally that some of these technologies may be unaffordable at an individual level and also at an international level.”
He also pointed to potential trade-offs that could affect the transition, such as dependence on mineral resources.
“While some of these technologies may work, we need to get ahead of them and think about [them] over the next 20 years,” Granados said.
Developing countries, in particular, might need help to balance existing technologies with new ones.
“There are some technologies that countries invested tonnes of their public budgets in 10 years ago because they held the promise of delivering cleaner energy,” Granados said.
“Pressuring those countries to part from those technologies is as challenging as helping them finance the new ones. So we need to take technologies that still have some ways to go, but start introducing new technologies at the same time as we ease [off from] the others.”
But even though Granados focused on the climate threats that were both likely and devastating, he also touched on a couple of risks receiving less attention.
“The first one is a backlash against science,” he said.
“I’m concerned about it because we’re in a planetary crisis because we didn’t listen to the science decades ago. We were surprised by the pandemic because we didn’t listen to the science 10 years ago.”
And a distrust of scientific expertise could intensify all other problems — with climate change an example. The World Economic Forum report identified the easy — and sometimes intentional — spread of misinformation through digital networks as a concern.
“The second one is industry collapse,” Granados continued. “There are some sectors that lose from the transition, and I think also one of the reasons why we haven’t been able to see more decisive or immediate commitment from some governments is precisely because they still hinge or depend on these industries that need to be phased out — to use COP26 language … And we haven’t created the opportunities for the millions of people that are employed by them.”