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World leaders reveal their 10 biggest fears for the next decade

Tom Belger
·Finance and policy reporter
·3-min read

Watch: World leaders reveal their biggest fears for the decade

The coronavirus crisis should spur the world to “wake up to long-term risks” such as climate change, collapsing asset prices and weapons of mass destruction, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF).

Global leaders’ biggest concerns about the decade ahead are laid out in a new report by WEF, best known for organising an annual summit of leaders at the Davos ski resort in Switzerland.

More than 800 business, government and civil society leaders were surveyed late last year about perceived risks in years to come for the WEF Global Risks Report 2021, published on Tuesday.

Respondents were asked to rank 35 potential short-, medium- and long-term risks. Infectious diseases and livelihood crises were the two greatest concerns for leaders over the next two years, in a sign of the severe and lasting damage expected to result from COVID-19 and government curbs on economies.

Gale force winds blow back the waves at Church Rock on Broad Haven Beach in Pembrokeshire, Wales, Britain, February 23, 2017. REUTERS/Rebecca Naden
Gale force winds blow back the waves at Church Rock on Broad Haven Beach in Pembrokeshire, Wales, Britain, February 23, 2017. REUTERS/Rebecca Naden

Other “clear and present dangers” included extreme weather and digital inequality. WEF’s report warns COVID-19 risked widening the gap between the haves and have-nots in both access to technology and digital skills.

Perceived risks most worrying leaders over the next two to five years include asset bubbles bursting, IT infrastructure breakdowns, price instability, commodity shocks and debt crises.

Top global risks by likelihood and impact, according to global leaders surveyed by the World Economic Forum (WEF). Chart: WEF Global Risks Report 2021
Top global risks by likelihood and impact, according to global leaders surveyed by the World Economic Forum (WEF). Chart: WEF Global Risks Report 2021

Over the second half of this decade, the biggest concerns include weapons of mass destruction, state collapse, biodiversity loss, “adverse” tech advances and natural resource crises.

Leaders were also asked to highlight the risks they believed would be most damaging, as well as those that were most likely. Climate change and the environment loomed large, but leaders appeared pessimistic about humanity acting successfully to address their biggest concerns.

Failure to take action on climate change was perceived as likely to have the largest impact of any issue bar ‘infectious diseases,’ reflecting the COVID-19 pandemic’s toll.

But extreme weather, failure to act on climate change and human environmental damage were also perceived as the three most likely risks, according to the survey.

“In 2020, the risk of a global pandemic became reality, something this report has been highlighting since 2006,” said Saadia Zahidi, managing director of WEF.

“We know how difficult it is for governments, business and other stakeholders to address such long-term risks, but the lesson here is for all of us to recognise that ignoring them doesn’t make them less likely to happen.

“As governments, businesses and societies begin to emerge from the pandemic, they must now urgently shape new economic and social systems that improve our collective resilience and capacity to respond to shocks while reducing inequality, improving health and protecting the planet.”

The survey included 12 new risks compared to the previous report, updated to reflect global emerging trends and concerns in the wake of the pandemic.

They include the collapse of systemically important industries, social security systems or multilateral institutions, deteriorating mental health, mass youth disillusion, prolonged economic stagnation, fracturing international relations, and a “pervasive backlash” against science.

Technology also appears a growing concern, with digital inequality, digital concentrations of power, and failure of technology governance all added in 2020.

Watch: What is a recession?

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