Global risks call for global cooperation as COVID-19 impacts climate action

Anna Triponel

January 18, 2021

The social, economic and political turbulence of 2020 has the world poised on the edge of major changes in 2021 and beyond, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Risks Report. Among the standout findings of the report are the likelihood that social and economic inequality will continue to grow, that climate change remains a “catastrophic threat,” and that the technological advances accelerated by COVID-19 may deepen the global digital divide. However, the report also points out that these risks can be tempered and transformed into opportunities by thinking about crisis management strategically and holistically, strengthening global cooperation on issues like climate and inequality, and focusing on job creation and social cohesion (especially for young people).

The World Economic Forum has launched its annual Global Risks Report for 2021. Following a turbulent 2020 for the global community—between the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the worsening climate crisis and rise in climate refugees, growing mistrust in democratic institutions, intensifying racial justice movements, and armed conflicts causing mass displacement and socioeconomic dislocation—WEF has identified forward-looking risks for the next decade.

At the same time, these findings need not be read as harbingers of more crisis to come. Rather, by highlighting key risks WEF is laying out the challenges while emphasizing the attendant opportunities to overcome these challenges and make positive change for people and the planet. We highlight a few of these key risks and opportunities below.


The Global Risks Report is compiled from data collected through a survey of leaders in business, government and civil society. Survey responses for the 2021 report were collected between September and October 2020 among the World Economic Forum’s different multistakeholder communities. Specifically, “Survey respondents were asked to assess the likelihood of the individual global risk on a scale of 1 to 5, 1 representing a risk that is very unlikely and 5 a risk that is very likely to occur over the course of the next ten years. They also assessed the impact of each global risk on a scale of 1 to 5, 1 representing a minimal impact and 5 a catastrophic impact.”


  • “387 journalists are currently detained in connection with their work”
  • 42 (84%) of those killed in 2020 were “murdered or deliberately targeted in connection with their work,” and 8 (16%) were killed while reporting “in the field without being deliberately targeted as journalists.” RSF reports that some journalists were “murdered in a particularly gruesome manner,” especially in Mexico and India
  • Since 2016, fewer and fewer journalists have been killed in war zones (just 32% in 2020), while the numbers of journalists killed in times of peace is growing (68% in 2020)

Source: World Economic Forum, 2021 Global Risks Report (January 2021)

Source: World Economic Forum, 2021 Global Risks Report (January 2021)

Analysis of Key Findings

“Global risk perceptions”

  • The highest likelihood risks of the next ten years include: extreme weather, climate action failure and human-led environmental damage, digital power concentration, digital inequality and cybersecurity failure.
  • The highest impact risks of the next decade include: infectious diseases, climate action failure and other environmental risks, weapons of mass destruction, livelihood crises, debt crises and IT infrastructure breakdown.

“Economic fragility and societal divisions are set to increase”

  • “Economic and long-term health impacts [from the COVID-19 pandemic] will continue to have devastating consequences” in 2021 and beyond.
  • Inequality will increase as a result of the economic shocks caused by the pandemic (per WEF, “working hours equivalent to 495 million jobs were lost in the second quarter of 2020 alone”). Uneven economic recovery globally will exacerbate inequality, as “only 28 economies are expected to have grown in 2020.”
  • All of this will increase the risk of “social cohesion erosion” locally and globally.

“Growing digital divides and technology adoption pose concerns”

  • “COVID-19 has accelerated the Fourth Industrial Revolution, expanding the digitalization of human interaction, e-commerce, online education and remote work.” These Technological shifts are likely to continue after the pandemic, especially in the world of work and scientific innovation, but “they also risk exacerbating and creating inequalities.”
  • For example, there is still global and national inequality in terms of access to technology, which creates a “widening digital gap [that] can worsen societal fractures and undermine prospects for an inclusive recovery.”
  • WEF predicts that, without action to increase global access to technology, the digital gap will be further expanded “by growing digital dependency, rapidly accelerating automation, information suppression and manipulation, gaps in technology regulation and gaps in technology skills and capabilities.”

“A doubly disrupted generation of youth is emerging in an age of lost opportunity”

  • “Young adults worldwide are experiencing their second major global crisis in a decade. Already exposed to environmental degradation, the consequences of the financial crisis, rising inequality, and disruption from industrial transformation, this generation faces serious challenges to their education, economic prospects and mental health.”
  • As a result, “[h]ard-fought societal wins could be obliterated if the current generation lacks adequate pathways to future opportunities—and loses faith in today’s economic and political institutions.”

“Climate continues to be a looming risk as global cooperation weakens”

  • Climate change is still assessed as a “catastrophic risk,” especially given predictions that global GHG emissions may rise again once the pandemic subsides and the economy begins to recover.
  • Addressing climate change could be made more difficult by “new domestic and geopolitical tensions that threaten stability,” as a well as new social tensions within countries that might “exacerbate[e] geopolitical fragmentation and global economic fragility.”

“A polarized industrial landscape may emerge in the post-pandemic economy”

  • The pandemic has created new business and consumer trends and amplified existing ones. There is a risk that these trends could cause economic stagnation in developed economies and lost gains in emerging economies, as well as the “collapse of small businesses” and a “widening gap” between large and small companies.
  • WEF believes that this may inhibit long-term sustainable development, but emphasizes that “[t]here are opportunities to invest in smart, clean and inclusive growth that will improve productivity and delivery of sustainable agendas.”

“Better pathways are available to manage risks and enhance resilience”

  • The pandemic made clear how tenuous many countries’ crisis management systems are. WEF predicts that the lessons from this crisis may inform and strengthen future risk projection and mitigation, but this can only happen if governments think about crisis management strategically and holistically. That is, “if lessons from this crisis only inform decision-makers how to better prepare for the next pandemic—rather than enhancing risk processes, capabilities and culture—the world will be again planning for the last crisis rather than anticipating the next.”
  • WEF identifies four governance opportunities to strengthen public sector and private sector resilience to global crises:
  • “(1) formulating analytical frameworks that take a holistic and systems-based view of risk impacts;
  • (2) investing in high-profile “risk champions” to encourage national leadership and international co-operation;
  • (3) improving risk communications and combating misinformation; and
  • (4) exploring new forms of public-private partnership on risk preparedness.”

Read the full report here: World Economic Forum, 2021 Global Risks Report (January 2021)

You may also be interested in

This week’s latest resources, articles and summaries.