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The Global Risks Report 2021, 16th Edition - Insight Report

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Executive Summary

The immediate human and economic cost of COVID-19 is severe. It threatens to scale back years of progress on reducing poverty and inequality and to further weaken social cohesion and global cooperation. Job losses, a widening digital divide, disrupted social interactions, and abrupt shifts in markets could lead to dire consequences and lost opportunities for large parts of the global population. The ramifications—in the form of social unrest, political fragmentation and geopolitical tensions—will shape the effectiveness of our responses to the other key threats of the next decade: cyberattacks, weapons of mass destruction and, most notably, climate change.

In the Global Risks Report 2021, we share the results of the latest Global Risks Perception Survey (GRPS), followed by analysis of growing social, economic and industrial divisions, their interconnections, and their implications on our ability to resolve major global risks requiring societal cohesion and global cooperation. We conclude the report with proposals for enhancing resilience, drawing from the lessons of the pandemic as well as historical risk analysis. The key findings of the survey and the analysis are included below.

Global risks perceptions

Among the highest likelihood risks of the next ten years are extreme weather, climate action failure and human-led environmental damage; as well as digital power concentration, digital inequality and cybersecurity failure. Among the highest impact risks of the next decade, infectious diseases are in the top spot, followed by climate action failure and other environmental risks; as well as weapons of mass destruction, livelihood crises, debt crises and IT infrastructure breakdown.

When it comes to the time-horizon within which these risks will become a critical threat to the world, the most imminent threats – those that are most likely in the next two years – include employment and livelihood crises, widespread youth disillusionment, digital inequality, economic stagnation, human-made environmental damage, erosion of societal cohesion, and terrorist attacks.

Economic risks feature prominently in the 3-5 year timeframe, including asset bubbles, price instability, commodity shocks and debt crises; followed by geopolitical risks, including interstate relations and conflict, and resource geopolitization. In the 5-10 year horizon, environmental risks such as biodiversity loss, natural resource crises and climate action failure dominate; alongside weapons of mass destruction, adverse effects of technology and collapse of states or multilateral institutions.

Economic fragility and societal divisions are set to increase

Underlying disparities in healthcare, education, financial stability and technology have led the crisis to disproportionately impact certain groups and countries. Not only has COVID-19 caused more than two million deaths at the time of writing, but the economic and long-term health impacts will continue to have devastating consequences. The pandemic’s economic shockwave—working hours equivalent to 495 million jobs were lost in the second quarter of 2020 alone—will immediately increase inequality, but so can an uneven recovery. Only 28 economies are expected to have grown in 2020. Nearly 60% of respondents to the GRPS identified “infectious diseases” and “livelihood crises” as the top short-term threats to the world. Loss of lives and livelihoods will increase the risk of “social cohesion erosion”, also a critical short-term threat identified in the GRPS.