Visualized: A Global Risk Assessment of 2021 And Beyond
Risk is all around us. After the events of 2020, it’s not surprising that the level and variety of risks we face have become more pronounced than ever.
Every year, the World Economic Forum analyzes the top risks in the world in its Global Risks Report. Risks were identified based on 800+ responses of surveyed leaders across various levels of expertise, organizations, and regional distribution.
Which risks are top of mind in 2021?
The World’s Top Risks by Likelihood and Impact
According to WEF’s risk assessment methodology, all the global risks in 2021 fall into the following broad categories:
- 🔵 Economic
- 🟢 Environmental
- 🟠 Geopolitical
- 🔴 Societal
- 🟣 Technological
It goes without saying that infectious diseases have now become one of the top societal risks on both metrics of likelihood and impact.
That said, environmental risks continue to dominate the leaderboard, accounting for five of the top 10 risks by impact, especially when it comes to climate action failure.
Several countries are off-track in meeting emissions goals set by the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, while the pandemic has also delayed progress in the shift towards a carbon-neutral economy. Meanwhile, biodiversity loss is occurring at unprecedented rates.
|Rank||Top Risks by Likelihood||Top Risks by Impact|
|#1||🟢Extreme weather||🔴Infectious diseases|
|#2||🟢Climate action failure||🟢Climate action failure|
|#3||🟢Human environmental damage||🟠Weapons of mass destruction|
|#4||🔴Infectious diseases||🟢Biodiversity loss|
|#5||🟢Biodiversity loss||🟢Natural resource crises|
|#6||🟣Digital power concentration||🟢Human environmental damage|
|#7||🟣Digital inequality||🔴Livelihood crises|
|#8||🟠Interstate relations fracture||🟢Extreme weather|
|#9||🟣Cybersecurity failure||🔵Debt crises|
|#10||🔴Livelihood crises||🟣IT Infrastructure breakdown|
As for other risks, the prospect of weapons of mass destruction ranks in third place for potential impact. In the global arms race, a single misstep would trigger severe consequences on civil and political stability.
New Risks in 2021
While many of the risks included in the Global Risks Report 2021 are familiar to those who have read the editions of years past, there are a flurry of new entries to the list this year.
Here are some of the most interesting ones in the risk assessment, sorted by category:
COVID-19 has resulted in a myriad of knock-on societal risks, from youth disillusionment and mental health deterioration to livelihood crises. The first two risks in particular go hand-in-hand, as “pandemials” (youth aged 15-24) are staring down a turbulent future. This generation is more likely to report high distress from disrupted educational and economic prospects.
At the same time, as countries prepare for widespread immunization against COVID-19, another related societal risk is the backlash against science. The WEF identifies vaccines and immunization as subjects susceptible to disinformation and denial of scientific evidence.
As monetary stimulus was kicked into high gear to prop up markets and support many closed businesses and quarantined families, the economic outlook seems more fragile than ever. Debt-to-GDP ratios continue to rise across advanced economies—if GDP growth stagnates for too long, a potential debt crisis could see many businesses and major nations default on their debt.
With greater stress accumulating on a range of major industries such as travel and hospitality, the economy risks a build-up of “zombie” firms that drag down overall productivity. Despite this, market valuations and asset prices continue to rise, with equity markets rewarding investors betting on a swift recovery so far.
Last but not least, COVID-19 has raised the alert on various technological risks. Despite the accelerated shift towards remote work and digitalization of entire industries, the reality is that digital inequality leaves those with lower digital literacy behind—worsening existing inequalities.
Big Tech is also bloating even further, growing its digital power concentration. The market share some companies hold in their respective sectors, such as Amazon in online retail, threatens to erode the agency of other players.
Assessing the Top 10 Risks On the Horizon
Back in mid-2020, the WEF attempted to quantify the biggest risks over an 18-month period, with a prolonged economic recession emerging on top.
In this report’s risk assessment, global risks are further classified by how soon their resulting threats are expected to occur. Weapons of mass destruction remain the top risk, though on a much longer scale of up to 10 years in the future.
|#1||🟠Weapons of mass destruction||62.7||Long-term (5-10 years)|
|#2||🔴Infectious diseases||58||Short-term risks (0-2 years)|
|#3||🔴Livelihood crises||55.1||Short-term risks (0-2 years)|
|#4||🔵Asset bubble burst||53.3||Medium-term risks (3-5 years)|
|#5||🟣 IT infrastructure breakdown||53.3||Medium-term risks (3-5 years)|
|#6||🔵Price instability||52.9||Medium-term risks (3-5 years)|
|#7||🟢Extreme weather events||52.7||Short-term risks (0-2 years)|
|#8||🔵Commodity shocks||52.7||Medium-term risks (3-5 years)|
|#9||🔵Debt crises||52.3||Medium-term risks (3-5 years)|
|#10||🟠State collapse||51.8||Long-term (5-10 years)|
Through this perspective, COVID-19 (and its variants) remains high in the next two years as the world scrambles to return to normal.
It’s also clear that more economic risks are taking center stage, from an asset bubble burst to price instability that could have a profound effect over the next five years.
UN Sustainable Development Goals: How Companies Stack Up
Are companies making progress in meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals? This tracker shows how companies are measuring up.
The UN SDGs: How Companies Stack Up
Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing witnessed a breakthrough year in 2020 with the most fund inflows on record.
Importantly, for companies that are judged according to ESG metrics, one way to track their progress is through their alignment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Established in 2012, the UN SDGs are a blueprint for creating a more sustainable future by 2030 that have been adopted by 193 countries worldwide.
As investors and stakeholders pay closer attention to sustainability concerns, this graphic from MSCI breaks down how companies stack up according to their alignment to the UN SDGs.
How Were Companies Measured?
To track companies net contribution to the UN SDGs, companies were scored by their positive or negative contribution to each of the 17 goals.
The 17 UN SDGs are designed to achieve three primary objectives by 2030:
- Protect the planet
- End poverty
- Create prosperity and peace for all
Specifically, the framework centers on a discussion paper that was developed in partnership with the OECD in 2018. Company policies, operations, products and services, and practices are analyzed according to reported and publicly available information.
Tracking the Alignment of Companies
Across a universe of 8,550 companies in the MSCI All Country World Index, constituents were measured from strongly aligned to strongly misaligned to the UN SDGs.
|3||Good Health and Well-being||0||315||141||29|
|6||Clean Water and Sanitation||17||325||36||10|
|7||Affordable and Clean Energy||43||639||109||587|
|8||Decent Work and Economic Growth||25||1269||52||17|
|9||Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure||68||844||137||9|
|11||Sustainable Cities and Communities||0||0||167||19|
|12||Responsible Consumption and Production||115||855||150||598|
|14||Life Below Water||0||36||151||92|
|15||Life on Land||0||0||128||17|
|16||Peace and Justice Strong Institutions||0||135||241||27|
|17||Partnerships to Achieve the Goal||0||401||152||22|
Source: MSCI ESG Research LLC as of August 11, 2020
Broadly speaking, companies fell mostly in the middle—roughly 38% were aligned while almost 55% were misaligned or neutral. Meanwhile, just 0.2% of companies were strongly aligned to the UN SDGs.
Overall, one of the most strongly aligned goals was Responsible Production and Consumption, with 115 companies meeting this criteria. Specifically, these include companies that are building sustainable infrastructure, energy efficiency, or creating green jobs.
Interestingly, the worst performing goal was also Responsible Production and Consumption, with over five times as many companies (598) strongly misaligned. Along with this goal, both Climate Action and Affordable and Clean Energy each had over 500 companies strongly misaligned.
UN SDGs: A Sector Focus
Unsurprisingly, SDG-alignment varied widely according to company sectors.
Educational companies, for instance, represented the highest level of alignment to Gender Equality. Meanwhile, 18% of 425 utilities companies assessed ended up aligning with Clean and Affordable Energy goals.
As one would expect, the energy sector lagged behind. In 2020, fossil fuels were a key source of revenue for 91% of the companies in the energy business. In fact, just three companies derived over 50% of their revenues from green alternatives: REX American Resources, Renewable Energy Group, and Verbio.
A Call to Action?
Despite the growing wave of interest in ESG investing, the reality is that progress to meet the UN SDGs has been slower going than expected.
However, a greater number of individuals, stakeholders, and activists are sounding the alarm. Today, over 3,000 signatories representing trillions in assets under management have committed to the UN Principles of Responsible Investment, which has established six key actions for ESG investing. Now, many companies are required to report their ESG disclosures in Europe.
Along with these key markers of progress, investors can move the dial by tracking a company’s alignment to sustainable development goals.
Mapped: The Greenest Countries in the World
The world’s growing focus on sustainability is a clear sign of the times. This map ranks the 40 greenest countries in the world.
Mapped: The Greenest Countries in the World
From widening wealth disparity to the environmental ramifications of economic development—the growing focus on global sustainability is a clear sign of the times.
Research reveals that when a sustainable ethos is applied to policy and business, it typically bodes well for economies and people alike. By providing benchmarks for those decisions, indexes like Yale’s Environmental Performance Index (EPI) can be critical to measuring national sustainability efforts.
The above map interprets the EPI ranking of 180 economies across 32 environmental health indicators by narrowing in on the top 40 greenest countries.
Who’s the Greenest of them All?
Despite the decades-long trend of globalization, national environmental policies have proved to be widely divergent. The EPI report confirms that those policies—and their positive results—are highly correlated with national wealth.
This is evidenced in the global EPI distributions, seen below:
|OVERALL RANK||COUNTRY||SCORE||REGIONAL RANK|
|24||United States of America||69.3||21|
|42||United Arab Emirates||55.6||2|
|63||Antigua and Barbuda||48.5||10|
|65||St. Vincent and Grenadines||48.4||11|
|69||Trinidad and Tobago||47.5||14|
|78||Bosnia and Herzegovina||45.4||18|
|119||São Tomé and Príncipe||37.6||10|
|124||Central African Republic||36.9||12|
|125||Dem. Rep. Congo||36.4||13|
|146||Papua New Guinea||32.4||20|
|154||Republic of Congo||30.8||26|
Regional grouping in the report include: Global West, Asia-Pacific, Eastern Europe, Former Soviet States, Greater Middle East, Latin America & Caribbean, Southern Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa
Scandinavian countries, which tend to have a high GDP per capita, show strong and consistent results across EPI parameters. Denmark for instance—which ranks first overall—leads the world in slowing its growth in CO2 emissions. Meanwhile, neighbor Sweden leads in landfill and recycling treatment, while wastewater treatment is led by a handful of countries within and beyond Scandinavia including Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Singapore, and Sweden.
In North America, Canada claims top spot in the biodiversity and habitat category, while the U.S. ranks sixth in agricultural diversity globally. In Asia, Singapore leads the world in fishery health and sustainability.
Ultimately, it appears the world’s greenest countries tend to focus on all areas of sustainability, while laggard countries show more uneven performance across categories.
What Does “Green” Mean?
Each high-level performance indicator with the EPI, like “environmental health”, is broken into subsections. Nations are scored on each subsector on a scale up to 100. As a result, multiple countries can rank first in any given category.
By evaluating national sustainability on a scale that is unrelated to other nations, we get a clearer idea of comparative national progress, beyond a basic ranking.
For instance, 30 countries tie for first in marine protection, all with scores of 100. This shows that many economies are prioritizing this area of sustainability.
The EPI categories and subsectors are shown in the diagram below:
Each section is weighted differently, and is reflected as a percentage within the index. For example, Ecosystem Vitality accounts for 60% of the EPI, Climate Change makes up 24% of a country’s score, and CO2 emission reduction is weighted at 13.2%.
The Cost of Being Green
Infrastructure costs are one reason why wealthier nations tend to fare better across sustainability measures. Everything from air pollution reduction and water treatment, to hazardous waste control and mitigation of public health crises are especially expensive—but have a huge potential impact on citizens.
This trend can be seen the scatterplot, which demonstrates the distribution of economies evaluated by the EPI:
For a more detailed look, the table below highlights the GDP per capita of each of the top 40 greenest countries, based on data from the World Bank and Statista:
|COUNTRY||EPI SCORE||GDP Per Capita||RANK|
|United States of America||69.3||65,298||24|
Despite the strong correlation between GDP per capita and EPI score, developing countries do not have to abandon sustainability efforts. China for instance leads the world in the adoption of electric vehicle technology.
Although some rankings can seem prosaic, indexes like the EPI provide a helpful benchmark for economies to compare efforts. It also allows governments to iterate and build upon environmental strategies and investments by highlighting what is and isn’t working.
CO2 emissions, for instance, are a major driver of climate change. Although the global economic stall has led to a temporary dip of CO2 emissions in early 2020 (a slower growth rate than the 11% expected rise), global emissions still continue.
However, the EPI shows that investments have impact. High-level sustainability efforts—political commitment, media coverage, regulations—can deliver results, even at the grassroots level.
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