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Environmental crises voted most urgent risks facing world in 2019

Alanna Petroff
Senior Economics Correspondent at Yahoo Finance UK
The World Economic Forum’s annual ‘Global Risks Report’ highlighted concerns about environmental issues. Photo: Biplov Bhuyan/Getty Images

If you ask experts what worries them most in 2019, the conversation will likely immediately turn to environmental issues.

A new survey by the World Economic Forum (WEF) found that the top three concerns among 1,000 business leaders, politicians, and experts were related to the environment and climate change.

The following three risks were considered the most likely to happen in 2019, according to WEF’s ‘Global Risks Report’:

  1. Extreme weather events (such as floods and storms)
  2. Failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation
  3. Major natural disasters (such as earthquakes and tsunami)

“We now appear to be sleepwalking into a climate catastrophe,” warned Alison Martin, the chief risk officer at Zurich Insurance Group (ZURN.VX), which partnered with WEF to publish the annual report.

In a special one-to-one interview with Yahoo Finance UK, Martin said respondents generally agreed that world leaders aren’t currently doing enough to counteract climate change.

The report comes out after nearly 200 countries overcame political divisions in December 2018 to agree on rules for implementing a landmark global climate deal that was first signed in Paris in 2015. The 156-page rulebook outlined plans to limit a rise in average world temperatures to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial levels.

But critics say the latest agreement is not ambitious enough to prevent the dangerous effects of global warming. Furthermore, the climate deal took a hit in June 2017 when US President Donald Trump pulled his country out of the pact.

READ MORE: World Economic Forum warns globe is ‘sleepwalking into a crisis’

Cause for hope

While there is no shortage of environmental risks on the horizon, Martin said she believes there is also cause for hope.

“There are a lot of things in [the report] that people can grasp as an opportunity,” she said, noting that changing consumer tastes and preferences for earth-friendly options are starting to make an impact.

“People will vote with their money and vote with their attitude and they will force change,” according to Martin. “If you’re a plastic straw manufacturer … you have a whole business model problem ahead of you because of public sentiment.”

She suggested that businesses can find opportunities in these risks, as the world needs to develop new technologies related to carbon capture systems, energy distribution systems, and battery technology.

Martin outlined three areas that needed more attention to address the climate and environmental risks: coordinated policy, advanced technology, and public sentiment.

Environmental concerns have featured within the top five urgent risks in the annual WEF report for every year since 2011. This is the first time that environmental issues dominated all three top spots.

The annual report was published just days before WEF hosts an annual forum for global leaders, top executives, and economists in Davos, Switzerland. The invitation-only event is attended by many heads of state and top executives at 1,000 large global companies.

Trump, who attended WEF in 2018, cancelled his trip this year due to a government shutdown.