There's no way of getting away from it - the environment is finally making enough noise to be heard after years of falling on deaf ears.

Some of the brightest minds on the planet now agree that the world is most at risk this year from environmental issues such as extreme weather, natural disaster and inaction on climate change.

Each year since 2006 the World Economic Forum (WEF) has compiled its Global Risks report in conjunction with the Marsh & McLennan Companies (MMC) Risk Centre, polling almost a 1000 senior business leaders from its global network - including from New Zealand.

And each year the WEF experts identify a network of inter-linking threats, which feed off and influence each other - any one of which could reach tipping point and trigger others to follow.


There are several high-profile environmental concerns identified in this year's report that clearly involve New Zealand farmers. In terms of likelihood, environmental concern levels have risen above the levels for large-scale terrorist attacks, involuntary mass migration and military conflicts.

The switch in emphasis is starkly demonstrated by the fact that three of the Top 5 concerns -both in terms of "likelihood" and "impact" - this year are in the environment category, and one other on the list (water crises) could well be linked to environmental changes.

Apart from the ever-present risk from weapons of mass destruction, that just leaves cyberattacks and data fraud/theft as major concerns.

That's a big change since the report was first published - no environmental concerns made it on to the "likelihood" list until 2011, when climate change was first mentioned. Since then, greenhouse gas emissions, extreme weather events and water supply crises have joined global concerns.

Wolfram Hedrich, MMC executive director at the Asia Pacific Risk Centre, told Liam Dann in the NZ Herald the new list reflects a global shift towards environmental issues and away from economic concerns over the past few years.

When the report started there was a focus on economic risk, especially around the Global Financial Crisis, he said, but it then became a lot more varied to include geo-political risk, technological risks and societal risks.

"But in the past few years environmental risks have started to dominate," he said. "It means that regardless of where you stood on the science of climate change, the governments, consumers and investors were shifting their behaviour."

Many Kiwi farmers are doing their bit to protect our waterways. Photo / DairyNZ
Many Kiwi farmers are doing their bit to protect our waterways. Photo / DairyNZ

WEF fears the current trend towards nation-state unilateralism could make it more difficult to sustain the long-term, multilateral responses that are required to counter global warming and the degradation of the global environment.


The WEF report acknowledges that environmental risks have grown in prominence in recent years. This year's ranking follows a year characterised by high-impact hurricanes, extreme temperatures and the first rise in CO2 emissions for four years.

"We have been pushing our planet to the brink and the damage is becoming increasingly clear," WEF said in its report. "Biodiversity is being lost at mass-extinction rates, agricultural systems are under strain and pollution of the air and sea has become an increasingly pressing threat to human health."

The report identifies the most pressing environmental challenges to be extreme weather events and temperatures; accelerating biodiversity loss; pollution of air, soil and water; failures of climate-change mitigation and adaptation; and transition risks as the world moves to a low-carbon future.

It said extreme rainfall can be particularly damaging - of the 10 natural disasters that caused the most deaths in the first half of 2017, eight involved floods or landslides. Storms and other weather-related hazards are also a leading cause of displacement, with the latest data showing that 76 per cent of the 31.1 million people displaced during 2016 were forced from their homes as a result of weather-related events.

Of special concern to New Zealand farmers, rising temperatures and more frequent heatwaves will disrupt agricultural systems that are already strained.

The prevalence of monoculture production heightens vulnerability to catastrophic breakdowns in the food system - more than 75 per cent of the world's food comes from just 12 plants and five animal species, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, and it is estimated that there is now a 1:20 chance per decade that heat, drought, and flood events will cause a simultaneous failure of maize production in the world's two main growers, China and the United States. This would cause widespread famine and hardship, the report notes.

Pollution moved further to the fore as a problem in 2017: indoor and outdoor air pollution were together responsible for more than one-tenth of all deaths globally each year, according to the World Health Organization. Urban air pollution is likely to worsen, as migration and demographic trends drive the creation of more megacities.

Soil and water pollution cause about half again as many deaths, according to findings published in October 2017 by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health.

The commission estimates the overall annual cost of pollution to the global economy at $6.4 trillion, equivalent to about 6.2 per cent of output. Other factors adding to the strain on the planet relate to food production. Food systems are currently responsible for 20-30 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, 70 per cent of freshwater withdrawals and 70 per cent of biodiversity loss.

The report estimates that twice as much water will be required for food production in 2050, yet nearly one-third of agricultural production today takes place in water-stressed regions.

New Zealand must grapple with the challenge of protecting water quality while allowing its use for economic and social purposes.

In a similar vein, it notes one institutional risk that is likely to intensify in 2018 relates to the World Trade Organization and its ability to resolve trade disputes at a time when protectionist sentiment and policies are on the rise.

"A weakening of the global trading system's institutional architecture creates risks beyond a renewed slowdown in trade and growth: the possibility of trade tensions spilling over into increased geopolitical strains should not be dismissed."