At the start of 2022, the COVID-19 crisis is still ongoing and its economic ructions continue to be felt. Disparities in progress on vaccination are creating a divergent economic recovery that risks compounding pre-existing social cleavages and geopolitical tensions. These tensions and the economic overhang of the pandemic will make it difficult to ensure a coordinated and sufficiently rapid approach to global challenges—most notably climate change.
Vaccination and accelerated digitalization have enabled some countries to recover rapidly from the economic crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic, but many others are still struggling to avoid the worst consequences. At the time of writing, half of the world’s population was still unvaccinated,1 40% remained offline,2 and only 35% of the world’s students lived in countries where schools are fully open.3 Some 37% of respondents to this year’s Global Risk Perceptions Survey (GRPS) believe the world will follow a fractured trajectory in the medium term, increasingly separating relative “winners” from “losers” of the COVID-19 crisis (see Figure 1.1). By the time the GRPS was conducted (see the Technical Notes in Appendix C), only 11% believed the global recovery would accelerate over the next three years.
Economic, geopolitical, public health, and societal fractures—which increase after pandemics4—risk leading to divergent and delayed approaches to the critical challenges facing people and the planet: accelerating the green transition in response to climate change (see chapter 2), coordinating against heightened digital vulnerabilities (see chapter 3), managing mobility and migration (see chapter 4), and safeguarding the next global commons: space (see Chapter 5).
Effective domestic and international action on these challenges depends on restoring trust within societies, galvanizing national and global leaders, and finding new opportunities for collaboration (see Chapter 6). Fully 84% of GRPS respondents were either concerned or worried about the outlook for the world (see Figure 1.2); lack of optimism could create a vicious cycle of disillusionment and social unrest.
The world continues to grapple with the effects of COVID-19 on public health. At the start of 2022,
5 million deaths from COVID-19 had been reported globally, out of 282 million confirmed cases.5 Moreover, a significant proportion of those infected by COVID-19 have long-lasting symptoms—some 10% show persistent ill-health 12 weeks after having the disease.6 COVID-19 vaccination has progressed steadily but unevenly around the world. At the time of writing, 50 countries had vaccinated more than 70% of their population,7 with some now starting to receive booster shots, while the vaccination rate in the poorest 52 countries—home to 20% of the world's population—was still only 6%.8 Potentially more infectious variants of the virus—notably the new Omicron variant—along with waning immunity among the vaccinated and a continued high proportion of people who are unvaccinated meant that the number of new cases increased again towards the end of 2021.9 Unsurprisingly, "infectious diseases" are still considered a critical short-term threat to the world in the GRPS.
The COVID-19 crisis has also had extensive collateral health impacts, partly because other diseases were deprioritized. The pandemic led to an additional 53 million cases of major depression globally.10 "Mental health deterioration" was one of the top five risks that GRPS 21 respondents saw as having deteriorated the most during COVID-19. Non-communicable diseases—which cause 41 million deaths every year, mostly in low- and middle-income countries—have also worsened worldwide due to treatment delays caused by COVID-19.11 Antimicrobial resistance caused nearly 2 million deaths in 2020 and this number may increase—particularly for malaria and tuberculosis—because of the inappropriate use of antibiotics to treat COVID-19.12 The pandemic and its collateral health impacts will continue to put pressure on health systems across the globe, widen health inequalities between and within countries, create social frictions and weigh down long-term economic growth potential.
The global economic recovery from the recession caused by responses to the COVID-19 pandemic continues but is slowing. After a contraction of 3.1% in 2020, global economic growth is expected to reach 5.9% in 2021 and slow to 4.9% in 2022.13 By 2024, the global economy is projected to be 2.3% smaller than it would have been without the pandemic.14 Risks to economic growth are considerable, including risks from a potential resurgence of COVID-19 as new variants emerge. The previous edition of the GRPS identified "commodity shocks", "price instability" and "debt crises" as critical medium-term concerns. These are already emerging to some extent. At the time of writing, commodity prices had increased nearly 30% since the start of 2021;15 they could remain volatile because of growing tensions between Europe and Russia, China's energy shortage,16 continued supply chain disruptions, and transition challenges from disinvestment in fossil fuel reserves. Inflation has accelerated in many countries as a result of pandemic-related disruptions to supply chains combined with resurgent consumer demand and higher commodity prices. This will dampen consumer sentiment—which has been fundamental for recovery—and will increase the risk of central bank interest rate rises.17 In advanced and developing economies alike, higher prices and more expensive debt would impact lower-income households especially hard, while small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that are still trying to avoid bankruptcy would suffer from weakening consumption.
Moreover, sovereign debt has spiked because of the pandemic. Government debt globally increased by 13 percentage points, to 97% of GDP, in 2020.18 Already-strained public finances in developing countries are at heightened risk from debt deleveraging19 and an appreciation of the US dollar—the US Dollar Index had risen 7% since the start of 2021.20 GRPS respondents identified "debt crises" as a critical short- and medium-term threat to the world, and one of the most potentially severe risks over the next decade (see Figure 1.3). Debt overhangs will make it more difficult for countries to deal with the economic impacts of COVID-19 and finance a socially just, net-zero transition.
COVID-19 prompted a global recession, but stark differences in vaccination rates between countries now risk leading to even greater economic divergence than they experienced before the pandemic. A greater prevalence of COVID-19 in low-vaccination countries than in high-vaccination ones will weigh on worker availability and productivity, disrupt supply chains and weaken consumption. Moreover, a lower post-pandemic risk appetite in the vaccinated world—comprised mostly of advanced economies—could weaken their investment in the non-vaccinated world. The economic disruption from the pandemic has also created stronger incentives in the vaccinated world to prioritize resilience over cost minimization. Governments and industries may now drive regional convergence at the expense of global integration as they seek to minimize supply chain disruptions.
Polarized connectivity, education and income trajectories risk further fragmenting the global economy, and divergence is likely to be aggravated by slowing and disparate growth. Advanced economies are expected to surpass their pre-pandemic growth path by 0.9% by 2024, but developing economies (excluding China) will be 5.5% below it—with Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa trailing even further behind.21 Economic decoupling risks further hindering already-limited means to restore growth in developing economies. Such decoupling will make it harder for emerging economies to leverage young workforces, large consumer markets, and competitive costs. They also risk having less access to financing and technology to face global challenges, including climate change.
Although employment is approaching pre-pandemic levels in many advanced economies, globally the jobs recovery from the COVID-19 crisis is lagging the economic recovery—global employment remains lower than it was before the pandemic and the Great Resignation in advanced economies has caused labour market participation to fall. Youth, women, and lower-skilled workers have been especially affected. It will take the global economy at least until 2023 to create the jobs lost to COVID-19, but many of these jobs are expected to be of low productivity and poor quality, according to the International Labour Organization.22 “Livelihood crises” is the second most immediate threat to the world in the GRPS, and the top one at the country level in the Executive Opinion Survey (EOS). It is the most immediate national threat in 97 countries, including 16 of the G20 economies.
A bifurcated economic recovery is likely to prompt an upsurge in economic migration. At the same time, worsening extreme weather and a rise in political instability, state fragility and civil conflict are likely to further swell refugee numbers. GRPS respondents rate “involuntary migration” as a critical threat to the world over the next decade. Yet, it is a top-10 concern in only 13 countries surveyed by the EOS—among them Armenia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Ukraine, and Venezuela, which have recently experienced challenges related to migration and refugees. These results suggest that migration is perceived as a short-term challenge localized in certain countries, but a global risk in the longer term. However, the clash between heightened migration pressures in origin countries and increasing barriers to migration in destination countries risks creating tensions internationally and, in the worst cases, humanitarian crises.
“Social cohesion erosion” is the risk that has worsened the most globally since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, according to the GRPS. It is perceived as a critical threat to the world across all time spans—short, medium, and long term—and is seen as among the most potentially damaging for the next 10 years. In 31 out of the 124 countries surveyed in the EOS—including Argentina, France, Germany, Mexico, and South Africa among the G20—“social cohesion erosion” was seen as a top-10short-term threat to their countries. Inequality—economic, political, technological, and intergenerational—was already challenging societies even before income disparities increased through the pandemic.23 These disparities are now expected to widen further: research by the World Bank estimates that the richest 20% of the world’s population will have recovered half their losses in 2021, while the poorest 20% will have lost 5% more of their income.24 By 2030, 51 million more people are projected to live in extreme poverty compared to the pre-pandemic trend.25
Income disparities exacerbated by an uneven economic recovery risk increasing polarization and resentment within societies. Differing views over vaccinations and COVID-related restrictions are adding to social pressures, with a number of countries, including in Europe, seeing riots by those opposed to government’s COVID responses. Racial justice also remains a pressing issue in many countries, notably the United States.
A recent poll in the United States, for example, found “division in the country” to be voters’ top concern: they expected it to worsen in 2022.26 In Europe, another recent poll revealed significant generational differences, with 65% of respondents over 60 saying that they were “not impacted at all” by the pandemic, compared with just 43% of respondents under 30.27 The attack on the US Capitol in January 2021 was one manifestation of the instability that political polarization risks creating.
Notwithstanding the agreements made at COP26 signal international commitment to climate action (see Box 1.1), short-term domestic pressures will make it harder for governments to focus on long-term national priorities and will limit the attention and political capital that some governments worldwide will be able or willing to allocate to global concerns. Such pressures could also lead to stronger national interest postures, which would worsen fractures in the global economy, potentially coming at the expense of foreign aid and cooperation needed to resolve conflicts, protect refugees and address humanitarian emergencies. The UK government, for instance, already dropped its target of spending 0.7% of gross national income on foreign aid until at least 2024.28 Fragile economies could spiral into deeper crises.
Widening geopolitical fractures risk being another force for global divergence. Competition between the United States and China is increasing. China’s growing military prowess is changing the balance of power in the Western Pacific.29 The United States is strengthening alliances focused on the Pacific in response, most recently with the Australia-UK-US security pact (AUKUS). Other states, such as Russia and Turkey, are also showing greater capability and willingness to project power abroad. Meanwhile, key global and regional powers are testing boundaries of international law and cooperation by conducting military exercises around tense areas, such as the Russia-Ukraine border and the Taiwan Strait. Competition is intensifying in newer dimensions and geographies, as evident in the militarization and weaponization of space (see Chapter 5) and in developments in cyberspace, where already sharp tensions between governments impacted by cybercrime and governments complicit in their commission will continue to rise (see Chapter 3).
Competition is also increasing in the exercise of “soft power”. For example, China’s vaccine diplomacy, external financing strategy, and economic rebound—its economy is expected to have grown by 8% annually in 202130—have allowed it to continue to expand its influence throughout the developing world. Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, and Turkey are among the top buyers of Chinese COVID-19 vaccines,31 and net debt payments to China rose by 62% in 2020.32 Developing countries may increasingly look to China for financial, technological, and scientific support to thrive in the post-pandemic economy.
Geopolitical tensions are spilling over into the economic sphere. For example, India and Japan put protectionist policies in place during the pandemic.33 Western companies in sensitive sectors such as technology are encountering increasing difficulties in doing business in China and Russia, and Western countries are themselves restricting investment from geopolitical competitors in strategic sectors. GRPS respondents identified “geoeconomic confrontations” as a critical medium-and long-term threat to the world, and the most potentially severe geopolitical risk for the next decade (see Figure 1.3). Geopolitical and geoeconomic tensions will make it more difficult to tackle common global challenges, notably climate change.
The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) succeeded in getting 197 countries to align on the Glasgow Climate Pact and other landmark pledges (see Box 1.1), but even these new commitments are expected to miss the 1.5°C goal established in the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement and increase the risks from a disorderly climate transition (see Chapter 2).34
The economic overhang of the COVID-19 crisis and weakened social cohesion—in advanced and developing economies alike—may further limit the financial and political capital available for further climate action. The European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States, for example, were reluctant to commit to a formal climate finance target to respond to worsening climate change impacts in developing country Parties.35 China and India lobbied to change the Pact’s wording from “phase out” to “phase down” of “unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”.36
The economic crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic risks delaying efforts to tackle climate change by encouraging countries to prioritize short-term measures to restore economic growth, regardless of their impact on the climate, over pursuing green transitions. Brazil, for example, joined the other 141 countries responsible for 91% of the Earth’s forests in endorsing the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use,37 even as deforestation in the Amazon accelerated to a 15-year high in 2021 following the pandemic-induced recession of 2020.38 Geopolitical tensions and nation-first postures will also complicate climate action. COP26 revealed heightened tensions on climate damage compensation, with affected countries facing pushback from large emitters, including the United States.39
Climate change continues to be perceived as the gravest threat to humanity. GRPS respondents rate “climate action failure” as the risk with the potential to inflict the most damage at a global scale over the next decade (see Figure 1.3). However, EOS results hint at divergent senses of urgency between regions and countries. “Climate action failure” ranks 2nd as a short-term risk in the United States but 23rd in China—the two countries that are the world’s largest CO2emitters. In addition to its 2nd place rank in the United States, it ranks among the top 10 short-term risks in 11 other G20 economies.
COVID-19 spurred a leap in digitalization, but to varying extents across countries. While moving towards hyperconnectivity has made some countries more competitive, others could remain stuck in a pre-pandemic analogue economy. In the latter economies, the need for rapid digitalization to avoid a widening digital divide remains pressing.40 In the EOS, “digital inequality” is a top short-term risk in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa—the two regions expected to grow the least in 2022 — as well as in low-income countries more widely. Governments, businesses, and individuals in developing economies will be seeking to digitalize rapidly but may have limited technical and financial resources to enhance cyber defences against critical infrastructure breaches or cyber regulations to safeguard data and privacy.
More parts of the world risk becoming a base from which cybercriminals can attack globally, which could deepen digital divides if such countries then face restrictions on their access to digital technologies. Rapid digitalization in advanced economies during COVID-19 has also led to new cyber vulnerabilities. “Cybersecurity failure” was identified by GRPS respondents as a critical short-term threat to the world and scores especially high with EOS respondents in high-income countries (see Figure 1.4). There is a risk that concerns over cybersecurity could further hamper attempts to promote rapid and inclusive digitalization globally.
Space is another area where global divergences risk complicating the collaboration needed to manage the development of a common good. Competition in space is rising and is a growing preoccupation for the world’s leading militaries—evidenced by recent anti-satellite (ASAT) and hypersonic weapons tests.41 Disparate economic and technological trajectories risk precluding many countries from accessing the opportunities that space entails for tackling climate change and expanding connectivity, and from ensuring that their interests are accounted for in global decision-making around space governance and commercialization. Meanwhile, increased private sector participation in space and a higher risk of congestion are creating new challenges for space governance. However, there is still time for countries to come together to ensure common benefits and sustainable management of what should be a universal resource.
The global divergence that risks resulting from ruptures within the world economy, stronger competition for geopolitical advantage, and domestic pressures to prioritize national objectives will create complex challenges for global cooperation over the next years. Four such areas are analysed in the following deep dive chapters:
• A mounting conviction for a fast but disorderly climate transition slowed by social, political and economic complexities risks creating a kaleidoscope of net-zero trajectories, each with different speeds and complications (see Chapter 2).
• Rapid digitalization risks exposing economies to new and more intense cyber vulnerabilities, as new technologies and an ever-expanding attack surface enable a more dangerous and diverse range of cybercrimes (see Chapter 3).
• Increased pressure for migration from origin countries as they become more insecure risks conflicting with higher barriers in destination countries (see
• A new space race marked by accelerated commercial and military activity risks exacerbating tensions and oversaturation of this frontier common, highlighting the need for strengthening international governance of space (see Chapter 5).
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the shortcomings of global cooperation, but the way forward is not clear. There is a need for stronger global governance and more effective international risk mitigation efforts since the global, interconnected challenges highlighted in this report cannot be solved by national governments alone. Yet coming together with the common purpose to achieve lasting results will be challenging: effective global governance depends on international cooperation,42 and it will be difficult to secure traction, harness the necessary capabilities and achieve resolution on critical issues in an international relations context characterized by economic divergence, skepticism around globalization, a narrower focus on national interests and intensified geopolitical competition. Existing institutions of global governance are under pressure—as shown, for example, by the challenges that an under-resourced World Health Organization (WHO) continues to face in responding effectively to the COVID-19 pandemic.43 Appreciating this challenge, the final chapter of the report reflects on how governments can hedge against the prevailing limitations of multilateralism by pursuing a whole-of-society approach to bolstering national resilience (see Chapter 6).
Crises prompt unexpected paths. Different blind spots, triggers and shocks can have a wide range of outcomes, all with varying likelihoods and impacts. As readers consider the results of the GRPS survey, review the emerging global context and read the deep dives, this report invites them to consider the behaviours and actions of specific stakeholders and to consider the consequences for a range of risk outcomes, from probable to improbable and manageable to severe.
Among the most notable areas of socio-economic concern are the divergent recovery, economic hardship and growing inequality, along with their interaction with ideological polarization and the sense of disenfranchisement of large sections of the global population. Governments’ struggles to contain the pandemic and a lack of global collaboration on COVID-19 offer a sobering view of prospects for managing future global risks such as extreme weather and for pursuing bolder climate action. When it comes to business and industry, even enterprises with the financial room to maneuver sometimes struggle to deliver on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) commitments while also strengthening the resilience of their supply chains, adapting to social and technological change, and remaining vigilant to threats such as cyberattacks.
Two years on from the start of this unprecedented crisis, the actions and behaviours of all stakeholders will determine how quickly the world recovers and embeds the resilience needed to prepare for the next major shock.
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