Coinciding with the annual World Economic Forum meetings in Davos, the 2023 Global Risks Report explores as ever the perceived greatest risks facing us all, the results taken from WEF’s poll of 1,200 leaders across its networks. The poll asked for estimates of the impacts of a number of potential risks on a two- and 10-year timeframe. Over the shorter-term, the cost-of-living crisis, natural disasters and extreme weather events, and geo-economic confrontation were the top three risks. Over the longer term, failure to mitigate climate change, failure of climate change adaptation and natural disasters and extreme weather events were the top three. Biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse came in fourth. Six out of the top ten 10-year risks are environmental.
The report says that the coming decade will be characterised by environmental and societal crises driven by underlying geopolitical and economic trends. It describes some of the emerging risks as “eerily familiar” – inflation, cost-of-living, trade wars, social unrest, geopolitical confrontation and even the spectre of nuclear war. All these risks are set against a backdrop of the growing pressures of climate change impacts and ambitions as the window of opportunity for a 1.5C transition rapidly shrinks.
Deforestation commitments shifting the problem
More evidence has emerged pointing to some of the unintended consequences for biodiversity of corporate zero-deforestation commitments, pushing commodity plantations to other biodiversity critical regions. A study from the University of York, published in journal Nature Ecology & Evolution in late 2022 shows how tropical grasslands and dry forest areas are being converted to agricultural production rather than tropical forested areas elsewhere. Land conversion in the Brazilian cerrado grassland region is the highest profile example of this practice – it’s an area that has been typically unprotected by zero deforestation commitments.
Speaking after deforestation commitments made at the COP27 climate summit, WWF was critical of agricultural commodity companies largely ignoring biomes that are outside of narrow definitions of what should be preserved. The COP27 roadmap agreed, WWF says, excludes 74% of Brazil’s cerrado making it vulnerable to destruction. WWF and others are seeking commitments that include preservation of intact ecosystems.
UK lacks slavery scrutiny
UK home secretary Suella Braverman has been under fire from human rights groups for controversially scrapping the process to recruit an Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, a position that has been vacant since April 2022. An appointment to the watchdog position had been expected in late 2022, following a year long process. The role involves monitoring the prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of modern slavery and human trafficking, and providing official advice to the UK government and other public authorities.
The recruitment process will instead be started again with the UK home office now committing only to a new open process of recruitment with no indication of the likely time frame for eventual appointment. The vacancy comes at a time that Braverman is being criticised for a lack of compassion regarding migrants risking crossing the English Channel in small boats to seek asylum in the UK. New laws targeting these migrants are expected in the coming months and would have been subject to scrutiny by the anti-slavery commissioner had one been in post.
Slow improvement for ICT labour rights
The latest benchmarks of the ICT sector by Know the Chain makes for sobering reading. As the report states, the sector’s growth has coincided with a capacity for labour rights abuses within vast global supply chains, poor purchasing practices that encourage suppression of worker rights and a reliance on cheap labour in repressive conditions. The new benchmark finds that with some exceptions the sector has failed to demonstrate sufficient due diligence to identify forced labour risks and impacts in supply chains.
For example, of the companies surveyed in the benchmark only 22% disclosed forced labour supply chain risks and 45% failed to disclose if they had undertaken human rights risk assessments. The weakest scoring themes across the sector were purchasing practices and worker voice. Among Know the Chain’s recommendations are greater transparency on procurement practices, support for collective worker empowerment and the development of mandatory human rights due diligence and modern slavery legislation to help create a more level playing field.
Ozone: campaigning that worked
There was some good news for environmental campaigners with the news in a new UN report that the ozone layer hole in the Earth’s atmosphere is likely to have recovered over most of the planet by 2040. The ozone layer over the poles will take a little longer to fully heal. The loss of the ozone layer risked exposing the planet to harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun and was the key environmental concern in the mid to late 1980s.
The ozone layer was attacked by the release of chlorofluorocarbons widely used in refrigeration. The Montreal protocol agreed in 1989 phased out the use of CFCs, replacing them with less harmful alternatives, and has proved to be remarkably successful. Inevitably there have been parallels made with the even greater challenges posed by climate change and the need for collective action – but there are lessons that can be learned for sure.
Milk with less methane
Some encouraging news from diary giant Danone with its announcement of plans to cut absolute methane emissions from its fresh milk supply chain by 30% by the end of the decade. This will be achieved by Danone working with farmers and suppliers on developing regenerative practices. Methane is of course a particularly damaging greenhouse gas, and more than 100 countries pledged to cut 30% from their 2020 methane emissions by 2030 at the 2021 COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. However, few have established how they will meet this.
Danone operates in 20 countries supplied by some 58,000 dairy farmers, and had already cut 14% of methane between 2018 and 2020. The company’s head of regenerative agriculture policy told Reuters that there are some relatively simple changes that can make a big difference, giving as an example separating of solids and liquids when treating manure, which cuts methane release and produces fertiliser that can be better than synthetic alternatives.
Mind the gap
The newly published Circularity Gap report 2023 highlights once again the opportunities that exist to cut material extraction to move human activity back within safe planetary limits but that we are collectively nowhere near achieving them. In fact, the circularity of the global economy has gone backwords. It has shrunk from 9.1% in 2018, to 8.6% in 2020 to 7.2% now, the report says, pointing out that we rely almost exclusively on virgin materials and that material extraction is rising every year. This needs to be cut by around a third to bring human activity back within the safe limits of the planet. It is achievable, the report says, by embedding core circular economy principles around, for example, consuming less for longer and better re-use in four key global systems: agri-food, mobility and transport, manufactured goods and consumables, and the built environment.