The World Economic Forum (WEF), whose showpiece annual event in Davos took place last week, has changed almost beyond recognition since being established as a platform for elite business leaders back in 1971.
A star turn of the Davos jamboree was Prince William interviewing Sir David Attenborough, reflecting the Forum’s shift of emphasis in recent times from a preoccupation with economic growth towards a focus on the longer term challenges posed to humanity by ongoing environmental degradation. Perhaps a name change to the World Sustainability Forum might be on the cards as we enter the 2020s?
One of the most important reports that emerged from Davos last week was the ever compelling Global Risk Report – a kind of annually updated risk register for the planet that considers the social, economic and environmental mega-trends shaping our future.
As Børge Brend, president of the WEF says in the preface “the world is facing a growing number of complex and interconnected challenges – from persistent economic inequality to climate change, geopolitical tensions and the accelerating pace of the Fourth Industrial Revolution”. He goes on to warn that we are in danger of sleepwalking into crisis unless we actively address these risks as a global community.
For the third year in a row, environmental risks account for three of the top five risks by likelihood and four by impact. These were extreme weather events, failure to mitigate and adapt to climate change, man-made natural disasters, and biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation. A fifth risk, water crises, was also in the top six which, though categorised under societal risk, is mostly the result of environmental mismanagement.
These risks will express themselves in different ways with different intensities in different parts of the world but there is one issue which is common to all. This is the impact of climate-change induced sea-level rise on coastal communities, a problem which is likely to be most acute in urban areas.
Around 800 million people in more than 570 coastal cities are already estimated to be vulnerable to a rise in sea level of 50 centimetres by 2050. The number of people at risk will be much higher by the middle of this century, when close to two-thirds of the global population will be living in cities.
Some nations are already preparing for the inevitable. The Maldives are planning to build artificial islands protected with three metre high sea walls while Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean has already bought land in Fiji as a potential new home for its citizens. In the United States, $48 million has been earmarked to move the entire community of the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana, which has lost 98% of its land in the past half century.
Whilst we won’t be able to hold back the inexorable rise of the oceans in the coming decades, we can at least begin to make our coastlines more resilient to the changes to come.
Hard engineered solutions and human migration can’t be the solution everywhere. Cities will also need to embrace ‘nature-based solutions’, including the restoration of natural habitats such as mangrove forests, coastal wetlands and dunes, all of which provide natural buffers against storm surges.
‘Managed retreat’ may also be an option in some cities, where hard engineered defences are deliberately removed to allow the sea to flood low lying coastal areas. Other innovations could include the creation of artificial oyster reefs which help dissipate the energy of the waves, reducing erosion.
Whilst we won’t be able to hold back the inexorable rise of the oceans in the coming decades, we can at least begin to make our coastlines more resilient to the changes to come. An obvious first step in Scotland is for the Scottish Government to ensure the strict protection of our remaining stretches of precious wild coast.
Jonny Hughes, Chief Executive
This piece first appeared in The Scotsman on Tuesday 29 January.