Each year the Hindsight section revisits previous editions of the Global Risks Report to look again at risks that we have previously covered. The aim is to trace the progress that has been made in the intervening years—how have the risks and the global responses to them evolved? This year the three risks we return to are food security, civil society and investment in infrastructure.
Security of Food Systems
One of the earliest Global Risks Reports, in 2008, included a chapter on food security. It asked whether the food-price spikes recorded in 2007 represented familiar short-term volatility or more structural disruptions to the food system, and highlighted drivers of food insecurity including climate change, population growth and changing consumption patterns. In 2016, we looked more closely at the first of these in a chapter entitled “Climate Change and Risks to Food Security”, which noted that crop yields were growing more slowly than demand. It highlighted two main ways that climate change is affecting food security: (1) direct impact on agricultural output, through changing temperature and rainfall patterns; and (2) wider systemic disruptions such as market volatility, interruptions to transport networks, and humanitarian emergencies.
Food distress on the rise
The threats to food security have intensified in recent years. In 2017, a state of famine was declared in South Sudan; although it was lifted within months, this was only the second such declaration since the turn of the century. Conditions in South Sudan are still designated as “emergency”—one step below famine on the five-point scale used by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS)1—as are conditions in Ethiopia, Nigeria and Yemen. More countries are in the next most severe “crisis” category: Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and parts of Southern Africa. According to FEWS, the number of people currently requiring emergency food assistance is “unprecedented in recent decades”. In Yemen alone, 15 million people require emergency food assistance each month.2
Figure 7.1: Undernourishment Rises
Source: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2018. https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/indicators/database/?indicator=2.1.1
Undernourishment has increased in both absolute and relative terms since 2015, as shown by Figure 7.1. The proportion of the world’s population suffering from undernourishment declined from around 15% in the early 2000s to 10.6% in 2015, but edged back up to 10.9% over the next two years. In absolute terms, that represents an increase of around 40 million people: in 2017 a total of 821 million people were undernourished, the most since 2009. More than 2 billion people lack the micronutrients needed for growth, development and disease prevention.3
The role of conflict
Conflict is one important driver of these recent increases in food insecurity. Most of the world’s hungry people live in countries affected by conflict,4 and—as discussed in Chapter 3 (Heads and Hearts)—the number of conflicts around the world has increased in recent years. All 19 of the countries classified in 2017 as experiencing protracted food crises were also affected by violent conflict.5
Conflict can trigger the kind of systemic disruptions of food systems discussed in the 2016 Global Risks Report, and as noted in the 2017 State of Food Security and Nutrition report: “. . . conflict can lead to economic and price impacts that reduce household food access and may also constrain people’s mobility, thereby limiting household access to food, health services and safe water.”6 In Yemen, the rial depreciated sharply in the second half of 2018, pushing up the price of food and essential commodities; in the capital city Sana’a, food prices increased by 35% between July and October. Conflict also triggers displacement, which creates food security issues. Currently 68.5 million people are displaced worldwide. Providing adequate food for refugees is an ongoing struggle. In 2016, the UN’s World Food Programme had to halve rations in Kenyan refugee camps.7 In 2017, rations were cut three times in Ethiopia’s refugee camps because of insufficient funding.8
Population growth and waste
Global population growth exacerbates the impact on food systems of conflict and other drivers of food insecurity. To sustain current levels of food availability between now and 2050 will require an estimated 70% increase in food production.9 The efficiency of efforts to intensify food production will be compromised unless wastage is also addressed: currently, around a third of the world’s food is wasted.10 Levels of food waste vary widely, from 95 kilograms per person each year in the United States to 1 kilogram in Rwanda.11 Research suggests that food waste could rise by almost 2% per year to 2030.12 The impacts go beyond food security: according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN (FAO), food waste causes an estimated 8% of annual greenhouse gas emissions.13
Climate change and chokepoints
Climate change continues to increase strain on the global food system through “changes in temperature, precipitation and extreme weather events, as well as increasing CO2 concentrations.”14 The last four years have been the hottest on record.15 The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned about the impacts on food security if global warming exceeds the 1.5°C targeted in the Paris Agreement. For example, while an estimated 35 million people would be exposed to crop yield changes at 1.5°C, this would increase to 1.8 billion at 3°C. Already around one-third of changes in yields are due to climate factors.16 Drought conditions in Europe during 2018 led to the region’s lowest grain production since 2012,17 contributing to an expected sharp decrease in global grain stocks.18 The food system also has to compete for water with other users, including urban groundwater extraction, as discussed in Chapter 5 (Fight or Flight).
Researchers also identify climate change as a risk factor affecting food system “chokepoints”— maritime corridors, coastal infrastructure and inland transport networks19—which handle a disproportionate volume of global food trade: “Half of all internationally traded grain must pass through at least one of 14 major chokepoints and over 10% depends on a maritime chokepoint to which there is no viable alternative route.”20 The risk posed by these chokepoint vulnerabilities has increased in tandem with the growing role of global food supply chains—between 2000 and 2015, the volume of agricultural commodities traded internationally increased by 127%.21 The researchers note that climate change increases the risk of multiple chokepoint failures occurring simultaneously: “A worst-case scenario—one in which the Gulf Coast ports in the US were shut down due to a hurricane at the same time as key roads in Brazil were swamped owing to heavy rains—would cut off up to half of global soybean supply in one fell swoop.”22
The Space for Civil Society
The 2017 Global Risks Report included a chapter that discussed the “[c]losing space for civil society”. That chapter warned of growing constraints on the operation of civil society organizations around the world, with adverse consequences including declining societal trust and increasing corruption, polarization and unrest. The chapter cited research pointing to serious threats to civic freedoms in 109 countries, notably press freedom. It highlighted the frequent use of security considerations to justify restrictions on civil society groups, and the growing importance of new technologies as a means of limiting freedom of expression and assembly.
Normally we would wait longer than two years to feature a topic in the Hindsight series, but even in this short time these trends have increasingly defined the societal and political risks landscape in many countries. This reflects a general intensification of strong-state politics and a shift to more authoritarian modes of governance in both democratic and non-democratic states.
In its latest annual report, Freedom House stated that global freedom declined in 2017 for the 12th consecutive year, with 113 countries recording a net decrease in freedom over that period compared to 62 recording an improvement. According to the civil society monitoring group CIVICUS, conditions continued to tighten during 2018—between March and November there was a rise in the number of countries categorized as “obstructed” or “repressed” and a decline in those categorized as “open” or “narrowed”.
Press under pressure
Globally, the most frequent violations of civic freedoms recorded by CIVICUS relate to freedom of the press. Developments over the past two years have borne out the concerns raised in our 2017 report. There has been a broad-based decline in press freedom around the world. The Economist Intelligence Unit ranks 2017 as the worst year since it began its index of media freedom in 2006.23
Conditions have deteriorated significantly even in a number of countries in Europe, the region where protections for journalists are typically strongest, according to Reporters Without Borders. Malta and Slovakia have seen high-profile murders of journalists in the past 18 months.24
Conservative groups gain strength
We omitted in 2017 to discuss one development that has since become more important. While most well-established non- governmental organizations (NGOs) are liberal, it is important to note that conservative civil society groups play a prominent role in some countries.
A recent study points to the influence of conservative civil society movements in other countries, including Brazil, India, Thailand, Turkey, Uganda, Ukraine and the United States.25 These groups pursue a range of causes—rooted in different religious beliefs, community norms and political views—but one commonality is “the search for protection— protection from change, from outside economic pressures, from new kinds of identities and moral codes.”26
Security concerns continue
Governments restricting civic freedoms continue to cite security as a justification. A 2018 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association identifies concerns including “declarations of a state of emergency, sometimes without adequate justification, the use of vague wording to define acts of terrorism and threats to public security, and broad legal provisions that allow for the abusive interpretation of limitations on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.”27 The report cites provisions of varying severity in almost 20 countries.
The Special Rapporteur also notes the growing use of restrictive rules and regulations that make it difficult for civil society groups to operate. These can range from onerous administrative requirements to more substantive provisions: “some restrictions require non- governmental organizations (NGOs) to align their activities with government policies, with heavy sanctions for NGOs that fail to do so.”28 Organizations in receipt of foreign funding are at particular risk—a trend we highlighted in 2017, and one that is likely to intensify. Against the backdrop of values-based geopolitical tensions discussed in Chapter 2 (Power and Values), many countries already worry about rivals using “information operations” to sow political instability.29
The use of new technologies to monitor or control civil society is also likely to have deepening geopolitical ramifications. Globally, online freedom has declined for eight consecutive years.30 The Special Rapporteur notes the “utmost importance” of new technologies for freedom of assembly and highlights how some governments have prohibited access to social networking platforms.31 Some see digital freedom as a key fault line in the evolving multipolar and multi-conceptual world order.32
Investment in Infrastructure
Nine years ago, the fifth edition of the Global Risks Report drew attention to the need for greater investment in infrastructure. The report was published in 2010, a year after the global economy had contracted at the height of the financial crisis. Against this backdrop of slumping demand and heightened uncertainty, the report cited global infrastructure needs equivalent to an estimated US$35 trillion over 20 years. It pointed to two key trends that would shape the challenge—population growth and climate change—and the need for associated development in the agriculture and energy sectors. It also warned that vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure were a source of wider systemic risk that needed to be assessed and managed.
Since then, estimates of future needs have increased. According to projections from the Global Infrastructure Hub (GIH), a body created by the G20, infrastructure investment totalling US$97 trillion is required by 2040 across 57 countries and seven sectors. That compares with current investment trends of US$79 trillion, leaving a global infrastructure gap of US$18 trillion.33 Many countries, both emerging and advanced, “have paid insufficient attention to maintaining and expanding their infrastructure assets, creating economic inefficiencies and allowing critical systems to erode.”34
Spending gaps vary by region
Infrastructure spending has differed sharply by region in recent years, with one estimate ranging from 1.9% of GDP in Sub-Saharan Africa to 6.9% in the Middle East and North Africa.35 In absolute terms, levels of spending have been particularly high in Asia, specifically China. Asia Pacific accounted for more than half of global infrastructure spending in 2015.35
According to GIH projections, China is the country with the most significant infrastructure needs between now and 2040. On current trends, China will fall US$1.9 trillion short of its total spending requirement of US$28 trillion. In the United States, overall investment needs are much lower (US$12 trillion), but the shortfall relative to current trends is twice as large (US$3.8 trillion). In our 2010 report we noted that the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) rated the infrastructure stock of the United States at “D” (where “A” is the best, and anything below “D” is unfit for purpose). The latest ASCE report card is from 2017, when the United States had improved only marginally to a rating of “D+”.36
Relative to GDP, Africa has the largest infrastructure gap between now and 2040.37 One reason is that Africa’s population is set to double over that period. Meeting the region’s infrastructure needs is likely to require significant change: concerns that we cited in 2010 about weak political and governance systems continue to hold back flows of investment finance.38 The African Development Bank notes that in 2016 commitments of public and private infrastructure funding fell to their lowest level in five years, largely as a consequence of a reported reduction in inflows from China.39
Growing risks: FDI and cyber
In recent decades, the profile of development finance in general— and for infrastructure projects in particular—has swung from traditional aid flows to foreign direct investment (FDI).40 China has been instrumental: its share of global investment flows increased from 4% in 2006 to 17% by 2017.41 Flows of FDI into developing countries have become increasingly geopolitically charged, as discussed in Chapter 2 (Power and Values). The interdependencies created by a deepening web of international infrastructure projects were not a pressing concern at the time of our 2010 report, but they are now a growing source of risk in the international system.
Technology has also radically altered risks related to infrastructure development over the past decade. The critical infrastructure risks we noted in 2010 have risen as digitalization and the Internet of Things have deepened connectivity across the world, increasing the potential for malicious actors to mount online attacks and amplifying their potential damage. A successful cyber-attack on a country’s electricity system, for example—a current area of focus for the World Economic Forum42—could trigger devastating spill-over effects. One estimate suggests that energy utilities spent US$1.7 billion in 2017 on protecting their systems from cyber-attacks.43
Climate change has driven significant change in the world’s infrastructure needs since our 2010 report. There is now more awareness of the risks it poses and greater consensus on the need for collective policy responses. The low-carbon transition will shape the profile of infrastructure investment in multiple ways. For example, in the energy sector, investment in renewables is likely to accelerate, despite a pause in the shift towards cleaner energy in 2017.44 Transport infrastructure will need to be adapted to manage increasing shares of electric vehicles, as well as huge projected increases in road, air and sea traffic.45 And sensor-based technologies are likely to be widely deployed across all kinds of networks and grids, increasing demand for the digital infrastructure on which they rely.46
The climate-change imperative will also drive increased investment in “green infrastructure” solutions of the kind discussed in Chapter 5 (Fight or Flight). These work with natural materials and can, for example, lower energy demand, reduce urban temperatures and improve water management.47
The rapid roll-out of sustainable infrastructure is likely to lead to continuing financial innovation as more investors move into this market. Already there has been a significant increase in the number of funds investing in infrastructure assets generally, pushing returns down from 14% in 2004 to 10.6% in 2016.48 According to UN Environment, issuance of “green bonds” jumped from US$11 billion in 2013 to US$155 billion in 2017.49 There are potential risks associated with the rapid expansion of green finance—including asset bubbles and the temptation to lower capital requirements to encourage sustainable investment50—but the costs of managing these risks are likely to be small compared with the benefits of making increased funding available to help meet the world’s infrastructure needs sustainably.