The Shape of 2024: Setting the Trajectory for the World’s Transition

2023 was a turbulent year even by standards of the 2020s, standards which would have been considered inconceivable only a decade ago, given the decade had begun with a pandemic, a global recession, and a war. An unprecedented ‘polycrisis’ of interrelated political, social, economic, and environmental disruptions unfolded throughout the year, threatening global peace, prosperity, and progress towards a better future. The war between Russia-Ukraine continued to grind on through the year, following a failed Ukrainian counteroffensive early in the year, and flagging support from its allies. Hamas’ horrific terrorist attack on Israel in October triggered an ongoing war that has devastated Gaza with a higher Palestinian death rate than any war this century. 1 A banking crisis in America was (narrowly) averted, but not without casualties including Credit Suisse and Silicon Valley Bank, while fears over continued inflation destabilized financial markets before major central banks asserted control. And generative AI exploded into the public view promising to transform nearly every industry, with ChatGPT becoming the fastest growing consumer app ever. A rare bright spot in the past year included the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declaring the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, although its long term social and economic costs continued to be felt around the world.

In terms of longer-term trends and impacts, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) reached their midway point and were found to be far off track across the board. Moreover, the year has seemingly proved that the impacts of climate change have well and truly arrived. 2023 shattered a number of climate records, with greenhouse gas levels at a record high, global temperatures at a record high, sea level rise at a record high, and Antarctic sea ice at a record low.

Against this backdrop, the stakes are high for 2024, with the unresolved challenges of the past year threatening not only to roll over into the coming one, but to conflate and exacerbate global disruptions.

This month’s Sign of the Times, the first of the year, looks at the ten potentially pivotal political, economic, technological, and social themes and events that will shape 2024.

 

The Ten Themes and Events That Will Shape 2024

  1. Russia-Ukraine War: Risk of Frozen Conflict

  2. Israel-Hamas War: Conflict without End

  3. US Presidential Elections: A Fork in the Road

  4. Artificial Intelligence: A Breakthrough Year

  5. US-China Relations: Stabilization or Deterioration

  6. COP29: Turning the Corner?

  7. Middle East Stability: Reset Opportunity Having mined deeper and

  8. India’s General Elections: Geopolitical Implications?

  9. The Global Economy: A Brittle Affair

  10. The Sustainability Transition: SDGs Timing Near Unattainable

 

1. Russia-Ukraine War: Risk of Frozen Conflict

US$1 trillion – the total cost of the Russia-Ukraine War to the global economy in 2023 2

Almost two years in and with the estimated causalities crossing 500,000, there is no end in sight to the Russia-Ukraine war. With Russia having ramped up military spending and weapons production, 2024 could be a make-or-break year for the Ukraine, which remain wholly dependent on military hardware from the West. With Western support for Ukraine showing signs of fatigue after €240 billion having been spent to date, 3 future military aid packages may shrink significantly in size, placing into doubt Ukraine’s ability to successfully defend itself, much less mount effective counteroffensives.

Potential Positive Outcome for 2024 Diplomatic Resolution Based on Third Party Intermediation. China and India work with Russia to create a negotiating platform, the discussion focused on land and NATO and Ukrainian guarantees for Russia’s withdrawal.
Potential Negativet Outcome for 2024 Conflict Grinds on into War of Attrition. In the absence of a clear strategic advantage on either side, the war continues at current intensity levels with high human losses on both sides, and further draining the resources of both parties and their allies with no clear victory strategy in a volatile global security landscape with continued elevated geopolitical risks particularly as NATO’s strength appears weakened as its will to keep funding Ukraine declines.

 

2. Israel-Hamas War: Conflict without End

Estimated 25,000 of the Gaza population killed since the start of Israel-Hamas war

Following the Hamas terror attack in October that killed 1,200 Israelis with many tortured and abused before being killed, the assault by Israeli forces on Gaza has passed the 100-day mark, leaving the majority of the territory unliveable, with 70 percent of homes having been damaged or destroyed, 4 and some 85 percent of Gaza’s population, around 1.9 million people, having been internally displaced.5 In the face of an escalating humanitarian crisis, with half of the population at risk of starvation, Israel has to date continued to resist international calls for a halt to hostilities, pursuing the increasingly impossible goal of totally eradicating Hamas.

Potential Positive Outcome for 2024 Negotiated Ceasefire and Settlement. Significant US pressure enables a permanent cease-fire under international supervision by the international community, and regional partners, with an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and full release of hostages. Prime Minister Netanyahu is forced from office and Hamas side-lined as a political force, allowing the restarting of a multi-lateral dialogue aimed at crystallising a two-state solution
Potential Negative Outcome for 2024 Continued Conflict and Loss of US Influence Israel resists US overtures towards a ceasefire and continues its attacks on Gaza despite a spiralling death toll and continuing erosion of international support, including from Western allies. America’s ongoing support of Israel and its inability to drive peace damages its reputation in the region, internationally and further weakens the liberal global order.

 

3. US Elections: A Fork in the Road

48% vs 48% - The even split of voters between Joe Biden and Donald Trump in a January 8th, 2023, poll 6

With Donald Trump having routed the Republican competition in January’s Iowa caucus, barring a change in others, the 2024 US presidential election looks set to be a rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. The candidates offer sharply divergent views on American domestic affairs, foreign policy and the future of the international order, and the outcome will therefore impact the fate of global democracy. With Trump having demonstrated his willingness to attack established democratic norms and set sights on a shift in power from government institutions to centralised ones, the current election raises significant concerns regarding a legitimate free and fair transfer of executive power in the world’s premier geopolitical power, as well as the nature of American democracy post the election.

Potential Positive Outcome for 2024 Trump Loss Underpins Continuity and Global Stability. A win by Biden, or any one of Trump’s Republican competitors, potentially delivers stability and continuity in US foreign policy and domestically, subject to the transfer risk being well managed. America would likely continue to support Ukraine and traditional allies, seek to contain Russia, while seeking to build a working relationship with while containing China, and engage with multilateral institutions to lead the world on a set of global issues.
Potential Negative Outcome for 2024 Trump Win Undermines Global Democracy. Trump has already promised to govern in a more authoritarian way, threatening criminal prosecutions of political rivals and attacking institutions that could constrain him like the judiciary or the Department of Justice. A Trump win would not only undermine democracy in the US but embolden autocrats across the world and ultimately undermine US authority and the global order.

 

4. Artificial Intelligence: A Breakthrough Year

2 months – the time from launch that it took ChatGPT to win 100 million users

The coming year will likely mark a watershed moment for generative AI. Apple’s plan to integrate AI into billions of mobile and computing devices will turbocharge global adoption and enable AI models to further scale their capabilities, achieving breakthroughs in customer experience, driving organizational enhancements and revolutionizing R&D, among other use cases. But AI advances are moving much faster than governance, risking gaps in AI governance emerging in 2024 driving early signs of the economic, industrial and jobs dislocation as well as impacting the major elections set for 2024.

Potential Positive Outcome for 2024 Regulation Enables Sharing of AI Benefits. The recently agreed EU AI Act stimulates global governance efforts and increases consumer AI adoption and corporate implementation rates across a wide range of use cases, accelerating the timeline for AI’s positive impact on productivity and economic growth, currently projected as 1.5% percentage points annually in the US, assuming widespread adoption over a 10-year period beginning in 2025. 7

Potential Negative Outcome for 2024 Disruptive Potential Comes to the Fore. A growing AI governance gap enables the proliferation of AI-generated mass disinformation, influencing voters, undermining institutional trust in a year where elections are being held in 76 countries, and sowing disorder to exacerbate existing geopolitical conflicts. At the same time, the growing commercial value creation from generative AI is realized at the expense of data privacy and early signs of the potential economic, industrial and jobs dislocation ahead.

 

5. US-China Relations: Stabilisation or Deterioration

2 position fall – Change in China’s rank in the list of America’s largest trade partners in since 2023, down from 1st to currently 3rd behind Mexico and Canada

US-China relations frayed further in 2023 in the face of the countries’ growing technological, economic, military, and geopolitical rivalry, ending the year in an uneasy détente following an attempted relationship reset in meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in November. However, the recent re-election of the (pro-independence) Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan tees up the island as a potential flashpoint for US-China relations, as do intensifying stand-offs between China and US allies in the South China Seas. At the same time, the ongoing trade war, export restrictions for strategic semiconductor and US investment restrictions in Chinese technologies will further test the attempted thaw, with the US presidential elections acting as the biggest wild card, with a re-elected Trump possibly raising tensions further on issues of trade, while withdrawing support from regional allies on security issues.

Rapprochement Allows Creation of Guardrails. Regulation Enables Sharing of AI Benefits. China and the US leverage the recently reinstated bilateral defence talks to agree the creation of guardrails for the countries’ geopolitical competition, reducing the risk of outright economic decoupling and safety measures to avoid military conflict. In the resulting environment of ‘competition without conflict’ the parties engage in meaningful consultations on critical global issues, including trade, technology, artificial intelligence, climate, and security.
Potential Negative Outcome for 2024 Further Escalation and Mistrust. The US-China relationship deteriorates from accidents rather than intent, e.g. from a collision of US and Chinese ships or planes in the South China Sea during military drills, 8 leading to mutual recriminations and mistrust having knock-on effect on further tariffs and trade restrictions. The resulting economic and political decoupling prevents the two countries from working together to address global issues including the global economy, climate change, AI governance and security threats.

 

6. COP29: Turning the Corner?

30% - the increase in domestic natural gas production over the next decade announced by Azerbaijan, the host of the COP29 climate talks

Despite some important progress, such as an agreement to support vulnerable nations facing the worst of climate change’s impact, COP28 fell short of delivering the decisive climate action needed to meet the Paris Agreement goals. Specifically, no precise agreement was reached on the phase out of fossil fuels, which is believed to be critical to meeting the 1.5°C target, with the joint statement released at the conference end marking countries only agreeing to “transition away from” fossil fuels. While COP28 has been called the “Beginning of the End” of the fossil fuel era, 9 the coming year will be critical in terms of setting new climate finance goals and new nationally determined contributions aligned with the 1.5°C target, given that global greenhouse gas emissions will need to be cut 43% by 2030, compared to 2019 levels, to limit global warming.

Potential Positive Outcome for 2024 Regulation Enables Sharing of AI Benefits. The G7, BRICS and other global stakeholders find the common ground to agree ambitious climate finance targets and to harden their commitments to phase out fossil fuels, with major countries using COP29 to bring forward to their target net zero dates, while mobilizing capital to help countries across the Global South manage their own energy transitions, placing the world on a trajectory of temperature increases of less than 2.0°C.
Potential Negative Outcome for 2024 Equivocation and Erosion. Corporate and national fossil fuel interests exert growing influence on climate negotiations, eroding national climate targets while the political backlash against ESG in the US limits investors’ ability to influence private sector decarbonisation, implying a de-facto acceptance of temperature increases of 2.5°C or more, with severe implications for the world.

 

7. Middle East Stability

46,000 – the number of violent deaths from armed conflicts in the Middle East in 2023 10

At the beginning of 2024, the outlook for the Middle East is a bleak one with multiple conflicts underway that risk escalating and being conjoined into a regional conflagration: Israel’s war on Hamas has not only devasted Gaza, but also triggered violent responses by Iran’s so-called proxies in the region, with Hezbollah firing rockets at Israel from Lebanon and Houthis in Yemen attacking international shipping in the Rea Sea, which in turn has already prompted air strikes by US and UK military forces. Further, civil wars continue to be waged in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Sudan. These conflicts have upended the region’s long-term shift towards greater stability, and risk undoing progress made by major countries in the region to create a regional security order. Navigating the related economic, political, and security challenges that these conflicts are driving will likely require regional powers to work together during the coming year.

Potential Positive Outcome for 2024 Arab-Led Security and Stability Leading regional powers including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt join forces to support regional stability, working with the international community, including determining how to manage Iranian influence in the region, brokering a solution to the Israel-Hamas conflict, normalizing Arab-Israeli relations, and supporting the long-term stabilization of Palestine with financial and governance resources, and the recognition of Israel.
Potential Negative Outcome for 2024 Conflict Contagion Draws in the World. Regional powers fail to agree a common course of action amid ongoing rivalry as Israel-Hamas war drags on and regional relations freeze, aligned only on their negative sentiment for Israel, and lack of confidence in the US. Iran’s proxies ratchet up their disruptions and attacks, drawing further Western interventions and triggering terrorist retaliations, as well as a loss of credibility for the US and its allies in the region.

 

8. India’s General Election: Geopolitical Implications?

950 million – the number of eligible voters in India’s 2024 election 11

In the decade that Narendra Modi has led India, the country has grown from the world’s tenth largest economy to its fifth. Expectations are clear that he and his party, the BJP, are set to win a third term India’s 2024 general election, he will likely oversee the country becoming the world’s third largest economy. With India emerging as a major geopolitical power bloc, the government’s future domestic, defence and foreign policy priorities will have potential implications far beyond the country’s own borders. For the government to successfully execute these priorities, it will need unity, or at least peaceful co-existence across the Global South, and at home. This will require Mr Modi and his party to carefully manage internal divisions and tensions given India’s large and heterogenous population, and elements of the BJP coalition that want to impose a Hindu nationalist agenda which risks further alienating hundreds of millions of Indians who do not belong to the country’s Hindu majority

Potential Positive Outcome for 2024 A Decisive Mandate for Reforms and Inclusive Growth. The electorate delivers a clear and decisive mandate for India’s continued, rapid, sustainable, and inclusive economic development; rewarding candidates that have delivered economically, and punishing those that engage in divisive identity politics. A new generation of accountable leadership emerges and accelerates India’s reform program and economic growth, giving India the ability to project its influence as a global power and a leader of the Global South.
Potential Negative Outcome for 2024 Ideology and Identity Politics Derail India’s Progress. The election devolves into identity politics pitting India’s majority Hindus against various minority communities; and PM Modi and the central leadership’s bandwidth gets consumed in dealing with the demands of hardliner elements within the BJP, driving further polarisation in the electorate, and potentially derailing progress on India’s reforms and economic development, and its ability to project influence as a global power.

 

9. The Global Economy: A Brittle Affair

1.2% - average projected GDP growth of advanced economies in 2024, down from 1.5% last year 12

The global economic outlook is a fragile one in 2024. Global growth is projected to slow from 3.0% to 2023 and 2.9%, well below the average of 3.8% of the past two decades. And while inflation is expected to decline from 6.9% to 5.8%, it is expected to still remain too high.13 Economic policy will accordingly face a challenging balancing act, with almost zero margin for policy error. Europe faces the risk of recession, while US economic activity is being shored up by a ballooning federal deficit as the government continues to increase borrowing.

Potential Positive Outcome for 2024 A Soft Landing to Lower Inflation and Higher Growth Major central banks successfully walk the policy tightrope and in the absence of external shocks, deflation continues throughout the year providing the opportunity for renewed economic stimulus for short-term growth, while structural reforms, such as investing to accelerate the green transition, revive growth prospects over the medium term.
Potential Negative Outcome for 2024 Global Hard Landing with Recessions. Spiking energy prices due to unresolved geopolitical risks keep inflation and interest rates high, driving advanced economies into recession and indebted developing economies into financial stress, exacerbated by weaker growth in China impacting trade and global commodity prices.

 

10. The Sustainability Transition: SDGs Nearly Unattainable

US$13-17 trillion – the estimated annual funding gap to achieve the SDGs by 2030 14

At their half mark since their adoption in 2015 and their eventual target (2030), the UN SDGs are at a severe risk of being missed. Progress made in the first decade of this century, that galvanised the will for the SDGs, has stalled and in some cases reversed. A total of US$132-175 trillion investment is now required until 2030 to meet the goals, and at current rates of funding, there is a shortfall of US$103-137 trillion. Total sustainability debt issuances, after increasing c.5x between 2018 and 2021 to over US$1 trillion, fell in 2022 and only partially recovered in 2023. However, innovation, and progress on several technological breakthroughs means that targeted investments in scaling certain existing technologies can help substantially accelerate progress towards the SDGs.

Potential Positive Outcome for 2024 An Inflection Point for Sustainable Investing. Lowering interest rates trigger greater credit demand and supply of financing for projects addressing key SDG gaps; and a virtuous cycle ensues with superior risk-adjusted returns for investments driver further financing, triggering further innovation to meet key goals (financial inclusion, education, healthcare, housing and urban infrastructure, digital infrastructure, etc.) led by the tech industry and various industrial sectors.
Potential Negative Outcome for 2024 Chronic Underfunding Puts the SDGs Out of Reach Another year of underfunding would put the SDGs even further out of reach, the accumulated funding shortfall to date itself compounding the funding requirement for the remaining 5-6 years. A new plan would need to be drawn up, but in the interim, countries would likely turn inward, focusing on their own near term objectives, creating a greater risk of conflict.

 

Conclusion.

As 2024 opens much of the world is at war, with over 50 conflicts impacting nearly a quarter of the global population, with wars raging in Israel and Gaza, Ukraine, Myanmar, Sudan, and many other places. Each of these wars represents a humanitarian, economic and security crisis that carries potentially significant geopolitical risks.

At the same time, 76 countries, home to half the world’s population, are scheduled to hold elections this year in what has been a period of sustained democratic backsliding. In some cases, such as Russia, the outcomes of the election are a foregone conclusion and its impacts have been fully priced into the global outlook. Others, such as America’s presidential election, appear to be a coin toss, albeit one with significant long term geopolitical implications.

In the face of these risks and uncertainties, 2024 has the potential to be a decisive year for a liberal global order that has received a significant battering in recent years. Its future survival will likely largely depend on the outcomes of the ten events outlined above. For it to be stabilised it will need to:

  1. Provide a greater benefit than challengers such as China and disrupters such as Russia,

  2. Withstand internal challengers, particularly arising from populists, nationalists, and national populism,

  3. Present a compelling vision to integrate the Global South into the order,

  4. Achieve real breakthroughs in addressing global challenges such as climate change and AI governance, and

  5. Be and be perceived to be a positive moral force, and a powerful agent of progress, in the world at large.

A further decline of the order would leave a global governance gap that is unlikely to be filled quickly, given the lack of compelling or even plausible alternatives. As a unilateral alternative, China appears to have at least a partial plan, offering an order based on transactional or mercantile relationships, which implies minimal shared norms a far more fragmented world. Among multilateral alternatives, the BRICS group aspires to challenge Western leadership, and it has recently expanded its ranks to include countries as varied as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Argentina, and Egypt. However, at this stage, the unifying force may be only an agreement on is its opposition to the current order.

A new bloc is potentially emerging though, with India emerging as leader of the Global South while at the same time strategic aligning with the geopolitical interests of developed democracies like the US, Europe, UK, Australia, Japan, and other major powers. The West hold at the hope that India remains a strong democracy with liberal socio-political values, grows economically to matter internationally, and serves as a counterbalance to China’s unilateral political, economic, and social trajectory. And that working together, the West with India, offer a more compelling vision to address the issues and risks facing the Global South and publics at home.

While the waning current global order is unlikely to be able to fully manage the various risks facing the world, our collective choices will determine the outcomes and middle paths of the ten events and themes between the two extremes outlined above. However, over the near term the road ahead for the world promises to be a rocky one.

  1. Source: Oxfam
  2. Sources: German Institute of Economics
  3. Source: https://www.globsec.org/sites/default/files/2023-12/Ukraine%20scenarios%20report%202024-2025.pdf
  4. Source: Time
  5. Source: Wall Street Journal
  6. Source; Ipsos
  7. Source: Goldman Sachs Research
  8. Source: According to the Pentagon, the number of risky encounters over the last two years exceed those in the preceding two decades
  9. Source: Cop28 Closing speech - UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell
  10. Source: Includes conflicts in Sudan, Israel-Gaza, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. Data from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ongoing_armed_conflicts
  11. Source: Election Commission of India
  12. Source: World Bank
  13. Source: IMF World Economic Outlook Oct 2023
  14. Source: Capital as a Force for Good, 2023