Carbon Brief – What are the biggest geopolitical risks to climate action in 2024? 

Carbon Brief has asked a range of scientists, policy experts and campaigners from around the world what they think the biggest geopolitical risks to climate action will be in 2024. 

Cross-posted from Carbon Brief

Photo: Jasmin Sessler/Creative Commons

In 2024, the world is facing one of the most volatile geopolitical outlooks in decades. 

More than 50 countries, accounting for half of the global population, are going to the polls, with high levels of political uncertainty across many of the world’s largest economies.

Additionally, ongoing conflicts, extreme weather events, trade disputes and resource competition are contributing to geopolitical volatility. 

With the world nearly half way through a “critical decade” for climate action, overcoming geopolitical risks in order to start rapidly cutting emissions is paramount to limiting global warming. 

Carbon Brief has asked a range of scientists, policy experts and campaigners from around the world what they think the biggest geopolitical risks to climate action will be in 2024. 

Jason Bordoff Founding director Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs

Today’s increasingly volatile and unstable geopolitical environment is one of the most powerful forces shaping the global energy transition and climate action. We are currently at risk of a troubling downward spiral, in which today’s geopolitical conflicts are complicating and slowing the energy transition, while the risks of a disorderly transition risk exacerbating some of today’s most troublesome geopolitical trends. 

Increasingly fraught global conflicts are sapping resources and political will to address the climate crisis, from the Middle East to Russia’s unjustified aggression against Ukraine. Most recently, strikes by Israel and Iran directly against one another have inflamed tensions, escalating risks in a region critical to climate action that may also have ripple effects globally. 

Additionally, great power competition between many of the countries needed to lead on climate action, notably the US and China, is rewriting the rules of the international economic order and complicating climate action further. The urgency of accelerating the deployment of clean energy technologies far more rapidly than is the case today risks being hampered by concerns about national security, economic competitiveness fueled by the rise of industrial policy, and supply chain resilience that could raise the costs of those technologies. A recent example of this concern was the Biden administration’s launching of a national security investigation into the risks posed by imported Chinese electric vehicles. 

While there are real policy concerns to address with regard to China’s dominance in clean energy supply chains, there is also a real tension between limiting China’s market access and scaling clean energy technologies at the speed and scale needed for climate action.

Finally, there are signs of growing resentment and backlash by emerging and developing economies at the perceived unfairness in how the energy transition is unfolding. Leaders in the global south increasingly point to the inability of countries responsible for most of the cumulative emissions to mobilise capital for the transition in lower income countries, or what they see as hypocrisy in how wealthier countries approach fossil fuel investment at home versus in energy-poor countries, among other concerns. As a significant share of future emissions growth will come from emerging and developing economies and more than half of investment is needed in those countries by the early 2030s, ensuring they see the transition as proceeding in a just and equitable way is essential.

Olivia Lazard Fellow Carnegie Europe

The list is long! It is a year when a third of the world is going to the election polls, including in the EU and in the US. Needless to say, a radical right wave in the west would be disastrous for the coherence of climate trajectories. It would undermine the key message that democracies can deliver on social contracts and inter-generational stakes. In Europe, the radical right has been making progress on the back of economic and societal issues, but one should not underestimate two other factors that magnify the risks. 

The first one is disinformation and misinformation, especially the kinds piloted from Russia. The latter has perfected the art of fragmentation weaponisation in all its forms, including on the information and policy debate. Its tactics are both diffuse – via social media and digitalisation – and direct – co-opting and/or influencing political actors in Europe to serve its own interests. 

The second one is Europe’s own geopolitical blindspots, lack of foresight and, therefore, lack of strategic communication to European citizens. As opposed to what [European Commission] president [Ursula] von der Leyen said, the world is not going through a series of “crises”, which require weathering through. The world is in a state of biospheric, economic and power transitions, which require adaptation and transformation. Europe did not anticipate the paradigm shifts which are now unfolding. Political extremes are, however, riding the wave of this lack of anticipation to come to power and cement a more protectionist approach. The latter will break trust that Europe needs to deliver legally-binding climate action, and more largely, that Europe needs to exist. 

Underpinning election-related risks is inflation. 2023 was indeed a record-breaking year from a climate perspective. Global temperature average overshot past the 1.5C threshold compared to pre-industrial levels on a few occasions. Marine and pole temperatures broke records that indicate tipping points may activate sooner than later. El Nino contributed to dramatic impacts on various forms of agriculture. These global trends may seem abstract, but they indicate that the world is indeed headed towards more impactful forms of “natural” hazards – which translate in economic shocks at various levels – combined with more structural forms of scarcity and shortages, particularly with regards to water and food. 

These combined dynamic forms of economic stress will have different effects: disruption of agricultural and industrial, energy sources and trade passage points; inflation levels will remain a growing concern in the global economic system. This will have direct purchasing power impacts on vulnerable populations in all countries alike, with potential for active breakdown of social contracts in some countries, and change in political tides in others – including pushing a swell of radical parties in Europe. On a more macro-economic level, it will keep straining relationships between countries of the global north and global south, with detrimental effects on debt-relief conversations. Yet, the latter are absolutely crucial to enhance global adaptation and [emissions] mitigation capacity. 

All of these structural and dynamic risks lead to grievances ripe for an economic, political and/or geo-politicised backlash against or away from climate action. Considering that we’re in the pivot years towards a world past the 1.5C threshold, to say that this would be disastrous is an understatement. 

Faten Aggad CEO African Future Policies Hub

All eyes are on the US presidential election and what [candidate Donald] Trump will do. 

From an African perspective, the key challenge is that the geopolitical tension between China and the US/EU will be used as an excuse this year to argue for a limited increase in climate finance. We are likely to see this play out during COP29 [in Baku] when the discussion on the new financing goal is due to be discussed – [including the] insistence of western countries on a contributor base that includes China – as well as the replenishment of the International Development Association (IDA). 

The insistence on financing through specific frameworks – rather than net flows to developing countries – is not constructive and risks poisoning discussions around international commitments for climate finance. 

While it is clear that the quantum needs to be increased and that contributions need to come from all high polluters, any attempts to capture the discussion by adding these geopolitical tensions will be seen as a lack of commitment by developing countries. Understandably, these countries can only commit to decarbonisation – and to more ambitious NDCs next year – if they have a sense that there is serious consideration for their argument on financial flows

Also, internationally, the major risk is emission increase due to the issues on the Red Sea shipping route (estimated at [being an increase in emissions up to] 11%), as well as announced increase in weapon manufacturing due to increased demands. Considering that the defence sector estimated carbon footprint stands at 5.5% of global emissions, this is concerning.  

Jennie King Director of climate research and policy Institute for Strategic Dialogue

It’s generally assumed that mis- and disinformation in this space has a clear policy goal: weaken the public mandate for action, slow down the legislative process and, ultimately, maintain the status quo of the carbon economy. By confusing the public, actors can delay progress and prevent us from achieving a sustainable, decarbonised future. 

That remains true in many cases, but I think there is a bigger or parallel game at play: climate issues are also being used as a gateway to undermine democratic life and norms. Nowadays, the aim of much content is not just to delay net-zero, but rather weaken trust in political systems and institutions writ large. Framing climate action as an elite conspiracy or inherently undemocratic, and feeding into wider anti-establishment sentiment, has proven very successful. 

Climate is by no means the only victim of that trend, which has also impacted issues like racial justice, sexual and reproductive health, civil rights and electoral integrity. But I think what makes it uniquely vulnerable is how holistic the problem is and how every pocket of society has to be involved in the transition moving forward. 

By its very nature, climate is a problem that requires not only big government solutions, but multilateral cooperation. We are living in a time where people have lost faith or patience in either of those things. Citizens are suspicious of government and sceptical that policymaking can actually yield results. At the same time, nativism and isolationism are on the rise. That means the idea of doing things collaboratively with other countries – potentially even hostile states – and the global community rallying together around a shared crisis is an easy one to exploit and turn people against.

When we think about the problem in this huge election year – the so-called “year of democracy” – and beyond, I see those as the two parallel challenges: one, ongoing and coordinated efforts to thwart climate action, often funded by billions of corporate dollars; second, the way that climate is being weaponised to increase social division and embed the idea that democracy doesn’t work. We cannot address one without the other.

Iskander Erzini Vernoit Director IMAL Initiative for Climate & Development

The most significant question to be addressed within the multilateral climate regime – in 2024 – is that of international climate finance. The new collective quantified goal (“NCQG”) on climate finance in the UNFCCC, mandated [as part of the Paris Agreement] to be agreed before 2025, is to exceed and replace the goal of $100bn per year originally agreed in Copenhagen.

This will be enormously consequential to the future of climate action, as a time-limited window for governments to start, essentially for the first time, having responsible conversations about the magnitude of climate finance required to deliver the Paris Agreement. Climate change mitigation, including but not limited to energy transition, adaptation and loss and damage entail financing needs for poorer countries in the trillions of dollars per annum (in terms of overall nominal public/private sums required), of which at least hundreds of billions are needed in public finance support (in grant-equivalent terms).

One great risk in 2024 is that geopolitical rivalries between the so-called superpowers distract from the urgent need to scale up finance from the world’s richer countries to the world’s poorer countries, amid widespread sovereign debt distress and a shrinking window to deliver the Paris Agreement and UN Sustainable Development Goals

Despite the historical examples of the highest peaks in development spending being motivated by geopolitical rivalries, development assistance and aid budgets are at risk of being slashed by shortsighted politicians precisely when an increase is needed.

Dr Dhanasree Jayaram Assistant professor at the department of geopolitics and international relations, and co-coordinator of Centre for Climate Studies (CCS) Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Karnataka, India

South Asia is fraught with multiple crises, including political instability, socio-economic uncertainty, ecological fragility and resource inaccessibility. Both internal and transboundary challenges impede much-needed climate action to protect the most vulnerable populations in the region. The region is not immune to global developments such as the wars in Ukraine and Middle East either, as they have had adverse impacts on the countries’ energy and food security – making them less climate-resilient.

The governance gap is exacerbated by regional geopolitical tensions too. For example, the India-China conflict poses immense risks to transboundary climate and water cooperation. In fact, border infrastructure expansion and troop buildup could increase fossil fuel dependencies and socio-ecological vulnerabilities, especially in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region that sustains major ecosystems and river basins of South Asia.

More importantly, the lack of trust and robust institutional arrangements, despite common/shared challenges, hampers regional cooperation. While many transboundary ecological concerns in the region such as climate migration, fisheries management and air pollution lack governance mechanisms, many mutually beneficial opportunities are not being capitalised on, such as cross-border renewable energy trade.

Anna Ackerman Policy analyst at the International Institute for Sustainable Development, Board member at the Centre for Environmental Initiatives “Ecoaction”

Global movement to advance climate action requires sustainable peace, opportunities for development of the green economy around the world and a fair contribution from all countries responsible for historically high shares of greenhouse gas emissions. More people should be living in democracies to ensure their rights are protected, including the right to a clean environment and climate protection. Unfortunately, the world is becoming more complicated, with higher geopolitical risks and many uncertainties.

The ongoing military conflicts are likely to continue or escalate. Having moved from authoritarianism to totalitarianism, Russia keeps running the economy and financing its war against Ukraine – the largest armed conflict in Europe since World War II – with fossil fuels. Russia is gaining billions of dollars weekly from its oil and gas exports, while increasing military spending to the record $110bn this year. As Ukraine struggles to protect itself without sufficient international support and an unstable situation with the upcoming US elections, European countries boost their defence preparedness. This sets security on top of the agenda both on national level and globally – during most world leader meetings.

As half of the world will be voting in 2024, we see worrying trends of democratic backsliding and autocratisation of countries around the globe. We tend to focus criticism for the lack of climate action on democracies (often fairly enough). Meanwhile, authoritarian regimes do not allow criticism as such, preferring civil society’s silence or absence, and use of harmful disinformation tactics at home and abroad. Right-wing populism gaining visibility and votes in democracies means there is a risk of rising anti-climate sentiments. As we saw in recent years, this may well translate into shockwaves to international climate policies and COP outcomes.

Juan Pablo Medina Bickel Research associate International Institute for Strategic Studies

Tackling deforestation in the Amazonian rainforest, the world’s largest tropical forest, also known as the planet’s lungs for its carbon-sinking characteristics, is key for the global climate action agenda. 

The protection of this rainforest requires addressing multiple drivers of forest loss, including the expansion of transnational drug trafficking and related environmental crime linked to illegal mining, logging and cattle ranching. Yet, the discussion of security and armed conflict risks across the Amazon in global fora is limited. The current international security agenda is largely focused on the Russian-Ukraine war, the Israel-Palestinian Territories armed conflict, and the Red Sea crisis. Moreover, the Venezuelan displacement emergency with over seven million refugees and migrants, the worst humanitarian crisis in the western hemisphere in decades, has taken centre stage in diplomatic, developmental assistance and security cooperation talks in the Americas. In particular, the record level of irregular Venezuelan migration into the US across the Mexican border has become a priority for US foreign relations with the region. 

All in all, in 2024 the global discussion to protect the Amazonian rainforest requires incorporating a security angle.

Prof Sophia Kalantzakos Global distinguished professor, environmental studies and public policy New York University Abu Dhabi

The road to net-zero and global digitalisation have been subsumed by realist power struggles, driven by Sino-American hyper-competition exacerbated further by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Supply chains and the fourth industrial revolution have become securitised, and a world of “clubs” and “fences” has emerged undermining ties of interdependence. Moreover, the race for critical minerals and the chip wars raise fears of a scramble: for inputs, “geopolitically engineered” supply chains and the building up of tech and knowledge barriers that produce new exclusions and inequities. 

This is why I have argued that global climate leadership should not be driven by the US and China. Their relationship is unstable and acrimonious and has proven that climate is readily sacrificed on the altar of their wider rivalries. While ideologically framed as a fight between democracy and autocracy, they struggle to ensure primacy in the green energy and industrial shifts – and more importantly to control the “tech imperium”. To add to the current instability, a Trump victory in November 2024 will pull the US out of the [global] climate regime. While the Biden administration has made extraordinary efforts to transform the US economy, a Trump White House will wreak further havoc in the global order and undermine climate resolve. 

Kate Logan Associate director of climate, Asia Society Policy Institute, Asia Society

With major armed conflicts continuing to divert attention and financial flows, there is no shortage of geopolitical risk to climate action in 2024. From a mitigation perspective especially, the role of China – as both the world’s largest emitter, and the largest producer of decarbonisation technologies – looms large over prospects for progress.

China’s large-scale production of clean energy technologies, such as solar panels, electric vehicles and batteries has brought down the cost of these critical products and spurred their uptake. But concerns over China’s dominance have further entrenched protectionist policies in the US and EU, especially, where climate action is increasingly intertwined with economic competitiveness and political support from domestic industrial bases. 

Analysis by Wood Mackenzie indicates that excluding Chinese cleantech from global markets would raise the cost of the energy transition 20% by 2050, or $6tn. While supply chain diversification is important, how the world navigates these tensions will pose major implications for the speed and cost of emissions reductions – including in developing countries that don’t necessarily want to choose between the US and China. 

Domestically in China, political support for new coal power continues in the name of energy security. How soon the country can peak its emissions and bring them into structural decline will largely depend on power sector reforms and whether massive deployment of renewables can dampen coal power utilisation.

The entire world is also watching the US presidential election. A Trump victory would remove US pressure on China and other major emitters to cut their domestic emissions faster and introduce a new source of instability that may push countries to further prioritise security. Regardless, under either administration, trade tensions threaten to persist, with proposed legislation on carbon border adjustments receiving bipartisan support in the US Congress. 

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