4 Climate Stories That Will Define 2024
A family uses cloth for sun protection while walking in Prayagraj, India, during a heatwave. After witnessing the impacts of the world’s hottest year yet, addressing extreme heat should be top of mind in 2024. Photo: anil_shakya19/iStock

Last year shattered global heat records. The world witnessed the effects of rising temperatures in the form of devastating wildfires, severe flooding, extreme heatwaves and more. Poor countries and communities who have contributed the least to causing the climate crisis are bearing the brunt of its accelerating impacts.

The UN’s first Global Stocktake report showed us that, to hold warming to what scientists consider “safe” levels, we must reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 43% by 2030. But countries’ current climate action plans will reduce emissions by just 8%.

And while 2023 also saw exponential progress in electric mobility and renewable energy, we need every sector to reach similar tipping points to unleash a new era of low-carbon prosperity.

It’s not too late to course correct. In 2024 — a year where countries representing more than half of the global population will hold elections — leaders must make bold choices that benefit not just the climate, but people and nature, too.

We know elections make a difference for the fate of our planet. Since the reelection of Brazil’s President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in 2022, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has fallen by 22%. In the U.S., the Biden administration put forth the biggest package of climate legislation in history, which included nearly $370 billion in investments.

In 2024, billions of voters across countries like the U.S., Mexico, the U.K., India and Indonesia will elect leaders who will be making these decisions in the middle of a climate crisis. This is the most important election year so far this century.

Every year at WRI, our experts assess the biggest shifts and critical decisions that will affect the future of people, nature and the climate. This year’s four “Stories to Watch” focus on the power of elections to drive action on key issues like climate, food, energy and cities. They explore how leaders will find the balance between ambitious national climate action and the ability to bring all citizens along in the transition. This is the art and science of the new climate politics.

1) Climate: Will Politics Align with 1.5 Degrees C?

Last December at COP28, world leaders came together to usher in a new era for climate action, agreeing for the first time ever on a pathway toward ending fossil fuels. This looks like great progress.

But having ambitious leaders who can negotiate strong global agreements is just the first step. Fulfilling their promises requires strong policies that turn climate commitments into national action.

It will not be easy for national leaders to convince their citizens that the low-carbon transition will be better for all. For instance, over the last few years in the Netherlands — one of the world’s richest countries — hundreds of farmers drove tractors onto the streets around the parliament in the Hague to make their concerns about the transition heard.

If the world is going to exponentially accelerate the low-carbon transition, we need leaders to develop a new climate politics that not only emphasizes opportunities, but also assists and assures those who will find the transition more difficult.

Developed nations like Germany or the U.K. will need to navigate shifts like new, more sustainable farming practices and changing energy costs, ensuring that farm workers are supported and household budgets are not stretched thin. Developing countries must rapidly transition their energy systems so that they can benefit from low-carbon growth. Fossil fuel producers, like Norway, Saudi Arabia or the U.S., will have to find other sources of prosperity. Wealthy nations will face the added hurdle of allocating substantially more resources to support climate action and adaptation in emerging economies.

Leaders must design and promote policies for a low-carbon transition that will bring broad benefits to all people. Success will require ambition, action and collaboration at an unprecedented speed and scale.

What to watch this year:

  • How will candidates position the economic opportunities and costs of climate action in their campaigns? And will the promise of a new climate economy and a safer world engage voters?
  • Will countries enact more ambitious policies in line with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C?
  • Will policymakers work to ensure that all people benefit from the low-carbon economy — especially those most impacted by the transition?
  • Will wealthy nations meet pledges to increase support for climate action in emerging economies?
  • Will more finance for climate action be put on the table at COP29 in Azerbaijan?

2) Food: Will We Feed More People, More Sustainably?

Reforming the world’s food and land systems is one of the greatest opportunities for effective climate action. Yet it has been routinely overlooked in national climate policies.

Although the world produces enough food to feed everyone today, hundreds of millions still go hungry, while one-third of all food produced is lost or wasted. Consumption patterns are also deeply unequal: People in wealthy nations eat far more meat and dairy — the most resource- and emissions-intensive foods — than those in other parts of the world.

A heap of vegetables thrown away at a fresh-food market in Bangkok, Thailand. Over one-third of all food produced globally is lost or wasted, while hunger remains rampant worldwide. Photo: hadkhanong/Shutterstock

This is not only inefficient, but unsustainable. Food systems are responsible for 34% of global greenhouse gas emissions, consume an enormous amount of land and water and drive around three-quarters of tropical deforestation. At the same time, agriculture is increasingly threatened by drought, extreme heat and other climate-driven impacts, which can ravage yields and put farmers’ livelihoods at risk.

Food is also deeply woven in everyone’s culture and livelihoods. Nearly half of the world’s population lives in households where someone is employed in the food system. This political and social importance helps explain why governments around the world spend more than $700 billion each year on direct farm subsidies.

Feeding the world’s growing population in a changing climate will require a farm-to-fork overhaul of our food systems. We need to produce food more efficiently while protecting nature and biodiversity; reduce food waste in all countries and meat consumption in rich countries; and restore degraded land to productivity.

The seeds are already planted. At COP28, 159 nations endorsed the historic Emirates Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, agreeing for the first time to integrate sustainable food systems into their national climate plans by 2025, scale-up adaptation and resilience for farmers, reduce food loss and waste and more. Countries need to make significant progress this year to fulfill their promise by COP30 in 2025 in Belem.

What to watch this year:

  • Will countries and companies work to curb methane emissions from food and livestock? And will their agricultural emissions begin to fall?
  • Will positive trends in reducing commodity-driven deforestation in Brazil and Indonesia continue, and will they take hold across the globe?
  • Will leaders take bold action to reduce food loss and waste and encourage more climate-friendly diets?
  • Will countries implement effective policies and incentives to help fulfill their land restoration commitments?

3) Energy: Will the Grid Catch Up with Clean Energy?

Climate change discussions have long focused on energy transitions, and for the right reasons: 75% of global emissions come from burning fossil fuels.

The good news is that the clean energy revolution is already well underway and gathering momentum. Almost everywhere, wind and solar power are now cheaper than fossil fuels. The global share of wind and solar in electricity generation has been growing at an average rate of 14%, and that’s set to increase in the coming years.

But no matter how heavily the world invests in them, wind turbines, solar panels and other renewable technologies cannot meet clean energy goals on their own. Power generated where renewable energy is abundant must be able to reach end users — and our current electricity grid is not up to the task.

Grid modernization is a thorny political challenge that encompasses large investments, policies, land and technology. In many developed economies, such as the U.S. and Europe, high costs and restrictive land-use rules have barred developers from building new grid infrastructure at the scale and pace needed. Permitting alone can take years before construction, and connection delays of up to a decade are common. Yet, the world must find a way to meet its commitment of tripling renewable energy in just six years.

Meanwhile many communities still lack grid connections altogether. Across Africa, fewer than 60% of people are connected to electricity grids. In Nigeria — the country with the largest GDP in Africa — 40% of all electricity produced in 2021 was from private generators. This is expensive and highly damaging to both the environment and human health.

Reforming the world’s electricity grids is not just foundational to meeting global clean energy goals. It’s also central to increasing energy security, improving air quality and ensuring that everyone has access to clean, reliable electricity that can bring people out of poverty and power sustainable development.

What to watch this year:

  • Will countries and their leaders prioritize grid investments and reform?
  • Will governments pass permitting reforms to allow for rapid grid expansion and more projects that cross state and national borders?
  • Will we modernize the grid through new technologies like AI to make it more efficient and responsive to shifting needs?

4) Extreme Heat: How Will Cities and Countries Protect the Most Vulnerable?

Heat is a story about the toll of climate change on human lives. Research suggests that there are more than half a million heat-related deaths around the world each year. And the exact number is likely far higher, given that heat as a cause of death is often invisible.

Heat is also a story about injustice. Poor and marginalized communities suffer the most from extreme heat, whether it is because they lack access to cooling, are more likely to work in manual labor, or live in the densest, hottest parts of the world’s cities. Poor countries also have the fewest resources to adapt their cities, infrastructure and food systems to be more resilient to extreme heat.

After witnessing the impacts of the world’s hottest year yet, addressing extreme heat and its impacts needs to be top of mind in 2024. And cities should be at the vanguard. Whether by planting thousands of trees like in Medellin, Colombia, painting roofs white like in Ahmedabad, India, or reimagining urban planning like in Singapore, local governments are positioned to design pragmatic solutions that can cool cities and protect lives for over half of the world’s population.

There is also important work to be done at the national level through policies and regulations that encourage energy efficiency, nature-based solutions and more. Richer countries that have benefited from centuries of fossil fuel use and caused much of this heat, must step up later this year to support vulnerable countries at COP29 in Baku. Much progress is needed on the Global Goal on Adaptation and new financial commitments for locally led adaptation.

What to watch this year:

  • How will leaders protect the most vulnerable people from heat?
  • Will national, provincial and local government leaders coordinate action for maximum impact?
  • Will cities and countries invest in doubling energy efficiency, as they agreed in Dubai, and advance passive cooling and nature-based solutions?
  • At COP29, will countries strengthen the Global Goal on Adaptation with quantified targets and much-needed funding for adaptation in developing nations?

Shaping 2024 and Beyond

These stories will be front and center in driving climate progress this year.

In 2024, critical battles for climate action will be happening not only at large global gatherings like the UN climate summit, but at polling booths around the world. Actions taken by elected leaders over the next few years will determine whether the world can limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) and avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

For more information on how these stories could play out, check out the full Stories to Watch presentation.

Learn more about WRI’s annual Stories to Watch event and explore the top stories that have impacted people and the planet over the past 12 years here.

This article originally appeared on WRI’s Insights.

Ani Dasgupta is President and CEO of WRI.

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