By Elena Kosolapova and Lynn Wagner, SDG Knowledge Hub

“Humanity is strongest when we stand together.” This was the gist of the UN Secretary-General’s message for New Year 2024. Describing 2023 as the year of “enormous suffering, violence, and climate chaos,” he urged the international community to build trust and hope by “com[ing] together across divides for shared solutions,” to achieve peace, sustainable development, and human rights.

Last year provided some steps forward, but much work remains. Against the backdrop of intensifying geopolitical tensions and cascading global crises, the world took stock of the state of the SDGs. While the Goals are not on track to be achieved by 2030, leaders recommitted to the 2030 Agenda as the blueprint for sustainable development. The first Global Stocktake under the Paris Agreement on climate change arguably marked the “beginning of the end” of the fossil fuel era. Years of negotiations resulted in a Global Framework on Chemicals. Replacing the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), it will guide chemicals management and use going forward. Together with the 2022 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), the 2023 high seas treaty will help preserve marine biodiversity.  

It is with hope that the SDG Knowledge Hub’s editorial team looks ahead at 2024. We have identified four areas for policymakers and sustainable development professionals to watch in 2024. 

1. The triple planetary crisis 

The UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) – the UN’s highest decision-making body on environmental matters – will hold its sixth session at the beginning of 2024. It will focus on how multilateralism can help tackle the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste. Progress on key processes launched at UNEA-5, including negotiations on a plastic treaty, and new initiatives on issues such as mining will take center stage during the 2024 session of the “world’s environment parliament.”  

While we are looking forward to the opportunities for progress during UNEA-6, which is scheduled from 26 February to 1 March, we cannot help but note that UNEA’s meeting is scheduled concurrently with the 13th World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference. Such scheduling conflicts may lead to missed opportunities to move multilateral action forward. Engagement on environmental initiatives in the WTO would benefit from environment ministers’ presence at the WTO ministerial. Similarly, trade ministers’ engagement at UNEA would expedite any trade aspects of relevance to the Assembly’s work. As it stands, environment and trade ministers won’t be rubbing shoulders at either event.  

Governance of global environmental issues will also be taken up during several Conferences of the Parties (COPs). The first in 2024 will be the 14th meeting of the COP to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS). This meeting will take place in Uzbekistan in February. 

Towards the end of the year, all three Rio Conventions will hold their COPs. Convening for the first time since the adoption of the GBF, UN Biodiversity Conference in Colombia in October will discuss the Framework’s ongoing implementation and ways to enhance it. Azerbaijan will host the 2024 UN Climate Change Conference in November. Among other deliverables, the Conference is expected to complete the first enhanced transparency framework and the new collective quantified goal on finance. And UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) COP 16 in Riyadh in December will explore ways to safeguard nature by achieving land degradation neutrality (LDN).  

Meanwhile, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will embark on its seventh assessment cycle in January. It is the hope shared by many that under the new leadership, the new cycle of assessments of the state of climate change knowledge will be quick and transparent. 

The year is expected to deliver two major milestones to address pollution, as mandated by 2022 UNEA resolutions. Negotiations are scheduled to conclude on an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment. The new plastic treaty would then be formally adopted in mid-2025. A parallel negotiating track to develop a chemicals counterpart to the existing science-policy bodies that focus on climate change and biodiversity is also expected to complete its work by the end of the year. Both processes were given ambitious time frames in their mandates; we will continue to watch for whether there is sufficient political will to overcome divergences within the allocated timeframe. 

2. Vulnerable countries’ challenges 

The triple planetary crisis does not affect all countries equally. Two summits planned for this year are dedicated to the special circumstances of vulnerable countries. The Fourth International Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS4) will convene in Antigua and Barbuda in May. Building on the outcome of SIDS3 in 2014 – the SAMOA Pathway – SIDS4 will aim to “agree on a new programme of action for SIDS with a focus on practical and impactful solutions and to forge new partnerships and cooperation at all levels.” Meeting under the theme, ‘Driving Partnerships for Progress,’ in June, the Third UN Conference on Landlocked Developing Countries (LLDC3) will explore innovative solutions to challenges faced by LLDCs and build meaningful, strategic partnerships to unlock the potential of LLDCs.  

On a related agenda item, the SDG Knowledge Hub will be closely watching the proceedings in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague to deliver an advisory opinion on the obligations of States in respect of climate change. The UN General Assembly (UNGA) requested the advisory opinion in March 2023. One of the questions addressed to the Court deals with SIDS’ particular vulnerability to climate change impacts.  

3. The global financial system 

Multilateral finance made headlines last year, with record replenishment of the Green Climate Fund (GCF) totaling USD 12.8 billion over the next four years. USD 700 million was committed to the loss and damage fund by developed countries when it was operationalized at the UN Climate Change Conference in Dubai. The issue of environmental finance will continue to be prominent in 2024, with the Council of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) holding its first meeting serving as the Council of the GBF Fund (GBFF). The Council is expected to approve the GBFF resource allocation policy. 

Amid these no doubt welcome developments, many poor countries are facing debt distress and liquidity challenges, and the global financial system is ill equipped to adequately support them. The Bridgetown Initiative, proposed by the UN Secretary-General and the Prime Minister of Barbados in 2022, aims to adapt the current system to the realities of today. According to the UN, 52 low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) “are either in debt distress or at high risk of debt distress, accounting for more than 40% of the world’s poorest people.” The Bridgetown Initiative advocates for immediate liquidity support, debt sustainability today and in the long term, and an SDG Stimulus of USD 500 billion per year in official sector lending, among other measures. 

International financial system reform will also be discussed during the spring and annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. The UN Secretary-General elaborated on the need for such reform in one of 11 policy briefs he published over the course of 2023 to offer “concrete ideas” to advance efforts outlined in his ‘Our Common Agenda’ (OCA) report. 

4. Trust in multilateralism 

Reform of the international financial architecture is but one aspect of restoring trust in multilateralism. There is a record number of armed conflicts raging on around the world, most notably in the Sudan, Gaza, and Ukraine, erasing hard-won development gains through the ripple effect that hits the poorest countries the hardest.  

It is hoped that the Secretary-General’s initiative, the Summit of the Future in September 2024, will breathe new life in multilateral cooperation and governance and turbocharge the SDGs. However, it will take more than that to rebuild trust. Amid eroding trust in global institutions, Member States themselves need to take the lead and use the UN’s unique convening power to revitalize multilateralism as a form of cooperation in good faith if, collectively, we are to provide solutions to today’s most pressing challenges. Whether the large number of national elections in 2024 bring the requisite political will and leadership will be up to each voter.     

At IISD’s SDG Knowledge Hub, we’ll be tracking these and other events, as well as intergovernmental processes such as the Group of 7 (G7), the Group of 20 (G20), and the meetings of the recently expanded BRICS alliance. We’ll be also watching for early signs from Brazil’s G20 Presidency on the Brazilian hosts’ priorities for the UN Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC COP 29) in 2025 when the next round of countries’ nationally determined contributions (NDCs) is due. 

Throughout 2024, we’ll be updating the SDG Knowledge Hub calendar as more event announcements are made, so please check it frequently.