The top risks and opportunities for 2024

By Peter Engelke and Paul Saffo

Voters around the world cast their ballots on the fate of democracy. Ukraine determines whether its struggle against Russian aggression is winnable, China deploys measures just short of war against Taiwan, and broader hostilities engulf the Middle East. Insufficient action on climate change increases the chances of rogue geoengineering. Oceans governance and space exploration leap forward. Artificial intelligence becomes ubiquitous. 

These are just some of the biggest global risks and opportunities that we foresee in 2024. To create the following list, we conducted a miniature foresight exercise, assessing the most significant trends and developments that have occurred in the past, consulting Atlantic Council experts on what they’re monitoring in the present, and forecasting how geopolitical, economic, technological, political, demographic, and environmental forces could interact in the future.  

The scenarios below, which do not appear in a particular order (we consider all to be important, hence their inclusion on this list), are assigned a probability from “low” to “high.” A “medium” probability means that we have assigned a (roughly) 50/50 chance to the scenario occurring within the next year. A scenario with a “low” probability is no less significant than the others. This just indicates that it is unlikely to materialize in 2024. But as recent years have so dramatically illustrated, low-probability scenarios can cause a high degree of global turbulence. And the odds of such a scenario happening could rise over a longer timeframe. 

Top risks

Middle East

The Israel-Hamas conflict triggers a wider Middle East war

There are two central worries associated with this risk. First, that the conflict between Israel and Hamas will not be contained to Gaza and instead spread to other countries bordering Israel. Since Hamas’s October 7 terrorist attack, Israel and Iran-backed groups in Syria and Lebanon, including Hezbollah, have traded artillery fire and engaged in other military activities such as airstrikes, with tensions recently spiking over the killing of Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut. These dynamics risk escalation, whether intended or unintended.

Second is the concern that the United States and Iran will be drawn into a direct conflict with one another. Iran’s well-developed regional network of armed militias and terrorist groups has already attacked US bases in Iraq and Syria and commercial vessels in the Red Sea. The latter development, in turn, has forced the United States and its allies to form a maritime security force to protect vital shipping lanes in the region and ultimately to carry out airstrikes in Yemen against the Houthi rebels behind the Red Sea attacks. Although neither Israel nor Iran nor the United States appears interested in a wider war in the Middle East, an accident, a miscalculation, unforeseen events, or rash and imprudent decision-making by a state or nonstate actor might prove the tipping point for a highly volatile region.

Although Israel has announced that it is winding down the first phase of its military campaign in Gaza, there are too many unknowns and potential flashpoints to forecast a rosy scenario in 2024.


The possibility of Ukrainian victory recedes as Western support fades

It appears unlikely that Russia has the military capability to decisively defeat Ukraine on the battlefield. Yet it is not a given that Ukraine will be able to win the war outright, as shown by its own lack of offensive progress on land (if not at sea) in 2023.

Few if any analysts believe that Ukraine will be able to emerge from this war intact (where “intact” is defined in part as repossessing the territory it held before Russia’s invasions of the country in 2022 or 2014) without sustained Western financial and military support. Although Ukraine has benefited enormously from deliveries of advanced weaponry from the West, that support has been insufficient to tip the scales in favor of Ukraine’s offensive operations. Simply put: Ukraine needs more of everything, including the basics—artillery shells, for example—to win a war involving hundreds of thousands of troops along a thousand-kilometer front.

In 2024, the risk is that such assistance will not be forthcoming, owing to war fatigue and domestic factors in Europe and the United States. There have been numerous warning signs on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States, the Biden administration is facing much stronger congressional resistance to maintaining and increasing Ukraine funding than it confronted earlier in the war. In Europe, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has blocked the European Union’s funding plans for Ukraine. The Netherlands’ incoming prime minister, Geert Wilders, and his Freedom Party advocate withdrawing Dutch military and financial support from Ukraine, though such an outcome is far from certain given Wilders’s need to form a multiparty governing coalition.

Should Western support fade, Ukraine almost certainly would be unable to win on the battlefield. In a worst-case scenario where aid from both the United States and Europe fails to arrive, Ukraine could lose its struggle with Russia outright.

Climate Change

A climate-fueled storm devastates a megacity

In October 2023, a rare storm formed in the Pacific. Over a single day, it intensified from a tropical storm to a Category 5 hurricane, coming ashore around Acapulco and ravaging the Mexican city. In September, eight months’ worth of rain fell on eastern Libya in just twenty-four hours, collapsing two dams and washing out large portions of coastal communities.

Imagine a storm of such ferocity and speed hitting an even larger city—one of five, six, or twenty million residents. Over 600 million people live in low-lying areas within sixty miles of a seacoast and two-thirds of the world’s largest cities (with populations of five million or more) are located in these coastal zones. People around the world are increasingly moving to such megacities—some driven there because the effects of climate change have made life elsewhere untenable.

Clear data on the relationship between climate change and extreme weather events is elusive. For example, data from the US Environmental Protection Agency suggests that the frequency of hurricanes reaching the United States has largely not changed over the last century, but the data also points toward increasing activity since 1995 (coinciding with increases in sea surface temperature). In general, however, storm forecasters worry that higher ocean temperatures and other climate-related factors will both increase the number of hurricanes and rapidly transform weak tropical storms into severe hurricanes, as occurred in Acapulco.

Combine this climate reality with the infrastructure challenges facing many of the world’s megacities, and the stage seems to be set for an Acapulco-like disaster playing out on a larger scale, wherein a megastorm hits a megacity such as Dhaka, Manila, Ho Chi Minh City, or Rio de Janeiro. Whether such a disaster occurs in 2024 is hard to predict, but what is certain is that such an event will occur at some point in the coming years.

China and Taiwan

China blockades Taiwan, risking conflict with the United States

Fears of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan have been circulating in Washington and other capitals for years. Although an invasion scenario has preoccupied military planners in the Pentagon, another coercive scenario—a Chinese naval blockade of Taiwan—is as likely if not more so in 2024 and beyond.

With the world’s largest navy, coast guard, and maritime militia, China knows a blockade is more flexible and easier to execute than an invasion would be.

Taiwan’s January 2024 elections could shape decision-making in Beijing. The outcome—in which the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the political party least inclined toward closer relations with China, won the presidential race—could spur Beijing to continue ramping up its intimidation tactics to convince Lai Ching-te, the Taiwanese president-elect, to refrain from further assertions of or moves toward independence from China.

The DPP victory may combine with other factors such as China’s slowing economy to spur aggressive action by Beijing, perhaps including a blockade. Chinese leader Xi Jinping could decide the moment has come to force Taiwan into submission—years before (some) US officials have estimated that Beijing might make such a move. Given Beijing’s recent willingness to probe Taiwan’s defenses surrounding the island (significantly, including in the waters and airspace to the east of Taiwan), the prospect of Chinese naval vessels blockading entry into Taiwanese ports remains a lower probability yet still plausible event in 2024.

Nuclear weapons

Nuclear states clash with conventional weapons, risking a nuclear escalation

With relations among nuclear-armed countries deteriorating as they contest hot spots around the world, there is a real prospect in 2024 of two or more nuclear powers engaging in direct combat with one another using conventional weapons. The bigger concern is that such a conflict could escalate to a nuclear exchange.

The list of difficult relationships among the world’s nuclear powers is long. These include China and the United States, China and India, Pakistan and India, North Korea and the United States, and Russia and NATO (the Alliance counts the nuclear-armed United States, United Kingdom, and France as members). In the background lurks the hostile relationship between Israel, which has never confirmed nor denied that it possesses nuclear weapons, and Iran, which is reportedly now capable of producing enough fissile material for several nuclear weapons.

Few of these relationships are on an upward trajectory diplomatically; most are in stasis or deteriorating. Hot spots include Ukraine and the easternmost states of NATO and the European Union; Taiwan, the Senkaku Islands, the Paracel and Spratly Islands, and other waters and islands in the western Pacific; the Korean peninsula’s demilitarized zone; much of the Middle East given the current conflict in Gaza; and the contested borders between Pakistan, India, and China.

A direct military conflict between two or more nuclear-armed powers does not mean an automatic escalation to an exchange of nuclear weapons. Indeed, in recent years, China and India on the one hand and Pakistan and India on the other have engaged in clashes involving small numbers of troops along their disputed borders that were contained well before any apparent serious consideration of resorting to such weapons. Yet the lack of nuclear escalation in these past conflicts does not mean that the risk is nil in the future.

Climate change

A lack of progress on climate change leads countries—or wealthy citizens—to take matters into their own hands

While the final agreement from the recently concluded United Nations (UN) climate change summit known as COP28 included a commitment to “transition away” from fossil fuels, it also fell short—just like other COPs before it—of tying countries to binding collective action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The dawning recognition that emissions goals aren’t being met is fueling a controversial view that geoengineering—the notion that humans can predictably alter the planet’s climatological system through deliberate and controlled intervention—is the only realistic, workable solution to keeping surface temperatures within tolerable bounds. In 2024, we could see a dramatic increase in proposed geoengineering solutions and prototype projects. Expect to hear more about interventions of every type—from carbon sequestration-focused approaches such as sinking algae down to the benthic seabed and “mineralizing” atmospheric carbon into rock, to solar radiation management techniques focused on spraying sulfur-dioxide particles in the high atmosphere or deploying space-based sunshades. Although these interventions are scientifically and technologically diverse, all share the goal of slowing, halting, or reversing climate impacts.

While geoengineering is an important and active arena of scientific inquiry, the worry is that someone will proceed with a dramatic intervention that is unilateral, transboundary, and premature. Given the many scientific unknowns and lack of global governance structures relating to geoengineering, some types of interventions could amount to irresponsible gambles with the ecological health of the planet—by, for example, risking damage to the ozone layer or altering weather patterns. Rogue geoengineering is an unnerving wild card that might start coming into play in 2024 and beyond, perhaps in the form of interventions initiated by a single state or nonstate actor (such as a super-wealthy entrepreneur) acting on their own and ahead of scientific and political consensus on whether the rewards of such actions outweigh the risks.


Africa’s “coup belt” expands, disrupting social and economic progress

Since 2020, there have been eight successful coups in countries across Africa’s Sahel region and West Africa, forming what is now labeled a “coup belt” stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. In 2024, the odds are high that additional coups will beset the region, within both countries that already have experienced coups (Mali and Burkina Faso, for example, have endured back-to-back coups in short succession) and countries that have not yet experienced them. The coup belt could also expand outward. In August, for instance, Africa’s most recent coup occurred in Gabon, well south of the Sahel in west-central Africa.

There are complex underlying reasons why these countries are experiencing coups in such close succession. Although each nation in the coup belt has its own unique challenges, governments across these regions generally have not provided their citizens with core public goods including security, prosperity, and competent services. They have failed to confront growing insurgencies and associated violence, contain corruption (enabling wealth to flow to a small elite), or run clean elections to legitimize government authority.

Public-opinion polling shows that such sources of instability are undermining support for elected governments while increasing the desire for the apparent stability—quite often illusory—that military rule might bring. An expansion of the coup belt would present an obstacle to the ongoing economic and social transformation that Africa’s youthful, entrepreneurial, and growing population is driving.

China and Latin America

China increases its influence in Latin America and the Caribbean at the expense of the United States

Strategic competition with China has quietly reached the United States’ neighborhood. Over the past two decades, China has become the largest trading partner of many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. By taking numerous steps to enhance its position, China has quickly established itself as the region’s second-biggest trading partner overall, after the United States, and South America’s largest. In May 2023, for example, China signed a free-trade agreement with Ecuador, its fourth in the region following agreements with Peru, Chile, and Costa Rica. And Chinese entities have invested nearly $150 billion in the region since 2005 to support energy, transportation, infrastructure, and other public-goods projects.

China’s growing economic clout in Latin America and the Caribbean is paralleled by its diplomatic successes. Since 2017, for instance, five countries in the region have established formal ties with China and ended their relations with Taiwan. In October 2023, China also upgraded its diplomatic ties with Colombia, one of the United States’ oldest allies in the region, to a “strategic partnership.”

The US government is attempting to develop an effective response given its longstanding interests in the region. Yet the obstacles are numerous. The United States has multiple trade agreements with countries there, but in Washington there is little interest in expanding trade agreements to more Latin American and Caribbean countries. And although the Biden administration has launched a regional economic development initiative known as the Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity, thus far it has struggled to marshal the resources that many believe are necessary to fully counter the scale of China’s activities (the extent of the trade relationship between the United States and Mexico being an important exception). For the United States and even for Europe—likewise mired in ineffective economic diplomacy in the region—the risk is that Latin American and Caribbean countries will hew ever more closely to China in the coming years.

Top opportunities


Key elections reinvigorate the world’s democracies

This will be a critical year for democracy. The world’s largest democracies, India and the United States, will hold general elections. So too will South Africa, Mexico, Indonesia, and a host of smaller countries, while the European Union will hold parliamentary elections. In total, according to the Economist, countries with more than four billion people will host local, regional, or national elections in 2024.

Over the past decade at least, democracies have been struggling against difficult headwinds. Economic frustrations, online disinformation, assorted grievances against established political elites, and social, cultural, and political polarization all have transformed the global democratic landscape for the worse. In 2024, it is reasonable to expect that voters in some countries will choose parties and candidates that flirt with authoritarian rather than democratic governance, as voters have done over the preceding years. Should voters choose illiberal paths in the majority of democracies holding elections this year, there is considerable risk of serious and lasting damage to the democratic project around the world.

However, we put this item on the opportunity side of the ledger because we remain optimistic about people’s faith in that democratic project. And with some reason: Global public opinion surveys consistently show broad support for democracy, though there also is widespread frustration with how it functions in practice. Voters across the world have an opportunity in 2024 to reaffirm their commitment to democratic governance by choosing parties and candidates that support democratic ideals and principles and, in so doing, reject illiberalism.

Artificial Intelligence

AI goes mainstream—and spreads everywhere

Since bursting onto the public scene in 2022, generative artificial intelligence (AI) and technologies involving large language models have advanced with breathtaking speed, with implications equally fascinating and terrifying. But relative to what will unfold in 2024, what we saw in 2023 barely qualifies as a warmup. Trying to predict anything in such a fast-moving area is a mug’s game, but there are a few elements we can count on:

  • The global generative AI market will grow robustly in the year ahead and into the early 2030s. Goldman Sachs analysts have estimated that the diffusion of AI technologies will increase global GDP by 7 percent over the next decade.  
  • 2024 will be the year when AI goes mainstream, and not just on our screens. AI systems are being embedded in the devices that define our everyday life. The result will be the arrival of the first “smartifacts”—devices with rudimentary intelligence having a greater ability to directly sense and interact with the physical world than they do now. This will begin with familiar objects—vehicles, appliances, personal electronics—but will also yield entirely new classes of devices, including dramatically more capable robots. 
  • Meanwhile, AI will also yield more prosaic surprises. Chatbots will become ubiquitous on our communications devices, displacing traditional search. Such surprises will include downsides as well. AI will play a major disruptive role in influencing public opinion and this year’s many elections around the world. Indeed, the disruptions have already begun; in September 2023, for instance, Microsoft researchers unearthed a network of Chinese-controlled social media accounts using AI to influence US voters. 

Ukraine achieves a battlefield breakthrough against Russia

Ukraine’s lack of significant progress during its 2023 counteroffensive surprised those who expected quick work against a Russian military that appears incompetent at best. Instead, Russian defenses have proven resilient, reducing Ukraine’s land offensive to a slow crawl. The war now appears to be settling into one of attrition that favors Russia given its larger economy and reserves of manpower, plus the expected impatience of Western publics for long wars (see the related risk above). In a November interview, Ukraine’s commander in chief, Valery Zaluzhny, lamented, “There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough”—at least, he implied, in the near term.

However, in 2024 there remains some hope of a breakthrough on the battlefield in Ukraine’s favor, assuming two factors align for Ukraine:

  • The right mix of Western weapons and ammunition arrives at scale and on time. Although Western countries have been delivering these resources, the types and quantity thus far have fallen short of what has been needed to realize an offensive breakthrough.  
  • Ukraine’s military leadership finds innovative solutions for a twenty-first-century battlefield that so far has favored the defense—an insight that Zaluzhny has readily admitted, while asserting that novel combinations of weapons, tactics, and information will provide the breakthrough. 

For such a scenario to materialize, the bad performance of Russian forces—a result of factors such as poor training, low morale, and inadequate supply—also would need to hold.

Should Ukraine’s military situation become more favorable in these ways in 2024, there is a chance that Ukrainian forces will achieve a breakthrough and, with it, the prospect of ending the war on Kyiv’s terms.


The space economy takes off

One of the fastest-growing economies on the planet isn’t on the planet—it is in space. According to the nonprofit Space Foundation, the global space economy grew 8 percent in 2022 to more than five hundred billion dollars and is on track to grow to nearly eight hundred billion dollars over the next half-decade. Commercial space efforts account for nearly 80 percent of activity in the sector, but military spending has also increased and is likely to continue to grow.

The hottest space real estate in 2024 will be low Earth orbit (LEO), where more sensor and communications systems will be deployed. In the coming year incumbents such as SpaceX and Blue Origin will expand the pace of their launch operations with new platforms such as Blue Origin’s reusable New Glenn launch vehicle, under contract with NASA to send two probes to Mars in 2024, and Rocket Lab’s two-stage Electron rocket, which has delivered dozens of payloads to LEO. Meanwhile, SpaceX has announced a goal of launching a rocket nearly every two days in 2024, which would roughly double its number of launches in 2023.

The incumbents are being chased by an ever-growing number of companies seeking their unique niches in the space economy. Look for the expansion of space-based telecommunications offerings beyond Starlink to encompass direct smartphone calling via satellite. The first space hotel is not projected to enter orbit until 2030 at the earliest, but even space tourism will grow modestly as Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic expand their space-flight operations for tourists. And Axiom Space, a well-funded start-up with a goal to construct the world’s first commercial space station, has been sending commercial missions to the International Space Station.

Activities such as space tourism might seem frivolous, but they help fund and build out the space infrastructure needed to meet global challenges such as communications access for remote and underserved communities and environmental sensing for monitoring, predicting, and mitigating the effects of climate change. The growth of the industry matters because space-based activities are central to managing terrestrial issues and opportunities.


Africa gains agenda-setting power in major global forums

In September 2023, at the annual summit of the Group of Twenty (G20), Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the African Union (AU) would be joining the G20 as a full member. Prior to this move, South Africa was the only African representative in the G20, despite representing just 4 percent of the continent’s population.

The G20 expansion presages Africa’s fuller inclusion in multilateral decision-making at the highest levels. A figurative dam has broken. For many years, Africa largely has been sidelined within global governance institutions such as the G20. AU membership in the G20 should make Africa’s economic, environmental, and security agenda of greater concern to the global community, and also help build trust between African nations and other countries within the G20 and elsewhere.

The big questions for 2024 and beyond are whether Africa’s agenda will be taken as seriously within the G20 as its inclusion in the bloc promises—and whether the AU’s entrance into the G20 increases Africa’s influence in other global forums such as international financial institutions.

UN Security Council

The UN Security Council is reformed, shoring up its diminished legitimacy

Reforming the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the most important body within the UN owing to its responsibilities for responding to war and upholding peace, has proven to be one of international diplomacy’s most intractable challenges. But the task has taken on greater urgency since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and Moscow’s subsequent blocking of all resolutions about the war. One fear is that the Security Council’s evident paralysis—in part the result of its inability to modify its membership and voting procedures—has rendered it illegitimate. The hope is that a reformed UNSC could regain much of its diminished legitimacy by acting more credibly and decisively on future matters of war and peace.

While reform proposals span procedural and membership changes, the core reform question is whether to expand the “P5,” the five permanent members of the Security Council that hold a veto: the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France. P5 countries represent less than half of global GDP and one quarter of the world’s population. Major countries and entire regions, including Africa, Latin America, South Asia, and the Middle East, are excluded from permanent membership.

Despite the Biden administration’s support for new permanent members, and a significant global outcry over the lack of reform, we assess the odds of reforming UNSC permanent membership to be low in the short to medium term. There simply are too many conflicting interests within and outside the P5 to rate the prospects much higher. Nonetheless, addressing these problems remains an opportunity to act on a symbolically and substantively critical part of the global agenda, and a chorus of reform-minded voices is currently backing such moves.

High Seas Treaty

The High Seas Treaty is ratified, advancing collective management of the world’s oceans

The world’s five oceans, which together cover 71 percent of Earth’s surface, have come under threat from a range of human activities, including overfishing, plastics pollution, and climate change. Decades after the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) came into force, many of its most ambitious provisions remain in limbo. The recently adopted Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction Treaty (commonly referred to as the High Seas Treaty), however, might just become a breakout exception in 2024 if sixty countries ratify it, allowing it to enter into force.

The High Seas Treaty provides a framework for managing oceanic ecosystems. Among other measures, it builds capacity around marine technology, creates new marine-area management tools, establishes processes for environmental-impact assessments, and provides technical support to developing countries, all in the service of effective global stewardship of oceanic resources.

The treaty will go a long way toward preserving oceanic fisheries, but that’s not all. The Earth’s oceans account for half of the planet’s oxygen, absorb one-quarter of carbon-dioxide emissions, and act as a sink for 90 percent of the excess heat generated by anthropogenic emissions. By managing the ocean’s biodiversity, the High Seas Treaty also will help preserve the oceans’ capacity to assist in managing the effects of anthropogenic climate change.

Another area to watch: the exploitation of deep-seabed resources contemplated under UNCLOS’s Part XI, driven by advances in extraction technologies. Although the High Seas Treaty does not have jurisdiction over deep-sea mining, ratification of the treaty might convince countries that if they can act in concert to manage the living resources of the sea, then they can also agree to do the same for the resources on the seabed.

Renewable Energy

Supply chains for critical minerals begin to be reoriented

A decarbonized global economy requires a consistent supply of critical minerals, including lithium, cobalt, copper, nickel, and rare-earth elements. Like the fossil fuels that have powered the modern industrial economy, critical minerals are unevenly distributed in the earth’s crust. Frequently, there is a geographic divide between where they are mined and processed versus where they are consumed as components in batteries, wind turbines, and other technologies. Source countries often are in the Global South, especially Latin America and Africa, and in China, which also has managed to capture much of the world’s output through contracting or outright purchase of mines and other facilities. But as with oil and natural gas, critical minerals are consumed everywhere in the world, disproportionately in the wealthiest countries that boast the largest consumer markets and fastest energy transitions.

There is enormous interest within both producer and consumer countries in reorienting the global supply chains of such minerals. The United States and its allies and partners in East Asia and Europe want to move supply chains away from China, while producer nations want to add processing and manufacturing value to their operations so that they aren’t only exporters of raw materials. A reset of global supply chains would require consumer countries such as the United States to envision new models of working with producer countries, and begin crafting equitable and mutually beneficial partnerships with them. Such partnerships could result in consumer countries securing their supply chains while producer countries build capabilities for processing and manufacturing critical minerals based on sound environmental, social, and governance principles. Doing so would benefit producer economies (and their local communities) beyond the gains provided by simple export of unprocessed raw materials.  

Keep an eye on whether policymakers in producer and consumer countries seize such an opening starting in 2024 and begin the hard—but ultimately worthwhile—work of reorienting global supply chains for critical minerals around new models. 

Peter Engelke is the deputy director of foresight within the Scowcroft Strategy Initiative, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and a nonresident senior fellow with its Global Energy Center. 

Paul Saffo is a Silicon Valley-based forecaster and a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Strategy Initiative.