5 Global Issues to Watch in 2023

By Megan Roberts on December 20, 2022

Ukrainian war refugees wait in a long line at the border to cross into Poland. Displaced people, many of them women and children, wait up to eight hours, carrying with them just the basics, usually only a backpack. PHOTO: Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Our Director of Policy Planning, Megan Roberts, takes stock of a tumultuous year that put global solidarity and cooperation to the test, and zeroes in on five key issues to watch in 2023.

In 2022 the blows to global cooperation came hard and fast. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine not only threatened the lives of millions of Ukrainians and violated the UN Charter, but it also accelerated a series of cascading and interconnected global crises in food, fuel, and energy. COVID-19 continued to batter the world, and new data showed how devastating the pandemic has been beyond its overwhelming harms to our health. Misinformation and disinformation presented clear and present threats to the health of people, communities, and political systems around the world. After reaching record levels in 2021, concentrations of greenhouse gases continued to rise this year, and dozens of natural disasters — extreme heat waves, floods, hurricanes — contributed to record levels of humanitarian need.

Extending their reach into households and pocketbooks, global crises left almost no one untouched. As the UN Secretary-General recently lamented, “Our world is facing the most pivotal, precarious moment in generations.”

These crises will shape 2023 as the world continues to grapple with the widespread consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and COVID-19’s long tail.

Yet the year ahead also offers a remarkable opportunity. As the midpoint on the journey to 2030, 2023 will hold a series of crucial reviews to assess where we stand against ambitious global agreements on sustainable development, climate change, gender equity, financing, natural disasters, and universal health coverage, to name only a few.

Yet reviews alone won’t move the needle. Harnessing the opportunity will require an honest assessment of where we stand. The news will be overwhelmingly gloomy. But, taken together, these reviews will also offer a chance to build political momentum, ambitious new commitments, and inclusive coalitions to accelerate progress to 2030. In that sense, 2022 has built some strong foundations upon which the world can build to make the most of the year ahead. There is no time to wait.

Here are five key global issues to watch in 2023.

1. Rescuing the Sustainable Development Goals

The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a devastating blow to the SDGs, which were already off track before the pandemic forced the closure of schools, government services, and workplaces around the world. The pandemic erased more than four years of progress in eradicating poverty and pushed millions into extreme poverty. At current rates, 574 million people will still be living in poverty by 2030, nearly 7% of the world’s population, with most in Africa.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has only worsened prospects, including by triggering global food shortages that disproportionately affected the world’s poorest people. Acute food insecurity has more than doubled since 2019. Developing economies are facing incredibly difficult choices as they struggle to manage rising food costs, the harms of climate change, and unsustainable debt burdens exacerbated by an inflation and liquidity crisis. The world’s poorest countries will likely be slapped with a 35% increase in their debt payments this year. It was this impossible situation that prompted Mia Mottley, the Prime Minister of Barbados, to call for major changes to the multilateral development and financing system through the creation of the Bridgetown Initiative.

Mia Amor Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados, addresses the General Assembly’s 77th session, calling for major changes to the multilateral development and financing system. PHOTO: UN Photo/Cia Pak

Women and girls have borne the disproportionate brunt of SDG rollback, and pushed the world further from gender equality. Violence against women remains endemic. Women still face unacceptable barriers to exercising their rights. According to the United Nations Population Fund, in 2022 only 57% of women were able to make able to make their own decisions over their sexual and reproductive health and rights. Moreover, progress in expanding women’s representation in leadership positions remains unacceptably slow. Taken together, the World Economic Forum estimates that it will still take more than 130 years to close the global gender gap.

Next year offers a series of key moments that together can serve to generate the leadership, commitments, and partnerships needed to bend the SDG curve. In March, world leaders will come together in the Qatar capital of Doha for the Fifth UN Conference on the Least Developed Countries to adopt a plan and articulate new commitments to support the countries that are furthest from achieving the SDGs. In July, at the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in New York, more than 40 countries will provide an update on their progress on the goals, but more importantly, the gathering will serve as a moment to rally SDG champions across sectors leading into the UN General Assembly in September. It is there that the world will also come together for the SDG Summit, marking the halfway point of the Sustainable Development Agenda. The second Global Sustainable Development Report, published by an independent group of scientists appointed by the Secretary-General, will be released in the lead-up to the summit. It will provide an assessment of where we are making progress on the Goals and the extent of the rollback, and it will offer evidence-based guidance for how the world can accelerate SDG progress. It will be crucial that leaders embrace the central commitment of the SDGs to leave no one behind and inject urgency to the start of the second half of the Sustainable Development Agenda.

September will also mark the halfway point of the Generation Equality Forum, a pathbreaking partnership on gender equality launched in 2021 and underpinned by $40 billion in commitments. But commitments and plans won’t lead to change if merely left on paper, so the Forum’s midpoint gathering will focus on increasing accountability and traction across the Forum’s work.

Any effort to set the SDGs on the right track will hinge on renewed commitments to development financing, and leaders should come to next year’s high-level meeting on financing for development ready with new pledges. But crises this year have also given momentum to discussions on deeper reforms of the multilateral development finance system, as without such reforms the world will struggle to accelerate SDG progress. Prime Minister Mottley seeks to transform development finance to deliver for countries experiencing the triple crises of unsustainable debt, climate change, and inflation/liquidity through expanded lending, emergency liquidity for countries bearing unsustainable debt burdens, and the development of global systems to support countries experiencing a natural disaster or climate crisis. Spurred in part by her leadership, there is new energy in the push for World Bank reform. This focus on equity and justice could also generate momentum to give a greater voice to a larger number of countries during the review of International Monetary Fund (IMF) quotas set to conclude next December.

2. Taking Stock of an Intensifying Climate Crisis

An important breakthrough for climate justice occurred at COP 27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, with the agreement to establish new funding arrangements, including a “loss and damage” facility intended to provide support to countries already experiencing the consequences of climate change. This, combined with the launch of the Secretary-General’s Early Warnings for All initiative, represented important steps in 2022 to address the harms of climate change, which are disproportionately felt in developing countries. A series of important moments across the year generated new attention and commitments to advancing action to protect the world’s oceans. At the COP 15 on biodiversity, countries agreed to protect at least 30% of the world’s lands, inland waters, coastal areas, and oceans by 2030—amid tensions between some developed and developing countries.

Artificial reefs installed in Mon Choisy, Mauritius. The reefs provide a new home for fish that lost their natural habitats due to rising sea temperatures and protect beaches by breaking the force of the waves reaching the shores. PHOTO: Reuben Pillay/Climate Visuals

But these achievements came against a worrying backdrop. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirmed this year that limiting warming to 1.5oC over preindustrial levels, the Paris Agreement target, requires emissions to peak before 2025 and be reduced by more than 40% by 2030. Yet, the World Meteorological Organization’s Provisional State of the Global Climate indicates that emissions are set to rise again this year. Major natural disasters in 2022, including devastating flooding in Pakistan, underscore the need for urgent progress on climate adaptation.

The world will have an opportunity to show whether it is serious about addressing the harms of climate change at COP 28 next year, when countries are expected to agree to a new global goal on adaptation. COP 28 will also serve as the culmination of the first Global Stocktake on progress in implementing the Paris Agreement. Member States also gave themselves until COP 28 to agree to important details on how to establish the “loss and damage” facility negotiated this year. Difficult questions remain, including how the facility will be funded and allocated.

2023 will also serve as the midpoint check-in on the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. This review will focus on better understanding and addressing the systemic nature of risk and serve as an opportunity to rally political attention and ambition to reduce the risks posed by natural and human-caused disasters. Separately, negotiations will continue on a plastics treaty set to be agreed in 2024.

3. Managing the Fallout from COVID-19’s Long Tail

2022 began with a global surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the Omicron variant that contributed to the more than 300 million cases of the virus this year. Since its start, the pandemic has killed over 6.6 million people. Although the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines marked an incredible achievement of cooperation and COVAX, the UN-led global partnership to accelerate equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, demonstrated new forms of solidarity, vaccine access remains woefully unequal. As of December 2022, 72.8% of people in high-income countries had received at least one dose, compared with only 28.9% of people in low-income countries. In addition, COVID-19 has dealt an important blow to wider immunization programs. The world registered a drop in immunization coverage from 86% in 2019 to 81% in 2021. New pathogen threats also emerged this year, including the spread of mpox, which by December 2022 had registered more than 80,000 cases. All of this took place as policymakers, health care workers, and others struggled against waves of health-related misinformation and disinformation.

Students at the Mahendra Secondary School in Nepal receive the COVID-19 vaccine as part of the first phase of the campaign targeted at children aged five to 11 years. The launch of vaccinations for this age group was enabled by the 2.2 million pediatric vaccines donated to Nepal through the COVAX Facility. PHOTO: UNICEF/Laxmi Prasad Ngakhus

Recognizing the need to strengthen collective capacities to prepare for and respond to future pandemics, countries began negotiations on a new pandemic accord this year. The world also made important progress this year in financing for global health. A Pandemic Fund was established to support low- and middle-income countries to strengthen preparedness for future pandemics. Beyond COVID-19, in May, countries agreed to significantly increase the proportion of flexible and predictable financing available to the World Health Organization and a global pledging conference for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria generated more than $15.6 billion in commitments, the largest amount ever raised by a multilateral health fund.

In 2023, countries will roll up their sleeves to negotiate a pandemic accord, which is scheduled to be delivered in May 2024. In September, the world will come together for a record number of high-level meetings on global health at the UN General Assembly, on universal health coverage — marking the halfway point to achieve this goal by 2030 — tuberculosis, and pandemic preparedness and response. Global health will also be a top priority during the SDG Summit the same week, particularly given the widespread harms that COVID-19 caused across the SDG agenda.

4. Delivering record levels of humanitarian need driven by conflict and disaster

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has added to already historic levels of global humanitarian need and displacement.

Global forced displacement totaled 103 million people in mid-2022, an increase from 89.3 million at the end of 2021. According to the most recent Global Humanitarian Overview, in 2021 roughly 274 million people worldwide were in dire need of humanitarian assistance — already a 17% rise from the previous year. For 2023, that number is leaping yet again, bringing the number of people in need to 339 million, more than the population of the United States. This means 1 in every 23 people on the planet will need emergency assistance just to survive.

This dramatic rise represents millions of women, men, and children who have been pushed to the brink and already-vulnerable communities that find their very survival at risk. But while we now confront historic levels of global need and displacement, the source of these crises is nothing new: conflicts, both protracted and proliferating, and the increasingly dramatic effects of the climate emergency have intensified both the suffering of innocent civilians and the pressure on our multilateral system to deliver lifesaving support and solutions.

In 2022, the invasion of Ukraine laid bare the global interconnectivity of conflict. In Ukraine, 7.8 million people have fled the country and over 6.5 million have been displaced internally. Millions more suffered the agonizing weight of war and occupation, attacks on civilian infrastructure, and little to no access to food, water, medicine, and other essentials. Simultaneously, impacts of the war reverberated throughout the global system, accelerating worldwide shortages of food, fertilizer, and fuel. Heroic efforts have been made to avert a complete humanitarian catastrophe, such as the brokering of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which has allowed for 11.2 million metric tons of grains and foodstuffs to leave Ukraine for global shipment since the deal was negotiated in July. But the World Food Programme still reports that as many as 828 million people globally go to bed hungry every night, and that a total of 49 million people in 49 countries are on the edge of famine. The threat of nuclear war or nuclear meltdown, and the catastrophic implications it would have on people and planet, has rarely felt more omnipresent.

In 2023, it is essential that the global community and our multilateral system learn from the lessons of this year, including the outpouring of support for Ukrainians forced to flee their country and the extensive efforts to manage the downstream impacts of the conflict. The vast ripple effects of persecution and conflict have been so clearly highlighted, and in the coming year we must better extend support — from sustained high levels of humanitarian funding to asylum and durable solutions for refugees — to crises absent from the front pages, from Haiti to the Sahel in North Africa, to Syria and everywhere in between. Lives hang in the balance. The cost of inaction is far too great.

5. Building more inclusive systems for international cooperation

Intersecting global crises and tensions between nations are stressing the UN and the wider multilateral system to a breaking point. At the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Martin Kimani, Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, warned that multilateralism was on its deathbed. Later in the year, the Secretary-General cautioned that geopolitical divides are “undermining all forms of international cooperation” and emphasized that “we cannot go on like this.”

The system managed to hold in 2022, and it even delivered some important diplomatic achievements. But the global interconnected crises across the year, which have directly touched nearly every person in the world, have also given new urgency and impetus to strengthening multilateral institutions and building more inclusive systems for cooperation. They have also demonstrated that we need better ways of looking ahead to understand, assess, and respond to fast-moving crises and wider trends shaping our world, from demographics to technology to systemic risks.

The series of midpoint check-ins next year on our 2030 goals are each important in their own right. Together, they represent a test of our credibility and the opportunity to ensure that when the next global crisis hits, more resilient systems are in place and we are better prepared to respond. 2023 will offer additional opportunities to build more inclusive and effective multilateral systems.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres addresses COP15 in Montreal, Canada. The Secretary-General urged an end to “the war on nature,” warning that the loss of biodiversity comes with a steep human cost. PHOTO: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

A crucial opportunity lies in the preparations for a Summit of the Future in 2024. Next year, nations will begin negotiating key elements as proposed in the Secretary-General’s Our Common Agenda report, released last year. These include a new agenda for peace, a global digital compact, and a declaration on future generations. A preparatory ministerial meeting at the UN General Assembly next year will offer leaders the chance to make a down payment on this ambitious set of proposals on the future of multilateralism.

Beyond the UN, India plans to use its G20 presidency to focus on multilateral reform and Japan has similar plans for its G7 presidency. We should also expect to see more serious efforts to make the multilateral system more inclusive and responsive to 21st century challenges, including across the UN Security Council, World Bank, and IMF.

Making the most of the opportunity at hand in 2023 will require a clear and honest look at where the world is off track without becoming hopeless about the scale of the challenge. Without doubt, global cooperation will be tested in new ways in the year ahead, and the urgency required to meet the 2030 deadlines will be laid even more bare. As humanitarian, health, and climate crises rage on, the world’s leaders will need to choose solidarity and step up for people and planet in unprecedented ways before the clock runs out. Far too much is at stake to make any other choice.

Kate Loomis, Special Assistant to the President and CEO, Policy & New Initiatives, and Cara Skelly, former Policy Planning intern contributed to this article.