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The 2023 Climate Review

In the wake of 2023, we look back at new record temperatures, political whirlwinds surrounding COP28, and a persistent phase-up of fossil fuels despite the devastation caused by natural disasters all over the world.  

2023 – Ever-Rising Greenhouse Gas Emissions

As every year with the release of the World Meteorologist Organization’s (WMO) Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Bulletin, new data shows that greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere have risen to new record highs. And as every year, the possibility of reaching international climate goals shifts farther away from reach. The GHG Bulletin monitors atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide - the main contributors to global heating. And since its first publication in 2006, every year has seen a new record high for every single one of them. 2023, of course, was no different.

As is common in climate science, the GHG Bulletin compares present concentrations to pre-industrial levels, the time around 1750 before humans started burning coal and oil - fossil fuels that supply energy worldwide but strike back in warming the Earth’s surface. It finds that throughout 2022, carbon concentrations in the atmosphere have risen 50% over pre-industrial levels and have been at an average of 418 parts per million (ppm), continuing to rise in 2023. The atmospheric carbon levels are now fluctuating around 420 ppm. Methane and nitrous oxide concentrations are rising at equally alarming (and unprecedented) rates, all of them the result of a persistent phase-up of fossil fuels. To put these values into context: before crossing the threshold in 2015, carbon concentrations above 400 ppm were last observed around 4 million years ago - in an entirely different geological epoch.

2023 – An Unbridgeable Emission Gap?

Rising atmospheric GHG concentrations entail rising temperatures, and already in October, it was clear that the mean temperature of 2023 was going to be the highest on record, exceeding pre-industrial measures by approximately 1.4 °C - temperatures dangerously close to the 1.5 °C goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement. On top of that, July 2023 was the all-time warmest month on record. The year also saw a shift to El Niño, the warm phase of the ENSO climate patterns which is expected to reach its peak in 2024, driving temperatures even higher. As a result, 2023 has seen further ice shield and sea ice melting, and the sea level has continued to rise.

The problem is that with every new GHG Bulletin, with every year that the GHG concentrations go up and the Earth experiences new record temperatures, the chances of staying below the internationally agreed-upon 1.5 °C goal shift farther away from reach. At this point, as some might argue, it remains only a distant dream. The limit was set by the famous 2015 Paris Agreement and refers to the goal of preventing so-called ‘dangerous climate change’. What is clear is that sticking to the Paris Agreement means plunging GHG concentrations. But the yearly record highs noted in the GHG Bulletin put a spoke in this wheel.

Looking at where we are compared to where we should be, global GHG emissions would have to decline, immediately and rapidly. But frustratingly low (up to non-existent) emission reductions intensify the predicament. In their 2023 Emission Gap Report, the UNEP instead proposes a different estimate of global heating at the end of the century that is based on current climate politics - a temperature rise of up to 3 °C that is worlds apart from the 2015 vision. Today, we are facing an increasingly unbridgeable gap, which, to be filled, would require emission reductions so drastic they become more and more unfeasible.

2023 – A Year of Natural Disasters and Extreme Weather

In 2023, the climate crisis has become painfully obvious through natural disasters. The year has witnessed one horrible catastrophe after another. In February and March, Cyclone Freddy led to heavy rainfall and floods, especially in Mozambique and Malawi. Starting in April, Canada experienced a wildfire season that shattered all existing records, lasting until early autumn and burning more than 18 million hectares of land. This year’s summer was marked by droughts that led to crop losses and water shortages all over the world, and extreme heatwaves, especially in southern Europe and northern Africa. This, in turn, sparked wildfires in Greece, the largest fires observed in the EU so far. In August, Hurricane Dora catalysed Hawaii wildfires and completely destroyed a coastal town. Toward the end of 2023 in September, Storm Daniel created the deadliest catastrophe of the year when heavy rainfall destroyed two dams that flooded entire neighbourhoods in northeastern Libya, killing around 11,000 people and leaving thousands more missing.

Looking back at the devastating abundance of natural disasters, what is reverently called ‘dangerous climate change’ already seems to be among us. 2023 has given a preview of how dangerous climate change can take shape. And it has issued a clear warning about the life-threatening conditions beyond the Paris Agreement - as well as a reminder that every 0.1 °C warming that can be prevented is worth fighting for.

2023 – A Political Whirlwind

This year’s Conference of the Parties, COP28 in December 2023, promised potential to end the year on a positive and hopeful note. COPs, in general, have a rather disappointing record of failed impact, but COP28 hosted the first-ever Global Stocktake, a reality check on the chances of meeting the Paris Agreement, awakening hopes that the climate summit will decide for the long-overdue global phase-out of fossil fuels. In the run-up to the climate summit, however, high hopes clashed with increasing controversy around the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the global fossil fuel stronghold, as host country, and Dr Sultan Al Jaber, CEO of one of the world’s largest producers of fossil fuels, as president. In the end, climate activists did not get to hear the notorious words everybody had hoped for: In the final decision text, phasing out is replaced by transitioning away – a similar direction, but less strong, less radical.

“transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.”

On top of that, experts criticise different loopholes in the decision text, exploitable to continue the phase-up of fossil fuels.

Overall, different conclusions can be drawn from COP28. Many emphasize how the final decision text is a lot stronger than previous outcomes of the international climate summits – clearly addressing the root cause of the climate crisis and acknowledging that the way to the Paris Agreement follows reduced use of fossil fuels. But the question remains whether the outcome is strong enough to exert the radical change that developments in 2023 have once again proven necessary for a future that is spared the encounter with dangerous climate change beyond the Paris Agreement.

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