It’s a strange year for the climate already – but here is why 2023 could yet bring hope.

From the very first day of 2023, forecasters were confounded.

Weather extremes smashed records across much of Europe, where at least eight countries saw their highest January temperatures on record. A heatwave swept the continent in the first days of the year, bringing the kind of balmy weather that might be expected in spring or summer, hitting 18C above the January average in Poland and 16C above average in the Czech Republic. One meteorologist described it as the “most extreme event in European history”.

Making any sort of climate predictions in these circumstances is outlandish – we are far beyond the norms now. And it comes after a year in which not just the weather but the political climate that will determine the planet’s future livability veered far off the usual course. At the start of 2022, few would have predicted a year of such geopolitical upheaval. As well as inflicting terror on the Ukrainian people, Vladamir Putin’s brutal invasion unleashed a global crisis that will be felt for years and decades to come.

The impacts on the climate crisis have also been huge, and some of them seemingly contradictory: a bonanza for fossil fuels, as well as a rush to renewables, that will shape the world’s ability to hold global temperatures within the vital 1.5C threshold.

So making environmental predictions at the start of 2023 must be heavily freighted with caveats. Many countries are at loggerheads, almost all economies are in flux, and the wild card of extreme weather has got so much wilder: climate-related disasters will certainly strike in 2023, but we cannot know where – or how bad they will be.

Some of the trends in 2022 that emerged from the Ukraine war will play out this year, and some may even give cause for hope. Greenhouse gas emissions in Europe were lower in November than for any November in the last three decades, despite the return to coal in Germany, Poland and a few other countries. Part of this was down to mild weather, but far more impactful was the scramble to save gas and the turn to renewable energy.

In the US, the Inflation Reduction Act – the biggest piece of climate legislation ever enacted by the US Congress – will start making an impact in 2023. The $369bn in stimulus investment slated to go into renewable energy, energy efficiency and new low-carbon technology could be transformational. The US is in a strong position to decarbonise its power supply – but loopholes in the IRA law that will benefit fossil fuels and the expansion of fracking and LNG in response to the global gas crisis will also continue.

Despite the EU’s commitment to global decarbonisation, the IRA has raised hackles in European capitals. They fear that the massive injection of cash into US green industries, and the injunction by President Joe Biden to “buy American”, will drain investment away from Europe.

Partly for that reason, and partly in response to headwinds from China, the EU has been eager to shore up its own green industries. As well as making cash available for investment, and mandating growth in renewables, the EU is poised to put in place its first carbon border tax.

Carbon border adjustment mechanisms (CBAMs) have been talked about for the last two decades, but Europe’s will be the first to be enacted, in October 2023. (CBAMs impose tariffs on high-carbon imports, such as steel or energy). At first, the CBAM will be largely toothless – companies in a handful of industries including steel, fertilisers and cement will be required only to register their emissions. But in future tariffs could be attached to give it bite.

China will be looking carefully at the EU’s CBAM, but will also face challenges at home. Renewable energy is increasing fast, but new coal-fired power stations continue to be planned. Some analysts predict that many will never be built – but will China take a decisive turn against coal?

In the UK, the government has shown more interest in expanding oil, gas and even coal than in taking the urgent measures – insulation, insulation, insulation – that are the only way to cut energy use and emissions. The granting of new oil and gas licences in the North Sea, and the go-ahead for a new coalmine in Cumbria, will face legal challenge this year, and the government will encounter continued public pressure, despite draconian new anti-protest laws.

Global climate talks will take place this year in the United Arab Emirates, a major oil producer. That is likely to prove a challenge – the Cop27 talks produced only a lacklustre agreement on emissions, and fossil fuel lobbyists were out in force. Ahead of the December talks, rich and poor nations must also come together to try to work out the details of a fund for loss and damage – money to rescue and rebuild poor countries blighted by climate disaster – which promises to be contentious.

Poor countries will want to see substantial progress on funding, as extreme weather will continue to damage their economies this year. How governments react to the gas supply crunch, economic headwinds and the cost of living crisis this year will be crucial, as the 1.5C limit is fast slipping beyond our grasp. If political leaders take up the challenge, this could yet be a year of hope – though few would be brave enough to predict that.

Author: Fiona Harvey, The Guardian


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