Every year, the effects of the climate crisis act as a reminder that we aren’t doing enough to address the problem. We’re neck deep in the climate crisis, and things aren’t looking too promising. This year was likely the hottest on record, triggering extreme weather events around the world. With the current climate pledges, the world is on track to a warming of 2.5-2.9°C, way beyond what the world’s countries promised in the Paris Agreement.
However, it’s not all gloomy. Throughout the year, there’s been a few silver linings. From the decline in deforestation to the peak in energy sector emissions, here’s our list of climate breakthroughs from this year.
A peak in emissions?
The power sector is currently the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions globally, which means it has to be the first sector to decarbonize. The good news is that it’s starting to do that. The growing use of wind and solar energy, coupled with a decrease in fossil fuel generation, indicates that the world might be approaching a critical point where emissions could be significantly reduced.
In 2022, the growth in wind and solar met 80% of global electricity demand growth. This has helped to slow the growth in power emissions. Without wind and solar, fossil fuel generation would have been 20% higher. The think tank Ember estimates that 2023 would see a fall in fossil fuel generation, making 2022 the year of peak emissions. It’s not guaranteed, but we may be reaching peak emissions.
More resilient corals
Climate change is the largest global threat to coral reef ecosystems. As temperatures rise, coral bleaching events are becoming more frequent. Also, ocean acidification is reducing the pH levels, which in turn decreases the growth and structural integrity of corals, and changes in storm patterns are a threat to the coral’s overall structure.
However, a study this year found that some coral species near an island in the South Pacific are actually more resilient to marine heatwaves than previously expected. The corals can “remember” how they lived through previous heatwaves and use this knowledge to cope with the heat, experiencing much less severe consequences. Make no mistake: corals ara still in big trouble. But they may be a bit tougher than we thought.
Deforestation slows down
Colombia and Brazil, two of the countries that cover a significant part of the Amazon rainforest, were able to bring down the deforestation rates this year sharply. The Amazon covers around half of the planet’s remaining tropical rainforest but is under threat because of human activities, such as cattle expansion, and climate change.
In Colombia, deforestation is estimated to have fallen 70% in the first nine months of 2023, while in Brazil deforestation has dropped to its lowest in six years. Both governments have implemented stronger environmental policies such as targeting criminals financing environmental crimes and paying locals to protect the forest.
Whether it’s rooftop gardens or adding more green spaces, all cities can benefit from more green spaces. A study earlier this year found that many cities in the European Union can achieve their pledged climate targets within a decade by integrating nature into their urban designs – an approach known as nature-based solutions (NBS).
NBS refers to actions that use or mimic natural systems and processes. They can bring down emissions, enhance biodiversity, promote well-being and protect from natural disasters. The study found that across the EU emissions could drop by an average of 17.4% with the adoption of NBS. The largest potential was found in eastern Europe. Yet again, nature-based soutions are not a silver bullet that will stop climate change — but they can help us adapt to the new normal just a bit better.
Climate lawsuits expand
Governments, the fossil fuel industry, and airlines are facing a growing number of lawsuits for not being ambitious enough in their climate plans. There are already 2,500 lawsuits recorded globally. Of the ones that have already been resolved, 55% of the cases have had a positive ruling, with some having a direct impact on public policy.
In September, California filed a lawsuit against some of the biggest fossil fuel companies, claiming they have deceived the public about the risks of oil and gas to the climate crisis. The lawsuit aims to create a fund, to be financed by the companies, to pay for the recovery efforts after extreme weather events, on the rise globally.
The potential of agriculture
The climate crisis isn’t just about fossil fuels. Agriculture also generates about a quarter of the world’s total emissions, a figure that’s set to increase as the world’s population expands and the developing world diversifies its diet. While this sounds like a big problem, a study earlier this year found agriculture could actually be carbon-negative.
Researchers found that the world’s food system could generate net negative emissions, reducing more than it adds. Implementing a set of changes in agricultural technology and management, such as agroforestry, would result in the annual removal of 13 billion tons of CO2 by 2050. The world currently emits 50 billion tons of CO2 every year.
The inflation act and climate action
Approved in 2022, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) marked one of the biggest actions on climate change to date by the US federal government. The legislation included about $369 billion in incentives for energy and climate-related programs such as clean electricity production. Now, the effects of IRA are starting to be seen across the US.
Companies have collectively announced $98 billion in clean energy manufacturing investments since the IRA was passed, creating over 80,000 jobs. The announcements include sites that will produce solar panels, wind turbines and batteries for electric vehicles. And this would be just the start, experts agree, as IRA still has a lot of potential.
As we conclude this overview of the year’s climate milestones, it’s clear that while the challenges are immense, there are also glimmers of hope and progress. These developments, from the potential peak in emissions to the resilience of corals, the slowdown in deforestation, innovative nature-based solutions, expanding climate litigation, and the potential of agriculture to act as a carbon sink, all represent significant steps forward.
Yet, it’s crucial to remember that these are but pieces in a much larger puzzle. The battle against climate change is ongoing and multifaceted, requiring sustained effort, innovation, and commitment from all sectors of society.
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