From drought in Spain to floods in the Horn of Africa and wildfires in Canada, 2023 was marked by some alarming environmental disasters. However, it wasn’t all bad news – the past few months have seen some significant advances in the fight against climate change.
The hottest year in history
Even after summer, the mercury did not drop to regular levels with September, October and November all experiencing unusually warm temperatures. The news everyone anticipated finally came in early December: 2023 was the hottest year in recorded history.
For the period from January to November, the average global surface temperature was 1.46°C above the pre-industrial era. It was also 0.13°C above the average of the previous hottest year, 2016. The combined effects of the El Nino climate phenomenon in the Pacific and climate change are to blame.
Oceans suffered from extreme heat
The heat was not confined to land; the planet’s oceans also experienced frighteningly high temperatures. March, April, May, June, July, August, September and October all recorded their hottest maritime temperatures ever.
On July 30, the average global ocean surface temperature reached an unprecedented 20.96°C, according to the European climate monitoring service, the Copernicus Institute. Just a month later, the Mediterranean Sea set its daily heat record, with a median temperature of 28.71°C, according to the main Spanish maritime research centre.
These repeated new records indicate an increasing frequency of marine heatwaves, something that could have dramatic impacts on biodiversity.
Both poles melting at rapid rates
In February, towards the end of the summer in the southern hemisphere, the Antarctic ice sheet reached an alarmingly low level before growing back at an unusually slow pace over the winter.
The ice sheet’s surface in September was 16.96 million km2, the lowest sea ice maximum since measurements began by a wide margin, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).
At the other end of the globe, the Arctic experienced its warmest summer on record, with an average temperature of 6.4°C. Both regions are affected by the “polar amplification” phenomenon which mean they warm faster than lower latitudes, partly due to the melting of the ice sheet and ocean warming.
Long periods of drought
The year was also marked by a series of severe droughts. France, for instance, recorded no significant rainfall for the 32 consecutive days between January 21 and February 21 – “the longest period since records began in 1959”, according to the Copernicus Institute.
The European Union was far from the only affected territory. In early June, Iran warned that 97% of the country lacked water due to a lack of rain. A historic drought that has had serious consequences for agriculture since 2020 continued in the Horn of Africa.
With drought comes fire. Some 6,400 fires burned 18.5 million hectares of Canada’s famous forests – more than twice the previous record of 7.6 million hectares set in 1989 – giving the country its worst fire season ever recorded.
Images of an orange and apocalyptic New York skyline went viral after smoke from the Canadian wildfires made its way south, polluting air and disrupting traffic.
Across the Atlantic, thousands of tourists had to be evacuated from the Greek island of Rhodes due to forest fires in what was the European country’s largest evacuation operation ever.
Episodes of drought were followed by intense rains, often causing floods. In early August, a month’s worth of rain fell in less than 24 hours in Slovenia, killing three people and causing an estimated €500 million of damage.
In the Horn of Africa too, drought gave way to torrential rains, killing more than 300 and displacing two million people, according to the UN.
In Libya, several thousand people died, and tens of thousands were displaced due to floods in the eastern part of the country.
Fossil fuels mentioned in a COP final text
For the first time, a United Nations Climate Conference (COP) – held in early December in Dubai – concluded with a text calling for a “transition away” from the primary driver of climate change, fossil fuels.
However, the text has been criticised for its many shortcomings by environmental NGOs and activists, notably for favouring carbon capture technologies and presenting gas as a “transitional energy”.
Renewable energies made headway
Renewable energies advanced at full speed in 2023. Mainly driven by solar and new photovoltaic capacities, renewable energies are expected to produce 4,500 GW of power in 2024, equivalent to the combined electrical production of the United States and China, according to a report by the International Energy Agency.
In the EU, this momentum is expected to be boosted by a new “Renewable Energy Directive” which set a binding target of achieving 42.5% renewable energy by 2030, compared to the current 22%. Following COP28, EU member states also committed to tripling the production of renewable energy.
An EU law on nature restoration and biodiversity
There was also good news for forests, meadows, lakes, rivers, and corals. After months of tension and hours of negotiations, the European Parliament and EU states reached an agreement in November on a nature restoration bill. The stated goal is to restore 20% of the EU’s land and seas by 2030, and all degraded ecosystems by 2050 – representing 80% of total natural habitats.
While the text is less ambitious than it was originally supposed to be, especially regarding restoration obligations for agricultural land, it raised hopes at a time of grave biodiversity loss.
The first treaty on the protection of international waters
International waters begin where the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of states end – up to a maximum of 200 nautical miles (370 km) from the coasts – and are therefore not under the jurisdiction of any state. Although they constitute nearly half of the planet and more than 60% of the oceans, international waters have long been ignored in environmental efforts. Today, only about 1% are subject to conservation measures.
The new treaty will facilitate the creation of marine protected areas. The text is expected to come into effect in 2025, at the next UN Ocean Conference in France.
Is a treaty against plastic pollution in the works?
The good news may not end with 2023. Representatives from 175 countries have been developing a legally binding agreement on plastic pollution. This is a significant challenge as plastic, derived from petrochemicals, can be found everywhere – from the depths of the oceans to the tops of our planet’s highest mountains.
However, there is a divergence of views on plastic pollution. Some are calling for a binding treaty aimed at “restricting and reducing the consumption and production” of plastic, while others argue for a focus on better waste management.
This article was translated from the original in French.
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