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All the wrong records

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By Christopher Caldwell

· 5 min read

2024 is looking like another record-breaking year. Isn’t that what we'd want to hear?

Our culture generally likes to tell stories of continuous growth and over-achievement. Our economies are bigger than ever before. Our computers are faster, our athletes are stronger, our graduates smarter. No matter how bad the news, any politician worth their stripes will find a way to pretzel it into something to be proud of.

Like a child measuring its height against the doorframe, we love nothing more than to pull out our pencil and mark in a new maximum. 

Unfortunately, the latest climate stats make that child look like Damien from the movie Omen. At some point, you need him to stop growing – or he’ll kill us all.

In 2023/24, we’re breaking all the wrong records.

Eyeing the mercury

The simplest example comes from recent meteorological data. February smashed the previous ceiling, with the mercury hitting 1.77 degrees above pre-industrial levels for the first time. According to the EU’s Copernicus climate service, It’s an increase of 0.12 degrees in just a single year.

If only it were an outlier: the month before, Copernicus announced we broke the 1.5-degree mark for an entire year, for the first time ever. 

That climate crisis everyone is supposedly working so hard to avoid? It’s already here. 

Now, one swallow does not a summer make. The official UN metric requires 20 years of average temperatures above 1.5 degrees to declare we’ve crossed the Paris threshold. Nonetheless, we’ve now started that clock – and it is not the only reason to be worried. 

Ice and oceans raise the alarm

Beyond the headline-grabbing heat, two other critical components of our climate system have been sending distress signals recently. Ocean temperatures hit their own records, hitting 21.09 degrees on February 28th. And the Antarctic shelf seems to have flipped a switch, with the three lowest years for sea ice being 2023, 2022, and 2021. An area five times the size of the British Isles is now missing. “It's so far outside anything we've seen, it's almost mind-blowing,” in the words of one climate scientist.

For all that we think of climate in terms of air temperature, the warming of oceans is critically important. Our waters are a vast thermal sink – the NOAA estimate that just the top 2.5 metres of ocean stores as much heat as the earth's entire atmosphere. And they also play a crucial role in distributing heat worldwide via thermohaline circulation. The famous Gulf Stream moves around 30% of all ocean current heat, which is critical to the stability of weather systems and biospheres. We are destabilising one of the earth’s central regulating functions. 

That said, geophysical markers are innately backward-looking. These records are late-arriving symptoms of past behaviour. What might the future hold?

The latest IEA Emission Insight report for 2023 gives us some clues. For all the positive climate noise in the world today, we’re still winning the wrong trophies on emissions.

The headline is terrible: global emissions rose another 1.1% in 2023. Every year, this number inches up (even at a slower rate), steepening the eventual decarbonisation curve. At some point, that downward slope becomes a cliff—and the descent might kill us before the climate does.

Here are four further takeaways from the report and what they mean for temperature records in the future.

Sifting through the records

1. Developed economies screw down on coal. The good news is that 2023 saw the G7 et al. continue to make huge strides away from coal. Primary consumption is now back to 1900 levels. And yet…

2. Global coal consumption has increased. This uptick is particularly striking in Asia, where countries like China and India have seen coal consumption rise to meet growing energy demands. Overall, this accounted for 65% of total emissions increases. 

3. Developed-world progress is an accounting illusion. Yes, advanced economies saw emissions fall another 4.5%, which is great news. But China was again the leading engine of emissions growth and now produces 15% more per capita than the West. Given such a vast population still living in a patchily developed, middle-income country, this reflects the reality of emissions offshoring. China remains the workshop of the world, and it pays for the privilege in its NDC accounts. 

4. Extreme weather makes decarbonisation harder. A key driver of increased fossil fuel reliance was a series of droughts that hit Asia and Africa in 2023. This resulted in a hydroelectric shortfall, which countries infilled with 170 Mt of carbon instead. The already-existing impacts of climate chaos make the technical challenge of mitigation even more difficult. 

5. COVID flattered us on climate. Post-COVID reopening in China and a bounce back in air travel highlight just how much the economic disruption of the pandemic made decarbonisation look easier than it actually is. With the last of these lagged dampening effects passing through the system, the world will have to confront a tougher reality in 2024.

2023/24: The crossroads

These figures show us at a crossroads. The data for 2023 is in, and it was not good for climate. The numbers for 2024 remain to be seen. 

There is some good news. A pronounced El Nino effect (one of the top five ever) is winding down, offering some short-term relief on temperatures. An IEA report noted a surge in electric vehicle sales as a beacon of hope and China’s continued rollout of renewables. 

All this only serves to remind us that interpreting our world’s data – in all its complex and contradictory glory – is no easy task. That’s why hindsight is such a pleasure. But we don’t have time to wait for the next set of retrospective records to be handed out. The time to decide what 2024 will mean for the climate is now. 

The next time the world takes out its climate pencil, let’s ensure it’s not another record.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Christopher Caldwell is the CEO of United Renewables, where he employs his past experiences as a corporate lawyer, investment banker, and team leader to lead all aspects of the business. Chris holds a degree in business from Trinity College Dublin, an MBA from London Business School, and is currently reading part-time at the Yale Center for Business & the Environment. 

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