UN agency says climate change in 2023 was 'chart-busting'

Heatwaves, floods, droughts, wildfires and intense tropical cyclones upended everyday life for millions

A firefighter tackles a forest blaze during an outbreak of wildfires in Peidrafita, Asturias, Spain. Reuters
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A red alert to the world over the state of the climate in 2023 was sounded by the World Meteorological Organisation in a report published today.

Records were again broken, and in some cases smashed, for greenhouse gas levels, surface temperatures, ocean heat and acidification, sea-level rise, Antarctic sea ice cover and glacier retreat, the WMO says.

The WMO State of the Global Climate 2023 report shows that heatwaves, floods, droughts, wildfires and rapidly intensifying tropical cyclones caused misery, upending everyday life for millions and inflicting many billions of dollars in economic losses.

Last year was confirmed as the warmest year on record, with the global average near-surface temperature at 1.45°C above preindustrial levels. It was also the warmest 10-year period on record.

“Sirens are blaring across all major indicators,” said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

"Some records aren’t just chart-topping, they’re chart-busting. And changes are speeding-up.

WMO Secretary General Andrea Celeste Saulo said: “Never have we been so close – albeit on a temporary basis at the moment – to the 1.5°C lower limit of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

“The WMO community is sounding the Red Alert to the world.

“Climate change is about much more than temperatures.

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"What we witnessed in 2023, especially with the unprecedented ocean warmth, glacier retreat and Antarctic sea ice loss, is cause for particular concern."

On an average day in 2023, nearly one third of the global ocean was gripped by a marine heatwave, harming vital ecosystems and food systems.

Towards the end of 2023, more than 90 per cent of the ocean had experienced heatwave conditions at some point during the year.

The global set of reference glaciers suffered the largest loss of ice on record (since 1950), driven by extreme melt in western North America and Europe, according to preliminary data.

Levels of Antarctic sea ice were by far the lowest on record, with the maximum extent at the end of winter at 1 million square kilometres below the previous record year – equal to the size of France and Germany combined.

“The climate crisis is the defining challenge that humanity faces and is closely intertwined with the inequality crisis – as witnessed by growing food insecurity and population displacement, and biodiversity loss,” said Ms Saulo.

The report also says that the number of people who are acutely food insecure worldwide has more than doubled, from 149 million people before the coronavirus pandemic to 333 million people in 2023 (in 78 monitored countries by the World Food Programme).

Weather and climate extremes may not be the root cause, but they are aggravating factors, the report says.

Weather hazards continued to cause displacement in 2023, showing how climate shocks undermine resilience and create new risks among the most vulnerable populations.

But the report did find a glimmer of hope.

Renewable energy generation, primarily driven by solar radiation, wind and the water cycle, has surged to the forefront of climate action for its potential to achieve decarbonisation targets.

In 2023, renewable capacity increased by almost 50 per cent from 2022, for a total of 510 gigawatts – the highest rate observed in the past two decades.

The report is published as the Copenhagen Climate Ministerial takes place this week.

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Climate leaders and ministers from around the world will gather for the first time since Cop28 in Dubai to push for accelerated climate action.

High on the agenda will be enhancing countries' Nationally Determined Contributions before the February 2025 deadline, and agreeing on finance at Cop29 to turn plans into action.

Updated: March 19, 2024, 3:47 PM