As temperatures rise, our window to secure a climate-positive future shrinks

It is time to stop working against the elements, and start working with them

A firefighting helicopter battles a fire outside of Beaufort, Victoria, last month. EPA
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The science is irrefutable: the security of our climate is in the balance.

New data has confirmed that 2023 was the hottest year on record, and by a considerable margin. The early data we are seeing is a chastening reminder that we must seriously and urgently implement the outcomes from Cop28, because it’s not just the soaring surface temperatures of our planet that are a great and growing cause for concern.

A new report from the World Meteorological Organisation shows that we are breaking – and even smashing, in some instances – climate records across the board. Greenhouse gas levels, surface temperatures, ocean heat and acidification, sea level rises, Antarctic Sea ice cover and glacier retreat all reached worrying new levels.

Last year, the global average near-surface temperature soared to 1.45°C above the 1850-1900 pre-industrial average level, making it the warmest year in the 174-year observational period. This shatters the record of the previous warmest years, which include 2016 at 1.29°C and 2020 at 1.27°C above the pre-industrial baseline.

At the same time, at the end of last winter, the Antarctic Sea ice extent fell by 1 million square kilometres below the previous record low – which is an area about the size as France and Germany combined.

Meanwhile, due to the rapidly warming currents that circle the Atlantic and move water from the Gulf of Mexico up to Greenland and back again, climate scientists have warned that the Atlantic Ocean is reaching a dangerous tipping point. Once breached, this would be followed by extreme and potentially irreversible climate change within decades.

There is a major socioeconomic cost to our climate insecurity. The increased frequency and intensity of the heatwaves, floods, cyclones, droughts and wildfires that ripped through our planet last year uprooted millions of lives and livelihoods, and cost billions of dollars in economic losses. The US alone incurs $150 billion in losses every year due to at least one extreme weather event every three weeks, according to a National Climate Assessment report released towards the end of last year.

To decarbonise at the pace we need to, innovation must accelerate at an unprecedented rate

Trying to ignite sustainable growth and development in these conditions is like trying to start a fire in a monsoon. It is time to stop working against the elements, and start working with them. The renewable energy transition, which looks to capture, harness and work with the natural world around us, shows us how we can not only limit – and even reduce – future temperature rises, but also forge a path of economic opportunity by enabling faster and more sustainable growth, creating more jobs, and improving social welfare.

In fact, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency’s research, by 2050, the energy transition could provide a 2.5 per cent improvement in global gross domestic product, at the same time as a 0.2 per cent increase in global employment, compared to business as usual.

To address this unfolding climate catastrophe, there are three things we must focus our energies on. First, we must accelerate the energy transition towards a system that runs on clean and renewable energy solutions.

As Irena’s World Energy Transitions Outlook brief explains, with more than 130 countries committed to radically transforming the energy landscape by adopting Irena’s 1.5°C Scenario recommendation to triple installed renewable power capacity to at least 11 terawatts by 2030, there is a newfound urgency for policymakers, who must now implement the strategies and measures required to facilitate a rapid escalation in renewable energy deployment.

The world added 50 per cent more renewable energy capacity in 2023 compared to the previous year. There is clear momentum here. But we must continue to invest, upwards of $5 trillion a year, into energy transition technologies if we are to meet the demands of a net-zero future.

Second, we must urgently implement the mitigation and adaptation strategies that will help achieve net-zero ambitions. The 1.45°C (with a margin of uncertainty of +/- 0.12°C) temperature we reached last year should sound the red alarm on the possibility of keeping 1.5°C within reach. Right now, we are headed for a catastrophic breach of not only this target, but the “well below 2°C” limit in temperature rises called for in the Paris Agreement. We must see a greater urgency and a serious levelling-up of countries’ nationally determined contributions.

Sticking to Irena’s 1.5°C pathway requires annual emissions reductions of at least 7 per cent between now and the end of the decade. For context, this target is higher the emissions reduction we saw during the pandemic when factories shuttered. And that’s against the current grain of a 1.5 per cent annual increase in emissions – the result of a world playing catch-up on lost productivity time.

On this current trajectory, the required pathway for decarbonisation is only getting steeper. And right now, just 35 per cent of global emissions are covered by national net-zero commitments by 2050. Moreover, fewer than 20 per cent of the world’s top 1,000 private sector companies have set 1.5°C science-based targets.

And third, in direct correlation with net-zero ambitions, we must rapidly decarbonise hard-to-abate industrial sectors and scale up the deployment of proven, mature technologies including solar photovoltaic, wind and electric vehicles.

But, to decarbonise at the pace we need to, innovation must accelerate at an unprecedented rate. The now-mature and scaled-up clean energy technologies such as solar panels took more than three decades from inception to the advanced stage they’re at today. For new technologies such as carbon capture, utilisation and storage, we need to slash the time to mass market.

To ensure that we meet the requirements of these three criteria that underpin the energy transition, we must upgrade, expand and modernise our infrastructure. We need to establish regulatory frameworks and markets suited to the era of renewables. We must mobilise the finance to make it all possible. And our efforts must be driven by an inclusive, solutions-oriented approach to multilateralism and international co-operation that not only promises to leave no one behind, but also guarantees it.

Only this will ensure that the energy we need to make the world tick does not come at the expense of our long-term future on this planet.

Published: March 26, 2024, 4:00 AM