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Climate change and energy

2023 is breaking all sorts of climate records 

The good, the bad and the ugly of this year’s climate data.

December 21, 2023
climate change data over the grid of a glass building with a cloudy sky reflected in it. A bicyclist rides in that direction with fire under their wheels.
Stephanie Arnett/MITTR | Getty, Envato

This article is from The Spark, MIT Technology Review’s weekly climate newsletter. To receive it in your inbox every Wednesday, sign up here.

This has been quite the year for climate news, with weather disasters, technological breakthroughs, and policy changes making headlines around the world. There’s an abundance of bad news, but there are also some glimmers of hope, if you know where to look.

It’s a lot to make sense of, so for this last newsletter of 2023, let’s take a look back at the year, and let’s do it in data. A “climate wrapped,” if you will. 

A new record on emissions (again)

Technically, we can’t draw definitive conclusions about 2023 just yet. But it’s pretty evident that we’re on track for yet another record year when it comes to greenhouse-gas emissions from fossil fuels.

Carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels are expected to hit 36.8 billion metric tons in 2023, according to the Global Carbon Budget report, which was released earlier this month. That’s just over 1% higher than last year’s levels.

Hitting another record high for emissions isn’t the best news. Ideally, this line would be going in the other direction, and quickly. 

The story isn’t the same everywhere, though. The US and Europe, for instance, are actually seeing slight decreases in carbon pollution (though these places are among the highest historical emitters). China and India are seeing emissions growth of around 4% and 8%, respectively. 

But that growth could be slowing down soon, and some analysts say that within the next few years we could be nearing peak emissions (the moment when they turn around and start going down). I’ll believe it when I see it. 

It’s getting hot in here

Not only are we seeing record-high emissions, but 2023 is almost certainly going to be the hottest year on record, too. The year through November averaged just under 1.5 °C (or about 2.6 °F) hotter than preindustrial levels.

The warming is noticeable even compared with the last few decades. November was 0.85 °C warmer than the average November was in the 1990s. 

Wherever you look, from the air to the ocean, the planet is heating up, and these rising temperatures and other changing weather patterns have cascading effects, as we saw firsthand in 2023. 

Sea ice hit new low levels. Historic wildfires in Canada brought oppressive smoke sweeping down the east coast of the US. Thousands died in flooding in Libya, and a years-long drought in the Horn of Africa has left millions facing water and food shortages. Name any type of climate disaster you can think of, and one of those probably broke records, somewhere in the world, in 2023. 

Looking back, I think this year I saw a trend that’s been building for the past couple of years: a growing number of people are being directly and dramatically affected by climate change. It’s pushing awareness that climate change isn’t some theoretical future possibility, but something happening in the present tense.

Money money money

It’s not possible to take a look back at this year without talking about bad news. But there are some positives too, I promise! 

For one thing, this year also saw record investment in clean energy, with global total spending of $1.7 trillion. (Yes trillion, with a “t.”) 

Investment in clean energy has been outpacing investment in fossil fuels for a while now, but the gap is starting to widen, with growing amounts of spending on technologies like solar and wind power and energy storage. In fact, solar power alone attracted more investment than fossil fuels for the first time.

The current state of the climate is pretty grim, and it’s important to take note of that and be realistic about where we are and what still needs to happen. But these bright spots of climate news are around, if you know where to look. 

That’s why the MIT Technology Review climate team put together some of the good news we saw in the climate world this year. You can find out more about what’s giving us hope in our new story here. 

Related reading

While we’re looking back, let’s reminisce about some of our top climate and energy stories of 2023. 

Keeping up with climate  

Fewer EVs will qualify for tax credits soon in the US, as new restrictions kick in on January 1. Tesla’s Model 3 and Ford’s Mustang Mach-E will be among those ruled out, according to the automakers. (New York Times)

New details about a tax credit in last year’s climate bill reveal a surprising winner: thermal energy storage. Qualifying for the credits could help these alternative energy storage methods break into the market. (Canary Media)

→ Here’s why bricks are a hot new energy storage technology. (MIT Technology Review)

Lab-grown-meat companies like Upside Foods have raked in billions of dollars in funding promising healthy, climate-friendly meat without the animals. But so far, there’s not much to show for it, and lots of challenges with scaling ahead. (Bloomberg

There’s a huge backlog of clean energy projects waiting to connect to the grid in the US. This delay could put 2030 clean-energy targets out of reach for many states. (Canary Media)

After an emissions scandal, automaker Volkswagen agreed to spend $2 billion funding public EV charging stations. Now, those chargers are unreliable—yes, even more so than other public charging networks. (Washington Post)

By the end of the decade, many batteries will need to have a passport—a digital record of their source materials and history. (Quartz)

Carbon removal has gone from a wild idea to a hot topic. Some scientists think that’s a problem, as companies and governments are using this unproven technology to continue with business as usual rather than making hard cuts to emissions. (E&E News)

→ Here’s why some experts say the world is thinking about carbon removal all wrong. (MIT Technology Review)

Despite overwhelming evidence that climate change is real, some people still fall for conspiracy theories. There’s a whole host of reasons why. (Grist)

→ If you’re looking to broach the subject, here are my tips for talking about climate technology over the holidays. (MIT Technology Review)

Deep Dive

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How battery-swap networks are preventing emergency blackouts

When an earthquake rocked Taiwan, hundreds of Gogoro’s battery-swap stations automatically stopped drawing electricity to stabilize the grid.

The world’s on the verge of a carbon storage boom

Hundreds of looming projects will force communities to weigh the climate claims and environmental risks of capturing, moving, and storing carbon dioxide.

This London non-profit is now one of the biggest backers of geoengineering research

Plus, Simons, EDF and a new venture backed by Meta’s former CTO are poised to pour tens of millions more into the controversial field.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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