2023 has proven a record breaking year for all the wrong reasons.
Last year saw climate records “tumbling like dominoes” as scientists confirm 2023 the hottest on record so far. Its average temperature was 14.98C which beats the previous hottest year set in 2016 by 0.17C, according to the EU’s climate change service Copernicus.
Met Office scientists believe this record could be short-lived however – their forecasts suggest 2024 could be even hotter and may rise more than 1.5C above the period between 1850-1900.
This average is used as a proxy for the pre-industrial climate as it is as far back as meteorological records go. Last year came close to breaching this symbolic boundary – 1.48C above – while smashing a series of climate records in the process.
The global community committed in the Paris Agreement to try and limit warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels as it gives the best chance of stabilising the climate and reducing the damage to people and wildlife.
This measurement is taken as a decadal average, so one year going beyond this does not mean the treaty has failed. July 2023 was likely the hottest month in the last 120,000 years – almost as long as modern humans have existed – while Antarctic sea ice has been at an historic low.
Each month from June through to December was hotter than any other corresponding month in a previous year, while every continent except Australia and many ocean areas saw record-breaking annual air temperatures for the year. El Niño, a cyclical natural phenomenon in the tropical eastern Pacific which brings heat to the surface, added an extra warming effect to the atmosphere and oceans to that from greenhouse gas emissions, which continue to rise.
Scientists are urging the global community to radically cut these emissions and prevent further warming as each fraction of a degree further destabilises the earth’s climate. Although changes of 1.5C in day-to-day air temperature are negligible, on a global average this has a very different meaning and the smallest changes can have large ramifications.
Some climate analysts have likened it to changes in body temperature whereby a difference of 1C can separate a healthy person from one with a fever. Samantha Burgess, deputy director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service, said: “2023 was an exceptional year with climate records tumbling like dominoes.
“Not only is 2023 the warmest year on record, it is also the first year with all days over 1C warmer than the pre-industrial period. Temperatures during 2023 likely exceed those of any period in at least the last 100,000 years.” Emissions from wildfires also increased by 30% last year mainly because of the huge blazes across Canada. There were marine heatwaves across much of the North Atlantic, including off the British and Irish coastlines, as well as in the Caribbean and the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose to a new height of 419 parts per million while methane reached a concentration of 1902 parts per billion. Dr Nick Dunstone, a Met Office climate scientist, said: “The extraordinary global heat through 2023 made it possible to signal it would be the hottest year on record well before the year had finished. This level of warming is in line with climate projections.
"We expect the strong El Niño in the Pacific to impact the global temperature through 2024. For this reason we are forecasting 2024 to be another record breaking year, with the possibility of temporarily exceeding 1.5C for the first time.”
Aakash Naik, Campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said: “2023 has proven a record breaking year for all the wrong reasons. While soaring temperatures wreaked havoc on millions of lives, the fossil fuel ‘supermajors’ handed almost £100 bn to shareholders - their largest payouts in history.
“To stop the climate crisis accelerating, oil and gas must stay in the ground, but the UK government is poised to hand the industry annual licences to keep drilling for years to come in a false pursuit of energy security. Real leaders would stop fossil fuel companies cashing in on climate catastrophe and force them to start paying for the damage they are causing around the world.”
Danny Halpin is a PA Environment Correspondent.