A New Year: Looking Back and Forward at Climate Change Progress

Published On: January 3, 2024

2023 was a record-breaking year for all the wrong reasons. It was overall the hottest in human history, both on land and at sea, by a big margin.

2023 was a record-breaking year for all the wrong reasons. It was overall the hottest in human history, both on land and at sea, by a big margin. Despite dramatic natural disasters aplenty, political progress on climate change was frustrating on many fronts. We present an overview of climate progress – or lack of it – in 2023, and what to expect from 2024.


The State of Climate Action 2023

2023’s State of Climate Action report, published under Systems Change Lab, sets out a sector-based roadmap for addressing climate change, while also reporting on progress so far. The outlook was not very sunny. The report found that progress remains “woefully inadequate”, with recent progress on 41 of 42 indicators “lagging significantly behind the pace and scale that is necessary to address the climate crisis”. 

The report highlighted 2023 as a particularly poor year for three indicators in particular:

  • Public financing for fossil fuels increased sharply
  • Deforestation increased slightly
  • Carbon pricing systems saw significant setbacks to credibility

The only on-track indicator was electric car sales, a market which has “grown exponentially” over the last five years. Another six indicators were making promising progress, yet still insufficient to meet global targets. The indicators that saw the most significant progress in 2023 were:

  • Increasing mandatory corporate climate risk disclosure
  • Sales of electric trucks
  • The share of electric vehicles in the passenger car fleet

The report also highlighted areas especially in need of an acceleration of effort in order to help 2030 climate targets be met. These included:

  • Dramatic growth of solar and wind power
  • Phase-out of coal for electricity generation
  • Expansion of the coverage of rapid transit infrastructure
  • Reduction of deforestation
  • Shift to more sustainable and healthier diets in high-consuming regions

Electric vehicle sales was the only indicator identified as on-track by the State of Climate Action report. Photo by Michael Fousert on Unsplash.

A similar picture elsewhere

Other major reports had fairly similar conclusions. COP28 in November saw the world’s first global stocktake on climate change, where countries report on the progress made on their promises set out in the Paris Agreement back in 2016. A report published by UN Climate Change found that national climate action plans remained insufficient to stay within the agreed-upon 1.5 degrees Celsius global temperature rise. 

The IPCC’s Climate Change 2023 Synthesis Report made similar conclusions, highlighting the benefits of immediate action compared to postponing it into the longer term. The EU’s 2023 State of the Energy Union report highlighted the EU’s continued progress towards achieving its climate and energy goals, but emphasised that implementation efforts and emissions reductions need to be significantly ramped up to meet these targets.


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Looking ahead to 2024

So, what progress can we expect – or at least hope – to make in 2024? In terms of climate change effects, El Niño is set to continue into the first half of the year, likely continuing conditions of record-breaking heat for some months. Beyond that is largely unknown; the effects of climate change so far have broken uncharted territory, and will only become more so as they become increasingly dramatic and unpredictable.

A second UN Climate Change report also published just before COP28 looked at long-term low-emission development strategies, and showed that those strategies in place account of 87% of global GDP, 68% of the world’s population, and 77% of global greenhouse gas emissions – indicating that nations are beginning to get serious about net-zero targets. However, many of these targets rely on as-yet-undefined future actions, with few tangible goals for the immediate term.


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Future diplomacy and climate finance

So in terms of key climate moments in 2024, we turn to wider politics. The US election will be vitally important in setting the direction of climate action across the world: the USA is the world’s second biggest polluter and has a huge influence on the global stage. As well as the Presidency, the party that controls the House of Representatives and the Senate also has big implications for climate finance.

In fact, climate finance will be a hot topic in 2024. COP29 in Baku, Azerbaijan, will focus on setting new finance goals, in particular how much each nation should pay for climate mitigation and adaptation efforts, and to whom. Other diplomatic areas to keep an eye on include:

  • A possible start to spending for the loss and damage fund
  • Progress on firming up national adaptation targets
  • Creation of inventories of nations’ fossil fuel subsidies
  • Initiation of coal-to-clean deals
  • Attempts by carbon markets to gain integrity

And there is one final, very important, but not yet confirmed milestone for 2023. It could well mark humanity’s year of peak emissions – meaning that annual emissions could fall from 2024 onwards. Global emissions will need to fall ever-more rapidly to stand any chance of meeting internationally-agreed targets, but at least a trend in the right direction could create hope and motivation across the board that positive change really is possible.

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About the Author: Jacob Ashton

Jacob Ashton
Jacob is a freelance writer and communicator from the UK, specialising in the environment, climate change, and biology. You can find out more about him and his work on his website: jacobashton.net.
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