Climate change in 2024

Climate change is now firmly established as one of the greatest threats to the environment of the planet.  The dangers it is creating are increasing in their frequency, severity, and spread.  

Some are irreversible.  The rise in the height of the oceans, for example,  caused by the melting of the ice at both polar ice-caps and the world’s glaciers, is locked-in and accelerating.

The primary cause of Earth’s warming is the continual release of carbon dioxide from the burning of coal, natural gas and oil.  These ‘fossil fuels” contributed 90% of the 41 billion tonnes of the greenhouse gases emitted from Earth in 2023.

Although an enormous financial investment is being made in many countries to substitute renewable energy for fossil fuels, the energy industry reports that the full conversion to a carbon emissions-free world is unlikely to occur before late in the century. If so, the environmental and economic impacts could be catastrophic by the middle of it.

Modelling conducted for the United Nations IPCC shows that deterioration of the climate will accelerate when the temperature at the surface of the planet exceeds 1.50C above that which prevailed before 1900.  The higher level of energy will destabilise the patterns of movement for many of the trans-planetary wind, rainfall and ocean-currents that have underpinned civilisation for thousands of years.  Moreover, the emerging patterns will be far less predictable which will have significant implications for food production.

Unfortunately, continuation of our existing high carbon energy consumption is expected to drive annual carbon dioxide emissions past 60 billion tonnes by 2030.  The UN is clear however, that the future emissions should not be greater than 20 billion tonnes annually after 2030 if the planet is to stay below +1.50C.

Fossil fuels:  a sticky energy source

There is a strong push across the world to exit the burning of fossil fuels as quickly as possible, but at the end of 2023, renewable energy constituted only 15% of the total demand .  But evidence is mounting that the goal a full transition away from fossil fuels is becoming very difficult because of :

    • the influence of a record public global subsidies of US$7 trillion they receive each year. They are paid as either financial incentives such as tax breaks for new production, or subsidies providing socio-economic support for consumers to keep prices affordable.
    • the investment in 2023 by large and medium-sized oil, gas and coal companies of US$950 billion on unabated high carbon fuel supplies.  US$500 billion of this was for new upstream oil and gas facilities with only 1% being allocated to their low carbon assets. 

Coal power generation is controversial because coal has the highest carbon emissions intensity of the three fuels.  It has been in decline for a decade and provided only 27% globally in 2022.  But while many older coal plants have been retired, 69 billion Watts of new coal power capacity (= 69 GigaWatts or GW) came online in 2023 while only 21GW was retired. This was the highest net increase in operating coal capacity since 2016, and resulted in a new global capacity of 2,130 China represented two-thirds of global additions in 2023, followed by Indonesia, India, and 7 other countries

How climate impacts link to carbon dioxide levels

Widely accepted scientific projections about the pace at which the extreme impacts of climate change will progress,  have centred on one key variable, namely, the sensitivity of the increase in the temperature of the lower atmosphere to the addition of the next tonne of greenhouse gases released from the Earth.  

Because carbon dioxide is cumulative and has a very long life in the atmosphere, it has been possible to establish a relationship between its concentration and the temperature at the surface of the planet. Modelling developed within the UN over the past 30 years shows that an increase of 1.50C will occur when another 500 billion tonnes of the gas have been released from human sources.

But a review published in 2023 refined the modelling to argue that by the end of 2024, the remaining budget will be 240 billion tonnes (with an error margin of 100 billion tonnes).  Noting that the annual emissions appear certain to be more than 40 billion tonnes in 2030, the authors conclude that there is a 50% chance that the +1.50C  temperature will be reached well before then.

However, there are now concerns that there may be a new paradigm evolving portending a worse outcome.

The latest review of the progress of climate change by the UN, which was released in 2022, was based on atmospheric, ocean and land data up until 2021.  Since then, the heat experienced in both 2022 and 2023 was not only the highest on record, but also passed the previous record set in 2016 by a substantial margin.  2024 appears likely to break that set in 2023 as well.

It is not yet clear if this abnormal heating pattern is a short-term anomaly, or if it represents the start of a sustained and significant deterioration in the Earth’s climate. If the latter, governments across the world may need to seriously consider the scenario of the Earth passing +1.70C by 2035.  This would be associated with significantly higher level of unpredictable climate pattern than expected .

Summary

A comprehensive climate change impact surveillance program is in place across the planet which utilises satellites and monitoring technologies in the oceans and lower atmosphere, and on the land.  The data they generate in real-time is integrated by collaboration between research centres in over a dozen countries.  Their consensus describes a planet that is experiencing :

  • levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere higher than at any time in the past 800,000 years, with most of the emissions occurring since 1970.
  • a rate of sea level rise in the 20th century that was faster than during any other century in the last 3,000 years.
  • a global temperature increase faster in the past 50 years than at any time in the past 2,000 years. 

There are also various phenomena directly attributable to the heating of the planet.   They include

    • extreme droughts. The one now being experienced in western USA is the most severe in 1,200 years, and has persisted for decades.
    • more frequent and severe heatwaves across the worlds oceans that are destroying marine ecosystems. This includes a serious loss of sustainability in ecologically rich coral reefs, including the  Great Barrier Reef that is experiencing its 5th major bleaching event.
    • an acceleration of the loss of ice from glaciers and both polar ice caps.  The Greenland ice sheet in the Arctic Circle is now warming at 4 times the rate of the rest of the planet, and the Antarctic continent twice the rate.   NASA in the USA reports that:
      • the two polar ice caps have been losing 420 billion tonnes of ice each year since 2002, and
      • the worlds glaciers are melting with a loss of 335 billion tonnes each year.

The present threat-level for all climate-related risks needs to factor in the reality that it they emerged within an environment hat changed only gradually between1900 and 1980.  It had grown by  +10C up until until 2021.  

The Earth’s temperature in 2023 was +1.20C.  This now forms the baseline for new and far more hostile climate stressors being driven by a progressively higher atmospheric heat load.  The cumulative effect will not only create far more damaging outcomes in the near-distant future, but they will be highly unpredictable and unavoidable.

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