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Climate change: 2023 hottest year since records began

December 6, 2023

After six record-breaking months, the year 2023 is set to be the hottest on record. But as key figures meet at the UN climate conference in Dubai, the use of fossil fuels shows no sign of stopping.

Aerial view of people enjoying the beach amid a record heat wave at Praia Vermelha Beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Brazil was hit by a record-breaking heat wave in NovemberImage: Buda Mendes/Getty Images

The Earth has set new heat records for six months in a row, putting the planet on course for its hottest year since records began in the mid-19th century.

The Northern Hemisphere also experienced its warmest autumn on record.

Those are the findings of the European Union's Corpernicus Climate Change Service released on Wednesday. Last month, the United States climate agency NOAA said there was a 99% probability that 2023 would be the warmest year since 1850.

Previously, the warmest year to date was 2016, but a series of unwelcome temperature records, including in November, have put 2023 in pole position.

'Scientists are running out of adjectives'

"The last half year has truly been shocking," said Copernicus Deputy Director Samantha Burgess.

"2023 has now had six record breaking months and two record breaking seasons. The extraordinary global November temperatures, including two days [which were] warmer than 2 degrees Celsius (35.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial [times], mean that 2023 is the warmest year in recorded history."

"Scientists are running out of adjectives to describe this," she said.

How hot was the year 2023?

According to the Copernicus report, the average temperature in November was 14.22 C, which was 0.85 C warmer than the average over the last 30 years.

Across the year as a whole, 2023 has been on average 1.46 C up on pre-industrial levels, putting it very close to the 1.5 C international threshold set by the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement — which put the figure as a goal to reach by the year 2030. 

But even as diplomats, scientists, activists and key global figures meet for the ongoing COP28 climate summit in Dubai, there is little sign of a change of direction.

UAE Special Envoy for Climate Change, Abdulla Malek, addresses the panellists at the opening ceremony for Energy Day during COP28 in Dubai
'Unite. Act. Deliver.' Big words at COP28, but can they be matched with actions?Image: Thomas Mukoya/REUTERS

COP28: Can a deal be reached?

On Tuesday, a leaked draft of a key negotiating text revealed the difficulties involved in getting disparate countries on the same page. The draft calls for a phase-out of fossil fuel usage opposed by major oil and gas producers such as Saudi Arabia and Russia.

The summit is being hosted by Sultan al-Jaber, the head of UAE's state oil company, who reportedly said in a video call with UN representatives in November that there is "no science" to prove that phasing out fossil fuels is necessary to limit global warming to 1.5 C compared to pre-industrial times — a claim which contradicts global scientific consensus in climate research.

Climate activists protest against fossil fuel emitters during the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP28 in Dubai
Climate activists protest against fossil fuel emitters during the UN climate summit in DubaiImage: Amr Alfiky/REUTERS

"As long as greenhouse gas concentrations keep rising we can't expect different outcomes from those seen this year," said Copernicus Director Carlo Buontempo.

"The temperature will keep rising and so will the impacts of heat waves and droughts. Reaching net-zero as soon as possible is an effective way to manage our climate risks."

Deputy Director Burgess added that, "unless we do something about our dependence on fossil fuels," 2023 will rank as a "cool year" in future.

mf/nm (dpa, AP)