This year, as global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels reached a new high, the world fell further behind on its emissions targets. As 2023 drew to a close, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that it was set to be the world’s hottest year on record. A report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in March found that the world may breach a critical threshold for warming–1. 5 degrees Celsius (or 2. 7 degrees Fahrenheit) above temperatures in preindustrial times–by the early 2030s. As United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, holding warming to 1. 5 degrees will require a “quantum leap in climate action.”
Despite international calls to phase out oil, coal, and gas, China and the United States–the world’s two largest emitters–approved new fossil fuel projects this year. In 2021, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to “strictly control” coal, but Beijing has issued permits for hundreds of new coal power plants in the past two years amid rising concerns over electricity shortages. And in the United States, the Biden administration approved new oil and gas projects this year across the country, including the Willow project, a controversial oil drilling venture in Alaska.
As emissions keep rising, a distinct techno-optimism has defined many international climate efforts. Worldwide, the public and private sectors have continued to search for a silver bullet to reduce global warming. International investment in renewable energy sources, particularly solar power, has hit record levels. Interest in and funding for technological solutions to the climate crisis have soared, including for solar geoengineering, green hydrogen, and carbon capture–even as many experts remain skeptical of these technologies.
This month, negotiators at the United Nations climate change conference in Dubai, known as COP28, formally approved a loss and damage fund for countries facing the worst climate impacts. But wealthy nations have pledged only $792 million to that fund–a small fraction of the potential economic losses. Although the final agreement acknowledged that developing countries will eventually require trillions of dollars of support, wealthy countries did not have to commit future funding.
Overall, COP28 left many policymakers and environmentalists disappointed. The first agreement to phase out fossil fuels was signed by countries, but the pact remains nonbinding. As one climate scientist told FP’s Christina Lu, the final agreement’s weak language is a “clear indication that the petrostates are not going to go gently into the night.”
Here are five of Foreign Policy‘s top stories on how 2023 did and didn’t shape climate action.
by Christopher Cottrell, June 15
U.S. support for climate adaptation in the Pacific is growing–and as Christopher Cottrell writes, there is one aspect of Washington’s initiatives that U.S. officials don’t openly discuss: competition with Beijing. “Pushing Chinese firms with dubious environmental practices out of Papua New Guinea and elsewhere also helps reduce the role of Chinese money, and influence, in Pacific politics–a double win for the United States,” Cottrell writes.
U.S. Outreach in the region may indicate a shift in geopolitics towards green financing or a strategic approach to climate change. These partnerships may help island nations–and other states that are particularly vulnerable to climate impacts–find better climate solutions, but it may also mean that those states will increasingly find themselves in the crossfire of great-power competition.
by Adam Tooze, July 14
Green hydrogen–billed as the Swiss army knife of the energy transition–is the next big thing in the quest to reach net-zero emissions. More than 40 countries, including China, the United States, and European Union nations, have hydrogen strategies, and more than 1,000 hydrogen projects have been announced worldwide, representing $320 billion in investments. Adam Tooze, FP writer, writes that there are many reasons why hydrogen is sceptical.
Not only is hydrogen expensive, but it is also difficult to transport and inefficient compared with directly using renewable energy, such as wind and solar. A hydrogen-based economy, however, is politically attractive: “It is a route through which existing fossil fuel interests can imagine a place for themselves in the new energy future,” Tooze writes. “Hydrogen enables natural gas suppliers to imagine that they can transition their facilities to green fuels.”
This does not mean that the world should necessarily discount green hydrogen. But we should be wary of using the world’s scarce resources on such a risky gamble, Tooze writes: “As we search for technical solutions to the puzzle of decarbonization, we must beware the mirages of the energy transition.”
by Betsy Joles, Sept. 21
This year, as India and Pakistan once again faced climate extremes ranging from droughts to deadly floods, it became clearer than ever that the two countries need to regulate their shared water resources, Betsy Joles writes. Yet as water-sharing disagreements between the rivals worsen, experts question whether the Indus Waters Treaty, which has outlined the rights of both countries to use the Indus River system since 1960, is still fit for purpose.
Despite fraught India-Pakistan relations, there is a chance that the threat of climate change could lead to greater cooperation. As Joles writes, “building greater resilience into the treaty requires both countries to find middle ground over the issue of climate change.” That is a balance that many countries will likely have to strike as the world navigates a future of climate hazards.
by Catherine Osborn, Nov. 7
As so-called green industrialization gains steam around the world, FP’s Catherine Osborn examines how it has taken shape in a country that relies on oil as its top export. Colombia, under left-wing president Gustavo Petro this year, stopped awarding oil exploration contracts and instead adopted an industrial policy to support low-carbon businesses, such as green hydrogen projects.
Although major powers such as China and the United States invest billions of dollars in industrial policy to support the energy transition, “[f]or developing nations like Colombia, the question is how to do the same when they have relatively little money available to spend up front,” Osborn writes. As Colombian Technical Deputy Minister of Finance Maria Fernanda Valdes said, “We have to do magic with the little that we have.”
In this reported feature, Osborn dives into Petro’s struggle to secure financing for his ambitious plans, the risks of betting on programs that rely on unproven technologies, and the potential of “greening” a petrostate.
by Lauri Myllyvirta and Byford Tsang, Nov. 12
As China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, continued to issue new permits for coal power plants this year, it became clear that it has backtracked on its 2021 pledge to “strictly control” coal. Lauri Myllyvirta, Byford Tsang and others write that this “about-face” is an alarming indication of China’s waning commitment to climate change.
Although China is a global leader in clean technology, it also ramped up coal power after electricity shortages in the summer of 2022. This U-turn may prevent China, which is also the world’s largest coal-power producer, from meeting its commitments to hit peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2060.
In FP, Myllyvirta and Tsang consider how the world can push back and ensure that Beijing follows through on its commitments. After all, they write, “[i]f China’s coal industry does not shrink soon, it will be extremely challenging for the world to avoid devastating climate impacts.”