There has been no shortage of bleak climate news this year: unprecedented global heat fueled deadly extreme weather events, scientists issued dire warnings that next year may be worse still, and the world’s carbon pollution kept rising.
But amid the gloom, there have also been signs of progress. Renewable energy records have been set, the world celebrated one of its greatest environmental wins and countries made a cautious but historic step towards a fossil fuel-free future.
Here are five reasons to be hopeful.
A surge in renewable energy
As the need to rapidly wean off planet-heating fossil fuels becomes increasingly urgent, there have been some clean energy bright spots around the world.
On Halloween, Portugal started a record-breaking streak. For more than six days straight, between October 31 to November 6, the nation of more than 10 million people relied solely on renewable energy sources — setting an exciting example for the rest of the world.
The year 2023 is on track to see the biggest increase in renewable energy capacity to date, according to the International Energy Agency.
China, the world’s biggest climate polluter, has made lightning advances in renewables, with the country set to shatter its wind and solar target five years early. A report published in June found that China’s solar capacity is now greater than the rest of the world’s nations combined, in a surge described by the report’s author, Global Energy Monitor, as “jaw-dropping.”
It can’t be ignored, however, that China also ramped up its coal production this year, turning to the fossil fuel as devastating heat waves increased energy demand for air conditioning and cooling, and as persistent drought in the country’s south impacted hydroelectric supplies, which are reliant on sufficient rainfall.
Hopes were raised that the country’s coal production will peak and come down soon, when China and the US in November announced they would resume cooperation on climate change, pledging a major ramp-up of renewable energy, specifically to replace fossil fuels.
A climate deal that targets fossil fuels
After more than two weeks of fraught negotiations, the COP28 climate summit in Dubai concluded in December with nearly 200 countries making an unprecedented commitment to move away from fossil fuels.
While the agreement fell short of requiring the world to phase out coal, oil and gas — which more than 100 countries had supported — it did call on countries to “contribute” to a “transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems.” This marked the first time that all fossil fuels, the main drivers of the climate crisis, were targeted in a COP agreement.
COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber, who presided over the negotiations, called the agreement “historic,” adding that the deal represented “a paradigm shift that has the potential to redefine our economies.”
How impactful this deal ultimately is will depend on what countries do next to implement it. Many experts warned of loopholes that could leave the door open to a continued expansion of fossil fuels.
But that a deal was struck at all on fossil fuels was widely welcomed seen as a breakthrough.
Plummeting deforestation in Brazil
After years of soaring deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, there was good progress this year in reducing forest destruction.
The Amazon is the world’s biggest rainforest and its protection is seen as vital to curbing climate change. It acts a carbon sink that sucks in planet-heating pollution from the atmosphere. When forests or trees are destroyed, they emit greenhouse gases. Deforestation and land degradation is responsible for at least one-tenth of the world’s carbon pollution.
Deforestation in Brazil fell by 22.3% in the 12 months through July, according to data from the national government, as President Luiz Ignácio Lula da Silva started to make progress on his pledge to rein in the rampant forest destruction that occurred under his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro.
Marcio Astrini, head of advocacy group Climate Observatory, described it as an “impressive result” that “seals Brazil’s return to the climate agenda.”
Still, Brazil’s deforestation rate remained nearly twice that of its all-time low in 2012. Around 9,000 square kilometers of rainforest were destroyed in the period. There’s a long way to go to meet Lula’s pledge to reach zero deforestation by 2030.
The ozone layer is healing well
The Earth’s ozone layer is on track to recover completely within decades, a UN-backed panel of experts announced in January, as ozone-depleting chemicals are phased out across the world.
The ozone layer protects the planet from harmful ultraviolet rays, but since the 1980s, scientists have warned about a hole in this shield due to ozone-harming substances, including chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were used widely in refrigerators, aerosols and solvents.
International cooperation has helped stem the damage. A deal known as the Montreal Protocol, which came into force in 1989, began the phase-out of CFCs. The ozone layer’s subsequent recovery has been hailed as one of the world’s greatest environmental achievements.
If global policies stay in place, the ozone layer is expected to recover to 1980 levels by 2040 for most of the world, the assessment found. For polar areas, the timeframe for recovery is longer: 2045 over the Arctic and 2066 over the Antarctic.
A study published in November, however, cast some doubt on this progress. The paper, published by Nature Communications, found that a hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic “has not only remained large in area, but it has also become deeper throughout most of the Antarctic spring.” But some scientists were skeptical of the study’s findings, saying it relied on too short a time period to draw conclusions about the layer’s long-term health.
Electric vehicle sales surge
The popularity of electric vehicles has surged this year, with American sales at an all-time high. People in China and Europe are snapping up EVs in large numbers as well.
Electric vehicles — which are better for the planet than gas and diesel-powered cars when they run on renewable energy sources — are key to decarbonizing road transport, which is responsible for around one-sixth of planet-heating pollution globally, according to the International Energy Agency.
Americans purchased 1 million fully electric vehicles in 2023, an annual record, according to a report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Electric vehicles accounted for about 8% of all new vehicles sales in the US during the first half of 2023, according to the report. In China, EVs accounted for 19% of all vehicle sales, and worldwide, they made up 15% of new passenger vehicle sales.
EV sales in Europe were up 47% in the first nine months of 2023, according to data from the European Automobile Manufacturers Association (EAMA). However, car dealers have warned that sales are dropping off as consumers wait for cheaper models, expected in two to three years’ time.