Suburbs smoked and motorways melted as the mercury hit a record 40.3°C in parts of the UK this July. While summer temperatures have been creeping upward for years, for many the milestone represented an unavoidable sign that climate change is here.
But the heatwave paled in comparison to the dozens of extreme weather events across the globe in 2022, including severe heatwaves in China, famines in Somalia and Ethiopia, flooding in Sudan, wildfires in California and drought across Europe.
Perhaps worst of all, catastrophic flooding in Pakistan submerged a third of the country’s land. Nearly 2,000 died and 20 million needed humanitarian aid. “We became a victim of something which we had nothing to do with,” said the country’s prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, at COP27 this month.
That was one of the driving factors behind the historic loss and damage agreement inked at the UN climate change conference. Until then, richer nations had blocked any move to compensate countries in the Global South for climate change-related destruction, even though it has already cost them an estimated $593bn (£496bn).
But the deal merely set out countries’ intention to pay for some of the loss, not how much will be paid, when, or to whom. And this year’s conference managed to bolt down little else. It even failed to call for all fossil fuel use to be phased out.
Experts had hoped for far more, particularly in the wake of a series of terrifying reports into the state of the climate. In February, the IPCC issued a stark warning that climate impacts are accelerating and could quickly become irreversible, putting millions of people at risk of food scarcity, disease and heat stress. And the chances of avoiding such a grim future are narrowing, according to Climate Action Tracker. The world is on course to blow past its target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, thanks to a failure to set sufficiently robust national objectives, many of which are still not being met.
But the climate fight did score some key victories this year. The election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil raised hopes he will undo some of the ecological damage wrought by his predecessor. US president Joe Biden passed the landmark Inflation Reduction Act, which promises millions of dollars in subsidies for low-carbon technologies such as wind, electric vehicles and batteries. It has already sparked massive investment in the US and is likely to boost international progress.
The UK continued to punch above its weight in the booming climate tech sector. Green British startups raised £6.3bn in the first 10 months of 2022, compared to £3.4m in 2021. But this could lag in 2023 as economic turmoil hits the tech sector. Britishvolt, which plans to build a £3.8bn battery gigafactory in the North East, ran into a cash crunch this year and lost out on government funding.
Despite those headwinds, more established businesses stepped up their net-zero and circular economy activity. Selfridges said it is aiming for almost half of its transactions to be repair, resale, refills or rental by 2030, while fast-fashion giant Zara announced its first UK resale platform. EasyJet vowed to scrap its controversial carbon offsets program, eBay sponsored Love Island and cryptocurrency Etherium “merged” to cut carbon.
But the advertising watchdog sounded a warning shot to those who do not align actions and words. It banned misleading HSBC advertisements that promoted the bank’s green credentials while omitting mention of its financing of carbon-heavy industries.
That HSBC ran the adverts at all shows how vital it now is to be – or appear to be – sustainable as a corporate citizen. Indeed, business leaders, including the CEOs of Amazon, the Co-op and Bupa, wrote to prime minister Liz Truss in September to urge her to accelerate work on net zero and the restoration of nature. “We are in a planetary emergency… it will only get worse unless we take bold steps now,” said Zahra Bahrololoumi, CEO of Salesforce UK&I.
Would Truss have taken heed if she had remained in office? Her environmental policies were a mixed bag. She opened a new round of oil and gas licensing and threatened to scale back eco-friendly farming payments but also overturned a ban on new onshore wind developments. Her move to restart fracking ultimately led to her downfall.
Her successor, Rishi Sunak, has imposed a windfall tax on fossil fuel company profits. It was welcomed following soaring gas prices across Europe due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which underlined the importance of the UK’s growing energy security. A record 19.9GW of power was wind-generated on one day in May, more than half of that day’s demand, while the electricity grid went for nearly a month without burning coal.
But, as vocal climate protestors such as Just Stop Oil were keen to point out, our shift to decarbonisation does not mean we can rest easy. As carbon levels in the atmosphere soar, while budgets shrink, the challenge for businesses and government alike will be to continue the momentum of environmental action.