When it came to climate change, 2022 offered some reasonably good news and some pretty alarming bad news. On the plus side, the U.S. passed its most significant piece of climate legislation ever, with the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) — a bill that allocates hundreds of billions of dollars to clean energy and other low-emissions projects and, if fully realized, could take a big chunk out of the country’s carbon footprint.
But zooming out, the picture wasn’t all that rosy: The war in Ukraine and worries about a global recession helped spur resurgences in coal and other fossil use and investment, muddying the waters for the ongoing clean energy transition.
So where does that leave us as we head into 2023? Grid asked climate experts to weigh in on key climate policies and other developments they’re watching as we head into the new year.
One thing they can agree on: With every year that passes and every ton of carbon dioxide emitted, the chances of keeping to global temperature goals set forth in the Paris Agreement and averting the most widespread of catastrophes grow dimmer.
“Some progress on reducing emissions would be good,” said Gavin Schmidt, a NASA climate scientist and director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. In spite of the nearly universally acknowledged urgency, 2022 will go down as the biggest-ever year for global emissions.
Here’s a look at what happened in 2022 and what we can expect in 2023.
Turning legislation into action
Experts say the IRA is entering what could be a dangerous implementation phase — more dangerous because the party that voted against the bill’s passage now takes over half of Congress.
According to reporting from the New York Times, oil and gas lobbyists already have plans to help gut some portions of the IRA, which includes around $370 billion for clean energy, energy efficiency improvements and other climate-related goodies. The GOP may try to halt a program with more than $4 billion allocated to low- and middle-income households for the installation of heat pumps, induction stoves and other climate-friendly devices.
Also, some experts and activists are concerned that the IRA could allow further development of dirtier energy.
“While the passage of IRA unlocks money for the energy transition, it’s absolutely critical that those funds are not used as a carte blanche for utilities to pedal dangerous technologies like carbon capture and storage and dirty hydrogen that undermine environmental justice,” said Jean Su, an attorney and energy justice program director with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.
Schmidt agreed that the nuts and bolts of legislation, and the actual building out of technology that will help the climate, should be a key focus.
“One should distinguish between actual executive or legislative action” — like the IRA — “and toothless communiqués or talks about talks. The latter don’t appear to matter very much when it comes to actually reducing emissions,” he said. “Technological clean energy rollout for whatever reason is the most important thing to be looking at.”
Bipartisan appetite for climate progress?
Though a divided Congress likely means transformational legislation similar to the IRA is off the table for the next few years, some experts think there are still bipartisan climate wins to be had in 2023.
“We’ve certainly seen growing interest in climate and clean energy among Republicans,” said Ben Pendergrass, vice president of government affairs with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. “This is not breaking news, but there is a space for conversations around permitting reform to continue in the new Congress. Both sides have said that’s a priority for them.”
Permitting reform legislation, which would change the way energy and other infrastructure projects are reviewed and approved by the government, was dealt an apparent death blow in December of 2022.
But with at least some support in both parties, Pendergrass said that there’s hope that it could still have some life left, and revisiting it could help speed some of the renewable energy deployment that Schmidt said is crucial to making progress against climate change in the coming years — though critics think it will also allow expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure.
Pendergrass said that a bright spot even with a divided Congress is that, in general, Republicans did not run against the IRA’s clean energy provisions during the midterms. “A lot of those clean energy provisions are wildly popular, and especially as they start being deployed out in American communities,” he said.
The SEC may force industry emissions data into the sunlight
In 2022, the Supreme Court threw a wrench in the broader U.S. climate efforts by limiting the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases. While no similar land mines lurk in the SCOTUS docket in 2023, experts say some other legal and bureaucratic issues could play a big role this year.
“To me the biggest change in U.S. climate law will come if/when the Securities and Exchange Commission rules go into effect requiring companies to report actual emissions of greenhouse gases,” said Victor Flatt, a law professor and co-director of the Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Center at the University of Houston.
The SEC rule, which closed for public comment this past year, will improve transparency in climate-related liability for publicly traded companies and will help paint a clearer picture of where U.S. carbon emissions really come from. Though there is substantial opposition from some industries and many Republicans, Flatt thinks there is little way to stop the rule’s implementation in 2023 given the Biden administration’s broad support.
Enduring war and looming recession threaten climate progress
Globally, the war in Ukraine upended energy systems in 2022, spurring resurgences of coal and natural gas, a renewed interest in nuclear power, and accelerated renewable energy timelines. That war continues — and questions about energy remain. The war, along with inflation concerns and apparent slowing of economic growth, is “dampening the appetite for urgent action” on climate, said Rishikesh Bhandary, assistant director of the Global Economic Governance Initiative at Boston University.
2022 saw at least one major win when it comes to global climate finance issues, with the establishment of a “loss and damage” fund at the United Nations climate talks in Egypt in November. The fund will — in theory, though details remain sparse — provide a vehicle for rich countries to compensate the developing world for the climate damage they have caused.
This concept gains urgency as the noise around the developing world’s debt crisis grows louder. Many poor countries are mired in a debt cycle made worse by increasing climate extremes, with little way out.
“The [International Monetary Fund] recognizes that a number of countries are in debt distress but has been saying that there is no ‘systemic’ crisis yet,” Bhandary told Grid. “From a climate change vantage point, even if it’s true that there is no systemic crisis, these countries are not in a position to make investments. They can’t meet the urgency of the moment.”
The former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, has led calls for major debt restructuring for climate-vulnerable countries, if not an outright debt strike. As global recession fears bleed into 2023, this could play a big role in climate efforts over the next year. The next round of U.N. climate talks will take place in early December in Dubai, and debt, along with more direct approach to phasing out fossil fuels, will likely take center stage.
Every year — and every fraction of a degree — matters
NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will release their annual summary of 2022 climate and temperature data in the coming weeks; it will likely show that the year was around the fifth or sixth warmest on record, in spite of the widespread climate catastrophes that descended on the globe. That’s partly thanks to the Pacific Ocean weather pattern known as La Niña, which has a cooling effect — a pattern that may flip to El Niño this year, or at least switch to a neutral, in-between state. As a result, look for 2023 to have a good chance of topping the grim list of warmest-ever years.
This year will also place the world one digit closer to some of the oft-discussed deadlines on climate — but it is important to remember that in spite of round numbers like 2 degrees or deadlines like 2030, the climate is changing in a continuous fashion, with every sliver of a degree piling risk upon risk.
“None of those issues … are deadlines in the sense that any normal person thinks,” said Schmidt, of NASA. “No tipping points will be crossed if 1.5 [degrees] is overshot or if the carbon budget for 1.5 or 2 is exhausted. Instead, impacts and risks will simply grow the longer we go without reducing emissions to net-zero. Every year that goes by without that happening is bad.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.