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COP28 in Dubai marks the first Global Stocktake under the Paris Agreement, where governments will compare notes on how well they are tackling climate change. The stocktake mechanism is intended to keep national climate goals and policies up to date and adequate to the scale of the challenge, as outlined by the best available science. However, three high-profile reports released in the first week of the UN talks suggest that the world is not on track to meet global climate goals – the window of opportunity to course-correct is closing fast, and serious damages are already mounting up.

The newest edition of the Global Carbon Budget, an international research project that is the “gold standard” of carbon emissions reporting, shows CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels are projected to reach a historic high in 2023. While international efforts have managed to slow down emissions growth in the last decade, deep and rapid cuts are needed to meet global climate targets. Since neither biological carbon sinks nor mechanical methods to remove CO2 from the atmosphere can make a substantial dent in global emissions, we urgently need to decarbonise our energy systems and economies.  

If meaningful action is not taken and current emissions levels persist, the Global Carbon Budget estimates there is a 50% chance that warming of 1.5°C will be consistently exceeded in about seven years. We are already quite close to that threshold, with human-induced warming reaching 1.26°C in 2022 and a one-time breach of 1.5°C possible in 2023.

With temporary surpassing or overshooting the 1.5°C threshold now likely inevitable, according to the authors of the 10 New Insights in Climate Science, they call for action to curb the magnitude and duration of this overshoot. Minimising the level where warming peaks and how long the world spends beyond the safe boundary is an urgent priority, scientists say in the annual summary of the latest developments in climate change research for negotiators. Fossil fuels must be phased out rapidly and greenhouse gas emissions reduced, while carbon dioxide removal (CDR) needs to be scaled up. But CDR isn’t a substitute for deep emissions cuts and a phase-out of oil and gas, the researchers emphasise.

The third report, on Global Tipping Points, gives a sense of what this overshoot could mean for ecosystems and communities around the world. This assessment – the most comprehensive of this kind ever conducted – finds that in the coming decade, continued warming could drive multiple earth systems past their tipping points – when abrupt and/or irreversible changes start to take place. The analysis suggests we might already be seeing vital parts of the planet lose resilience. Earth systems at risk include major ice sheets, warm-water coral reefs, permafrost, the Amazon, and mangroves.

However, the same report offers some hope: desirable changes in societies can also become self-propelling, triggering positive tipping points such as the recent rapid expansion of renewable energy across the world. These positive tipping points can reinforce each other and deliver meaningful change to help mitigate against climate breakdown – but they require ambitious action.

The latest IPCC Synthesis report, published in March 2023, presents a comprehensive vision of a liveable and sustainable future for all. All three new reports confirm that this future is still possible if policymakers heed calls for action from scientists.