World in ‘unknown territory’ after heat records, says head of UN’s climate body

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Record temperatures over the past year have thrust the world into “unknown territory”, the head of the UN’s climate science body said, after the critical benchmark of 1.5C above pre-industrial levels was breached in the past year.

Jim Skea, who took over last July as chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said that he was “surprised, in one sense”, that the average global temperature last year exceeded the 1.5C threshold set out in the Paris agreement.

“Last year really was much quicker than we all anticipated,” Skea told the audience at the FT Climate Capital Live conference in London. “Some of it can be explained with the start of an El Niño cycle, which will push temperatures up a bit. But it was still unexpected . . . there’s more science needed to actually understand why 2023 was such a distinctive year.”

El Niño, a cyclical warming effect in the Pacific Ocean, is associated with higher temperatures and wetter conditions that can wreak havoc on commodities and supply chains. Last year, the weather phenomenon disrupted crop yields in agricultural powerhouses such as Brazil.

It is believed to have contributed to the rise in average global temperatures by more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels over a 12-month period for the first time.

However, Skea noted that the one-year breach did not signal a failure to uphold the 1.5C threshold set out in the Paris accord, which refers by convention to the average temperature increase over two decades.

Skea reiterated his view that the likelihood of keeping to 1.5C had shrunk.

Under his leadership, he said, the IPCC would aim to produce tighter reports, which are used by governments to shape policy, including a special report that is under way on the effects on cities of climate change.

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