A recap of the year’s biggest energy and climate stories and breakthroughs.
While the list below is far from exhaustive, it includes the year’s biggest and, far-reaching, stories in the energy sector.
January: Europe’s largest known deposit of rare earth metals was discovered in Sweden.
In 2021, ~98% of rare earth metals used in the EU were imported from China, so this discovery was viewed as a game-changer for the European clean energy transition. Thierry Breton, the EU’s internal market commissioner, had said in 2022 that ‘lithium and rare earths will soon be more important than oil and gas.’
February: President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa declared a national state of disaster as a result of the continual power shortages.
Eskom, the state electricity utility, implemented historic rolling blackouts, which have been an ongoing issue for over a decade. On February 22nd, the board of Eskom announced that CEO Andre de Ruyter was ‘released from his position with immediate effect.’ Though de Ruyter had resigned in December of 2022, he had agreed to stay until the end of March 2023 to provide time to find a replacement.
March: Scientists delivered a ‘final warning’ on climate change.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a final warning about the potential impacts of climate change if action is not taken immediately and swiftly. It also emphasized the importance of the next few years, and outlined the targets that must be met to limit global warming to 1.5 °C.
April: Netherlands and the UK announced an agreement to build an undersea electric cable for sharing power from offshore wind farms.
The cable, known as LionLink, was a promising sign for the future of offshore wind and energy-sharing between nations. There are several interconnectors between the UK and Europe, but this will be the first of its kind to share energy generated by offshore wind.
May: For the first time, wind and solar generated more electricity than coal in the United States.
Federal data showed that wind and solar energy produced more electricity than coal in May 2023. For the first five months of the year, wind and solar generated 252 terawatt-hours, as opposed to 249 terawat-hours generated by coal. This change came amidst a mild winter, low natural gas prices, clean energy investments, and the closure of several coal plants.
June: The Minerals Security Partnership has established a pact to secure the supply of critical minerals for clean energy projects.
The United States, Canada, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Sweden, UK, Finland, Australia, France, and the European Commission came together to form the Minerals Security Partnership to ‘catalyze investment from governments and the private sector for strategic opportunities…that adhere to the highest environmental, social, and governance standards,’ according to a statement from the US State Department.
July: July 2023 was the hottest month in recorded human history.
Not only was July 2023 the hottest on record, but it may have been the hottest month in 120,000 years.
August: Nearly 100 people died as a result of severe wildfires on the island of Maui.
Devastating wildfires gripped the Hawaiian island of Maui for several days, destroying towns and villages, and leaving charred remains where forests once stood. While the exact cause of the wildfires remains unknown, it is likely that downed power lines, dry grass, and strong winds contributed to the spread and severity.
September: Rishi Sunak, the prime minister of the UK, announces a change in course for the country’s Net Zero plans.
On September 20th, Sunak delivered a speech announcing that the UK would ease it’s decarbonization efforts, saying ‘Even the most committed advocated of Net Zero must recognize that if our solution is to force people to pay that kind of money (earlier he alluded to £10,000 in upfront costs for families) support will collapse, and we’ll simply never get there.’
Sunak’s plan has many critics, including the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, an independent think tank, which pointed out that pushing back or cancelling energy regulations will ultimately cost tax-payers billions of pounds over the next ten years, and many bans were not slated to take effect until the 2030s anyway.
October: NASA launched its Psyche mission, the first of its kind to explore a metal-rich asteroid.
On October 13th, NASA launched Psyche from the Kennedy Space Center. This mission will explore a metal-rich asteroid, and the spacecraft is expected to reach the asteroid (also called Psyche) in the summer of 2029. Nicole Fox, the associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, explained ‘By studying asteroid Psyche, we hope to better understand our universe and our place in it, especially regarding the mysterious and impossible-to-reach metal core of our own planet, Earth.’
November: The first transatlantic flight, Flight100, powered by 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) flew from Heathrow in London to JFK in New York.
While commercial aircraft are only allowed to use up to 50% SAF, Flight100 received a permit to make the journey on 100% SAF. However, many environmentalists argue that the flight was nothing more than green-washing, as the crops used to power it could have been used for food crops, and may push for the development of untouched forests, peatland and other ecosystems.
December: At Cop28, representatives from almost 200 countries agreed to phase out the consumption of oil, gas, and coal.
After weeks of negotiations, representatives attending the climate summit agreed to gradually phase out the use of fossil fuels. Saudi Arabia, among other countries, had consistently argued against the proposal, but small island states, with the support of the European Union, the United States, and Norway, voiced the drastic need to cut emissions. However, many still view the agreement as incomplete, such as Anne Rasmussen, the lead negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States, who said. ‘We have made incremental advancement over business as usual, when what we really need is an exponential step change in our actions.’