Momentum towards net zero emissions is growing

Over the last year and a half there has been a wave of pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero[i].  In June 2019 the UK became the first major economy to commit to achieving net zero.  However, the UK now accounts for just under 1% of world emissions, so this commitment on its own makes little difference to prospects for global emissions, even if it is met in full.  The UK’s commitment was followed by similar pledges by the EU and New Zealand[ii].  These pledges increased coverage to around 9% of emissions. 

The proportion of emissions covered by such pledges changed radically in September 2020 when China, by far the world’s largest emitter with around 30% of the global total, committed to achieving carbon neutrality[iii]. With Japan and South Korea recently making similar pledges, nearly half of emissions from energy and industry are now covered by pledges to eliminate them (see chart).

Chart: proportion of emissions from energy and industry covered by net-zero pledges[iv]

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Shares of emissions are in 2019.  Source: EDGAR database

This has happened so fast that it seems likely to create strong momentum for action by other countries.  For example,  it is hard to see Australia (1.14 % of emissions) not responding while its major trading partners in Asia are taking such action.   The Government of Canada (1.54% of emissions) has already made a net-zero pledge, though it has not yet been passed into law. 

India (6.8 % of emissions) alone could increase the proportion of emissions covered to over 50%.  However the Indian Government does not yet appear ready for such a pledge. 

The USA (13.4 % of emissions) could make a huge difference.  President-elect Biden has committed to rejoining the Paris Agreement and has proposed a net zero target. However the balance of power in the Senate is still unclear, and this may prove an obstacle to some types of action.

The data described here covers emissions from energy and industry only, so does not include emissions from land use change. Tropical countries with rapid deforestation, notably Brazil and Indonesia, add substantially to global emissions – partly, of course, driven by demand for agricultural products from China, Europe and North America and elsewhere.  Reforestation, alongside other measures, could enable routes to net-zero for these jurisdictions, especially with support from elsewhere.  

The challenge of meeting net zero commitments remains daunting.  However, the more countries that adopt such commitments, the easier it will be to meet them, as new technologies will be deployed at larger scale and lower cost, and there will be fewer distortions to trade arising from different levels of ambition to reduce emissions. 

For too many years far too little has been done to reduce emissions and avoid damaging climate change.  However it appears that, while there is still a vast amount of work to be done, at last things are beginning to head in the right direction.

Adam Whitmore – 10th November 2020


[i] In this post I use the terms carbon neutrality and net zero emissions interchangeably.  I have interpreted each to be consistent with the definition used in the Paris Agreement (Article 4) of achieving a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases.  It is not always clear what is implied by the use of each term in public announcements.  It may be that in some cases carbon neutrality is intended to refer to carbon dioxide only, allowing net emissions of other greenhouse gases to continue.

[ii] Other countries within the EU, including France, Sweden and Denmark, made their own pledges.  This was followed by an EU wide commitment.  The full legal processes for ratifying this commitment by the EU have not yet been completed but the commitment has support from all major parties and institutions, and its ratification appears to be a formality.

[iii] China’s pledge is to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, rather than the date of 2050 pledged by others, but it is possible this date will be brought forward in future. It is in any case a hugely ambitious commitment.

[iv] The chart shows commitments excluding small economies, and including only those where the commitment seems firm.  Some smaller economies, including Costa Rica, also have net zero targets, while others have aspirational targets with varying degrees of commitment. 

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