How Can We Limit Global Warming? A Rocky Road to Net Zero | Mika Baumeister

How Can We Limit Global Warming? A Rocky Road to Net Zero

With the 2015 ratification of the Paris Agreement, 169 nations committed to lowering their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This aimed to limit the overall warming of the Earth’s climate to a well below 2°C rise, and ideally 1.5°C, compared with pre-industrial times.

Climate science has no doubt that, to make this possible, states must collectively achieve net-zero emissions by the mid-20th century. To achieve this, long-term strategies are crucial and should go hand in hand with countries’ nationally determined contributions (NDCs), typically with 2030 targets. In the 5 years since the Paris Agreement was ratified, far too few countries have presented sufficient long-term strategies for reaching net-zero.

Apart from a few frontrunners like Sweden, France, Fiji, and the Marshall Islands, which have put net-zero targets into their law, most states continue following unambitious long-term plans for curbing GHGs. These will fail to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. The combined efforts of all states party to the Paris Agreement would currently result in an unacceptable 2.5–2.7°C of warming.

Rising targets/ambitions

Recent developments, however, have shown an unexpected trend towards more ambitious emission reduction goals. In September, the EU voted on increasing its medium-term target from a minimum 40% to a more ambitious 60% reduction by 2030. This paved the way to reach the net-zero emissions announced in December 2019 by mid-century.

Soon after that, China, the world’s biggest emitter of GHG, announced plans for carbon neutrality by 2060. With China responsible for roughly 29% of the world’s CO2 emissions, this alone could reduce global warming by up to 0.3°C, if the country adheres to its pledges.

Things were set in motion after this announcement at the UN General Assembly. Japan followed suit, pledging to reduce to net zero by 2050, a decade before China. South Korea joined Japan in its pledges, also seeking carbon neutrality by 2050. Additionally, South Africa submitted its LTS to UNFCCC in September 2020. This trend could signal a much-needed period of change in the world of climate negotiations.

Australia, Brazil, USA lag behind

The ambitious announcements from East Asia now exert pressure on Australia, one of the great laggards in climate action.

Australia’s economy is heavily based on export and use of coal, and has been under national and international criticism for weak emission reduction targets. A commitment from Australia, as one of the world’s major economies, is decisive for reaching the Paris goal and averting dangerous climate change. But Australia is not the only crucial player for this endeavour.

The US and Brazil are other climate laggards. The Paris Agreement is doomed to failure without strong commitments from these high-emitting countries. US President-elect Biden promised to counter his predecessor’s course of climate denial and to re-join the Paris Agreement. Emission reduction goals for 2030 and 2050 would then be swiftly presented.

Meanwhile, Brazilian President Bolsonaro has made no move to act on international pressure to protect the Amazon rainforest. He also has not presented a long-term strategy for Brazil’s contribution to the Paris Agreement.

Non-binding statements still in the majority

States’ various announcements to reduce emissions by a certain percentage should be taken with a grain of salt. This is because they are merely non-binding statements that need to be translated into legislation and concrete policy action points in all sectors.

Nevertheless, these announcements are a promising start and could create momentum in the intergovernmental community. That in turn could lead to a much-needed global acceleration of climate action.

Whether the bulk of states decides to raise ambitions will be revealed by the end of the year. December 31, 2020, marks the deadline for countries to announce their updated NDCs and their long-term strategies.

Considering the toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on most economies in 2020, elaborated plans on Green Recovery would go hand in hand with enhanced NDCs. We still do not know to what extent countries will go down this path or whether they will revert to fossil fuel bailouts. For deep insight into the Green Recovery efforts of states examined in the CCPI, please see our blog post on COVID-19 and Green Recovery.


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