As more countries pledge to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to zero by midcentury, one could be forgiven for thinking that the world is finally making real progress on climate change. In total, 132 countries, representing about two-thirds of global emissions, have set net-zero targets. Many major emitters—including Japan, the United States, and Europe—have pledged to reach net zero by 2050, and China has promised to do so by 2060.

The current political fixation on pledges to reach net zero in the long term, however, is distracting from the immediate and tangible steps countries should be taking to reduce their emissions. Of the 132 countries with net-zero targets, only 12 have enshrined them in legislation, and just four others are considering doing so. For the remaining 116 countries, net-zero targets are mostly untethered from concrete domestic policies that would allow them to reach their goal. In some cases, the targets may even do more harm than good because they relieve political pressure on leaders for short-term action.

The upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, known as COP26, must focus on holding countries accountable for implementing policies that begin cutting emissions in the short term. To avoid intolerable climatic disruption—such as the massive wildfires and more powerful hurricanes the world experienced this year—global emissions must peak by 2025 and then bend downward on the path to net zero. That will be possible only if politicians take action now rather than hiding behind gauzy commitments to change in the distant future.

THE TROUBLE WITH NET ZERO

The past few years do not inspire confidence in the ability of the world’s countries to reach a peak in global emissions by 2025. The global pandemic and severe economic depression produced only an extremely short-lived dip in emissions. After a sharp reduction at the beginning of 2020, emissions rebounded quickly and ended up two percent higher in December 2020 than they were in December 2019, before the pandemic began. Resulting atmospheric concentration also continued its inexorable rise: concentrations of carbon dioxide reached a record 416 parts per million this past July, a 12 percent increase over the past two decades.

Long-term net-zero goals, as well as short- and medium-term targets, are necessary because they provide a clear direction of travel for society. Emission-reduction targets alone, however, are not sufficient: they must be grounded in specific and enforceable policies that can be implemented in each country.

But the seductiveness of net-zero pledges is that leaders find it relatively easy to commit to long-term targets, the achievement of which will occur—or not—long after they have left office. What is urgently needed will require more political courage: countries must enact new laws and regulations to bend the emission curve downward during the terms of leaders who are currently in office. But too many major emitting countries are currently failing to build the political will and capacity to take that step.

The focus on net-zero targets also reveals an unfortunate weakness of the global climate negotiations process. As with most international environmental accords, the 2016 Paris climate accord imposes no serious consequences for noncompliance. It is therefore much easier for diplomats to negotiate about the long-term future than to try to hold countries accountable for their failure to honor existing commitments. Of course, these long-term pledges become more unrealistic each day that countries fail to take tangible steps to reduce their emissions here and now.

The fixation on long-term net zero pledges distracts from the immediate and tangible steps needed to reduce emissions.

To be fair, net-zero targets and updated Nationally Determined Contributions, the formal emission-reduction targets and timetables submitted by countries under the Paris accord, are better than nothing. Nearly every country in the world provided an NDC, and if they were all achieved, it would represent a notable first step in reducing the growth of global emissions. Countries are supposed to update these targets every five years, and the Paris accord states that each new NDC is supposed to represent a “progression”—in other words, each new NDC should be more ambitious than the previous one, so that emissions eventually reach zero by midcentury.

But some of the new NDCs announced in the run-up to Glasgow are proving more theater than substance. For instance, some countries—including Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, New Zealand, Russia, Singapore, Switzerland, and Vietnam—updated their NDCs during the last year but made minor changes that do not make their emission-reduction goals more stringent. This is evidence of good political showmanship. Submitting a new NDC sounds like progress even if it does not technically outline a more ambitious goal than already existed.

In contrast, several countries that have passed domestic climate legislation are effectively reducing their emissions. The United Kingdom passed the Climate Change Act in 2008, which has become model legislation for several other countries. The act mandates the creation of legally binding “carbon budgets” over successive five-year periods through 2050. Budgets are set 12 years in advance to give policymakers, businesses, and individuals time to prepare. The government then must design proposals and policies to meet the carbon budget and submit those to Parliament. This legal system has worked: the United Kingdom has reduced its emissions 44 percent below 1990 levels, according to its 2019 emission report. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also pledged to cut emissions 78 percent by 2035, putting the country well on track to achieve net zero by 2050.

Germany has achieved similar success with its own climate legislation. It amended its 2019 Climate Change Law earlier this year, setting a new legally binding target of reducing emissions 65 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, on the way to net zero by 2045. Germany’s emissions have declined 41 percent below 1990 levels as of 2020. Remarkably, Germany’s Constitutional Court ruled earlier this year that the law did not go far enough to protect the rights of young people to a humane future and gave the country’s legislature until the end of 2022 to set more ambitious targets for the post-2030 period.

The progress made by these countries clearly demonstrates the importance of passing climate legislation and taking early action to implement and enforce domestic climate policies. But these success stories aside, some of the world’s largest emitters appear to be using long-term net-zero pledges as a smokescreen to skirt difficult policy choices or have seen their climate laws undermined by hostile political leaders.

WHY THE CURVE WON’T BEND

Ten emitters are responsible for two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions. In order of emissions output, they are: China, the United States, the European Union, India, Russia, Japan, Brazil, Indonesia, Iran, and Canada. Of these emitters, all but India, Russia, and Iran have net-zero targets—but only Japan, Brazil, and Canada have climate legislation. The EU is expected to pass a climate law in the coming months.  

Both China and the United States, the world’s two largest emitters, have issued bold proclamations about reaching net zero without implementing laws that would put them on a path to do so. In the case of China, President Xi Jinping surprised the world in his 2020 UN General Assembly speech by announcing that his country would achieve net-zero emissions by 2060. China did launch a national emission trading system covering the power sector in July and has poured resources into electric vehicle charging stations and incentive schemes. Through its Renewable Energy Law, China has built the largest number of renewable, nuclear, and hydropower plants in the world. Xi also recently pledged that China would stop building coal plants overseas and would “step up” efforts to support low-carbon energy in developing countries.

But despite these policy achievements, China has not yet passed a climate change law. Its efforts to reform its power sector have stalled, its national emission trading system has a soft cap on emissions, and dozens of new coal plants are still under construction with no carbon capture and storage in sight. Chinese emissions are still rising, albeit more slowly than during the 2000–20 period, and they are currently on a trajectory to peak in 2030—followed by a long plateau rather than a steep decline.

The United States has pledged to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 but has also failed to make tangible progress toward that target. U.S. emissions peaked in 2007 at 15 percent above 1990 levels and have declined since then to about 2 percent above 1990 levels. But President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris accord and reversed or halted many of the regulatory steps envisioned by President Barack Obama’s administration—including the Clean Power Plan, which would have cut greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector more than 30 percent below 2005 levels if it had been implemented. Trump’s tenure represents a lost four years in the effort to get the United States on track to achieve its 2025 target of reducing emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels.

Developed countries need to get their own domestic policies in order before helping other nations cut emissions.

President Joe Biden entered office faced with the reality that the United States would likely miss its Paris target. He promptly recommitted the United States to net zero by 2050, announced an aim to reduce emissions by 50 to 52 percent by 2030, and called on Congress to grant him the authority needed to reduce emissions. The Clean Air Act, for example, does not explicitly provide the Environmental Protection Agency with the authority to establish a cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gases for the power sector in the same way that it did for the pollutants that caused acid rain and smog in the 1980s and the 1990s. But most Republicans and a few Democrats in Congress have stubbornly refused to pass climate legislation, so hopes rest on federal infrastructure legislation, measures that can be folded into a budget reconciliation bill, and action at the state and local levels.

Other countries have also seen laws or regulations fail to bend the curve because they were undermined by elected officials or were too vague to curb emissions. For instance, Brazil passed a climate law in 2009 under the leadership of former President Lula da Silva. But the current president, Jair Bolsonaro, has failed to enforce both that law and the Forest Code, which protects the Amazon. The lack of enforcement has led to the Amazon becoming a net source of carbon emissions rather than a net absorber for the first time in 2020. According to one analysis, Bolsonaro has signed 195 executive orders and decrees intended to dismantle Brazil’s environmental laws. That didn’t stop Bolsonaro, acting under pressure from the Biden administration, from committing in April to reaching net zero by 2050.

Canada has also committed to net zero by 2050 and went so far as to pass the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act in Parliament this June. This act enshrines a 2030 target into law and requires the minister of environment and climate change to set five-year targets for every period between now and 2050 with advice from an independent advisory body. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also established a voluntary “Net Zero Challenge” to encourage firms to voluntarily commit to net-zero goals. Despite all of these pledges, however, no concrete policy plan has yet been published by the government to achieve its 2030 target. Canada’s emissions may not even have peaked, given that its emission levels plateaued between 2000 and 2020.

Like first putting on one’s own oxygen mask in an airplane emergency, advanced industrialized countries must recognize that they need to get their own domestic policies in order before helping other nations. But they will also need to lay the policy groundwork to prevent new growth in emissions from less developed countries. Development finance institutions as well as private-sector overseas finance must be “greened” so that emerging economies have access to financing at reasonable rates as they build their economies with reduced carbon intensity, now possible through technological improvements. The least developed countries will need aid that helps them reduce their vulnerability to climate change and implement low-carbon industrial development strategies.

REACHING THE SUMMIT

Expectations are high for the global climate negotiations in Glasgow, which begin on October 31. The COP26 summit will be the first in-person meeting in two years and seems all the more pressing in light of the recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which found that unless there are “immediate, rapid, and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions,” the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 or even 2.0 degrees Celsius will be unattainable. This year’s devasting hurricanes in Haiti and Louisiana; record-breaking rainfall and flooding in New York, Germany, and Ethiopia; and catastrophic wildfires in the western United States and Greece also serve as reminders of the grave danger posed by climate change.

There are three urgent tasks at hand for these negotiations: setting stricter emission-reduction targets in the context of the updated NDCs to achieve a 2025 peak of global emissions with new targets and enabling domestic legislation, vastly improving the global system for delivering climate finance, and establishing midcentury net-zero targets. The latter cannot distract from the former two imperatives. Raising ambitions through the updating of NDCs is an obvious top priority, followed by creating much-improved climate finance mechanisms to help less developed countries enhance their resilience to climate impacts and develop green growth strategies.

Politicians must take action now rather than hiding behind gauzy commitments to change in the future.

This year, global climate negotiators are also initiating the first “global stocktake,” which is intended to assess the world’s collective progress in implementing the goals of the Paris accord. That exercise represents a crucial opportunity to determine the gap between what countries promised to do and what they have actually done, based on nonpolitical scientific and policy evaluation.

If it turns out that the policies implemented to date are insufficient to cause global emissions to peak by 2025, as appears likely, then policymakers will know what they must do. Politicians’ pledges of dramatic long-term reductions should not let them off the hook for their failure to achieve more modest progress in the short term. They must face pressure to redouble their efforts to put in place the laws and regulations needed to bend the global emission curve. The current political attention on net zero by midcentury, although admirable in many ways, is a distraction from the real work at hand.

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  • KELLY SIMS GALLAGHER  is Professor and Academic Dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University and Founding Director of the Climate Policy Lab. From 2014 to 2015, she was a Senior Policy Adviser in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
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