At COP21, better known as the Paris Climate Accord, world nations pledged greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction targets. Based on the latest scientific guidance from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), many nations’ NDCs have evolved, becoming more ambitious; and now many nations have net zero targets as well. Nations ready to make ambitious climate action pledges, such as the EU group of countries, the UK, other European nations, & Japan, have set targets to reach net zero GHG emissions (carbon neutrality) by 2050; and a few European nations have even more ambitious net zero targets. (NDCs= Nationally Determined Contributions).

The Paris Climate Accord is not legally binding, so actual binding NDCs must originate from national, state, and regional, governments (when not put forward by a national government, but rather by state or regional governments; these commitments are simply referred to as GHG reduction pledges, or carbon reduction pledges). In the case of the EU, NDC targets and the 2050 net zero target are codified into law by legislation which is passed by the European Commission. The United States’ federal government has the executive commitment of President Biden to bold climate pledges (as of 2021), but Congress hasn’t yet passed legislation committing to NDCs or a net zero target like the EU (as well as several European nations independently). However, states (such as California and several others) have passed GHG reduction targets and net zero targets for their individual states; through State Congresses as binding legislation. It is expected that all NDC and net zero commitments that the Chinese national government makes, will be codified into legally binding law in China.

Many European nations (& California) had net zero targets, as well as ambitious GHG reduction pledges, in place well before China or the US (historically, China & the US are the 2 biggest emitters of GHGs). China has set their net zero target for 2060 (in September 2020); while the United States has committed to net zero by 2050 (with President Biden taking office, in January 2021). These net zero pledges represent ambitious goals to keep global warming below 2°C (that’s 2°C rise above pre-industrial temperature averages), and ideally to 1.5°C this century; making good on the latest IPCC climate targets. Here is a map with countries’ various degrees of progress to net zero:

Net-Zero Emissions
Map of Net-zero progress from BloombergNEF

NDCs and Net Zero targets

As part of the ongoing battle against climate change, almost 200 countries have set GHG emission reduction targets (NDCs). They’re fairly self-explanatory; by a specified year, a nation aims to have reduced its carbon emissions by a certain amount compared to a previous, specific year – thus, NDCs. Almost 200 countries have pledged NDCs to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCC), but are any of them doing enough? Analysis by the CAT Consortium’s ‘Climate Action Tracker‘ suggests that of the world’s great powers, only European nations (and California, as well as several other states) are truly leading the way on achieving GHG reduction targets. Nations in Northern Europe especially stand out as climate action leaders with regard to successfully reaching ambitious GHG reduction targets.

First of all, let’s take a look at the promises made by various major developed nations and states. In March 2015, President Obama initially pledged ahead of the Paris Climate Accord that the United States aims to cut its emissions by 26-28% by 2025, in comparison to 2005 levels. Although the US as a whole is behind Europe, California is still a global leader as far as GHG reduction targets (as states are responsible for their own GHG reduction goals); and California plans to reach the target of 100% clean and renewable energy statewide by 2045. President Biden has set a target of 100% carbon free energy on electric grids in the United States by 2035; and net zero GHG emissions for the US by 2050.

The European Union (initially at Paris) pledged at least a 40% cut in GHGs below 1990 levels by 2030, and this is not merely an aim either; it’s legally binding. Both the EU and the US, along with a few other European nations independently, now have 100% net zero GHG reduction targets for 2050; along with interim targets on the way to carbon neutrality (net zero), such as 2030 GHG emission reduction targets. As climate science has evolved over the last few years, GHG reduction targets have become more ambitious, and in an evolving GHG reduction target; the EU promises to cut carbon emissions to 55% of 1990 levels by 2030, on its way to net zero by 2050. President Biden has pledged that the US will have carbon neutral energy on its electric grids by 2035, on its path to net zero by 2050.

Ahead of the Paris United Nations Framework on Climate Change Conference in 2015, China initially announced it would be cutting its carbon emissions by a sizeable 60-65% compared to its 2005 level. China is currently the world’s largest emitter of GHGs, and its attempts to meet its carbon intensity targets are rated ‘inadequate’ by the Climate Action Tracker. Despite this, China now aims to hit the target of net zero by 2060; and is on course to reach its original NDC target.

India initially pledged for its carbon emissions to be between 33-35% lower in 2030 than they were in 2005. India also intends to produce a significant amount of additional forest and tree cover (for carbon sequestration, in order to achieve carbon neutrality); but on this and indeed their overall emissions targets, India can be vague on how it plans to achieve them. Australia initially targeted a 26-28% GHG reduction from 2005 levels by 2030; and Canada initially set a 30% GHG reduction target from 2005 by 2030.

The EU adjusted their 2030 interim target from 40% GHG reduction by 2030 (based on 1990 levels) to 55%; and added the net zero target year of 2050. Australia differs from the EU in that the country has officially announced that the initial 2030 target set in the Paris Climate Accord is “…a floor…”, and that the country is on course to “…overachieve on this target…”; as well as a national goal to achieve net zero “…as soon as possible.” Canada also maintains its initial NDC target; and additionally has been implementing progressive carbon pricing country-wide, with the aim of getting to net zero.

Until recently, Japan had been slow to reduce its national GHG emissions, despite an ambitious NDC pledge of 80% carbon reduction by 2050. However, in November 2020, Japan made an even more ambitious pledge of netzero by 2050. Like China, Japan has been dependent on coal (especially after increasing coal energy on the national grid following the Fukushima nuclear disaster). However, Japan now says it is committed to shutting down its coal-fired power plants; and developing more renewable energy in its place.

Countries set interim targets (mostly by 2030); and largely now are in route to net zero. Upon setting an initial interim target in the Paris Climate Accord, countries are supposed to ramp up their interim 2030 NDC targets on a 5 year basis (or ideally,  more frequently), and with the latest IPCC guidance; strongly encouraged to set net zero targets. Every 5 years, all UNFCC member nations are required to submit new NDCs. Due to COVID-19, the year 2020 was just a low-profile virtual meeting; and the formal COP (in which all new NDCs from all UNFCC member nations is due) will be COP26 in Glasgow.

The CAT Consortium runs the Climate Action Tracker, which grades each nation on how useful its promises actually are. Each nation’s NDC shapes to ‘current policy’ scenario in the CAT chart below. The ideal ‘optimistic’ scenarios are based on the most ambitious net zero emissions by 2050 targets being fully realized. How are current climate policies worldwide (NDCs) going to actually reduce global greenhouse gas emissions as world nations try to achieve net zero GHGs (carbon neutrality) in order to stop global warming? This chart, from Climate Action Tracker (CAT), models current climate policy outcomes, as well as optimistic net zero targets, to 2100>>>

GHG reduction policies - actual global warming chart
Current climate policies vs. optimistic net zero targets – CAT

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