The Benchmarks Countries Must Hit to Reach Net-Zero Emissions

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Five years after French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius gaveled the landmark Paris climate accord into force, the year 2050 looms large. That’s the deadline many countries have set to zero out the greenhouse gases they’re adding to the atmosphere.

50,​820 Million metric tons of greenhouse emissions, most recent annual data

$69.​9B Renewable power investment worldwide in Q2 2020

Bishkek, KyrgyzstanMost polluted air today, in sensor range -5.​64% Today’s arctic ice area vs. historic average 0 1 0 9 8 7 0 4 3 2 1 0 Soccer pitches of forest lost this hour, most recent data 44% Carbon-free net power in the U.S., most recent data

More than 100 countries have pledged to get to net-zero emissions in the next 30 years, according to the U.K.-based nonprofit Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit. China, the world’s biggest polluter, has a 2060 goal. The stakes are high. Failure could result in the Earth warming so much that it effectively becomes unlivable for dozens of species of plants, animals, and millions of human beings.

Officially, members of the net-zero club are working hard to make good on their Paris commitments. Two of them—Bhutan, the most forested country on Earth, and Suriname—are already carbon neutral. For bigger economies, the transition will be more complicated, encompassing deep reforms fraught with political tensions. 

The global public needs simple benchmarks to gauge progress over the next five or 10 years, without waiting to check final results at mid-century.

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As world leaders prepare for the next major round of climate talks this year, it’s time to take stock of how they’re doing on their promises. The signatories of the Paris Agreement are required to update their 2015 commitments and issue more ambitious pledges.

A sense of urgency is building among citizens, companies and politicians—and rightly so. Record heat, biodiversity loss, extreme weather and ice melting matching scientists’ worst-case scenarios all point to the same conclusion: humanity is losing the fight against global warming. 

Vague promises into the distant future won’t do. Only seven countries and the European Union have submitted stronger targets to cut emissions, according to Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific initiative. But the EU’s plan to cut emissions 60% by 2030 is still not compatible with the Paris Agreement. China, Brazil, Japan and Russia’s new goals for 2030 are all rated “Highly Insufficient.”

Scientific models show that human emissions need to fall between 25% and 50% through 2030 to limit warming to levels outlined in the Paris accord—below 2º Celsius above pre-industrial levels, or preferably 1.5°C. Carbon emissions fell a record 7% last year as coronavirus lockdowns halted entire industries and cities.

Experts fear a rebound in economic activity after the crisis will lead to a spike in emissions. It doesn’t have to. One third of the world’s carbon emissions could be brought to zero with technology that exists today, according to Michael Lamach, chief executive officer at Trane Technologies. 

Shorter-term measures are an important way to judge if world leaders are delivering on their net-zero pledges. “Making the promises of what we will do by 2050 is not good enough,” said Inger Andersen, executive director at the United Nations Development Program. “We need to see the UN’s conventions translated into real action plans into what we do in 2021, 2022 and 2023, up until 2050.” 

Laura Millan writes the Climate Report newsletter about the impact of global warming.

— With assistance by Jess Shankleman

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