A picture of a cartoon family standing on a hill looking at hydro, solar, and wind turbine power plants.

What does net zero mean to you? It means a lot to me, and, having successfully completed my first net-zero home renovation, I know that we have the tech within our reach.

But what about the way companies and countries operate? Most of the world is still dependent on fossil fuels, even if they have committed to making changes that will (hopefully) save the world from the impending horrors of global warming.

More than five years ago, most countries in the world adopted the Paris Agreement, that all countries need to achieve climate neutrality by the mid-21st century. This is the first binding agreement by nations with a common cause, and it is an ambitious global effort to combat climate change.

It became effective on 4 November 2016, just under a year after it was adopted. The concept has grown immensely in just a few years. But there is no argument that the road to net-zero is going to be a very long one. Also, it is pitted with enormous problems, many of which seem insurmountable.

So, we have to ask, Is net zero even possible?

What is Net Zero

Net-zero is the goal agreed to in the Paris Agreement that aims to stop global warming. 

It means counterbalancing all the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere by removing them in a process we call carbon removal rather than stopping emissions 100%. Everybody knows that is impossible.

a pair of hands holding dirt, with a diagram circle around the dirt in the middle showing different sustainability-related images.

So, emissions will continue, but global action will create a balance by absorbing an equivalent amount of emissions from the atmosphere.

The bottom line is that we need to keep global temperatures to 1.5℃ above levels experienced in the pre-industrial era.

Is this also impossible?

What the United Nations Says

The United Nations believes it is possible and states that the global commitment to net-zero emissions is growing. So far, more than 130 countries have set a target of reducing emissions to net-zero by 2050. Two countries, Suriname and Bhutan, are already carbon negative, which means that they remove more carbon than they emit into the atmosphere.

But at the same time, the targets to reduce global warming and harmful greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 are currently well below expectations. As a result, the UN is calling for urgent, credible action to reduce emissions by 45% in keeping with the 2030 targets.

United Nations Climate Action website

The Worst Offenders Globally

One of the issues that cannot be ignored is that most greenhouse gas emissions (46%) come from very few countries, specifically China, the U.S., and the European Union (EU), in that order. Add India, the Russian Federation, Japan, Brazil, Indonesia, Iran, and Canada, and this figure increases to 68%.

We did a deep dive to see how far these 10 countries are in achieving net zero.

While the EU has already introduced legal requirements for net zero by 2050, the U.S. and China only have in-policy draft documents, the U.S. for 2050 and China for 2060, a decade beyond the Paris Agreement deadline.

The U.S., of course, left the net-zero process during the presidency of Donald Trump but is back on board. In April 2021, President Joe Biden announced new targets aiming to achieve a 50-52% reduction in greenhouse gas pollution from 2005 levels by 2030

Japan and Canada have net zero in law for 2050, while Brazil and Indonesia have not yet proposed legislation and have in-policy documents – Brazil for 2050 and Indonesia for 2060.

India is still debating the issue of how to meet the deadline but unofficial reports say the country is considering a 2047 target. The Russian Federation is scaling up its attempts to meet the deadline, and has a plan for the country’s largest island, Sakhalin, to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2025.

A picture of a farm crop field with power plants spewing smoke and emissions behind it.
industry complex in Frankfurt in early morning with green fields and smoking chimney

Iran is one of a handful of countries that signed the Paris Agreement but still hasn’t ratified it. So, it isn’t currently a party to the Agreement. It has, though, pledged a 4% cut in emissions by 2030, but says it’s going to need help from the international community. It clearly has no intention (or ability) of aiming for net zero.

At the other end of the scale, the 100 countries at the bottom of the list of emitters contribute just 3% to the total. 

Other issues relate to how individual countries define their net-zero targets. While some targets cover all greenhouse gases, others only relate to carbon dioxide. Some targets aim to compensate for emissions with offsets rather than reduce them.

But whatever they do, it’s getting to desperate stakes, as the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns.

UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Warning

The IPCC warns that if immediate action isn’t taken, it will be too late.

Described as a reality check, an IPCC report released on 9 August 2021, shows that climate change is:

“Widespread, Rapid, and Intensifying.

– IPCC Report 2021
A screenshot of the IPCC homepage with a pink background.
Courtesy of the IPCC website.

It projects that in the next few decades, climate change will increase in all regions globally. An increase of 1.5℃ in global warming will lead to increased heat waves, shorter cold seasons, and longer warm seasons. A 2℃ increase will lead to greater heat extremes and will reach critical tolerance thresholds for human health and agriculture, adversely affecting ecosystems and society.

And it’s not just about temperature. The report explains how climate change intensifies climate and weather events including extreme heat waves, record-breaking rainfall, and brutal flooding seen in parts of the U.S. right now. 

It also shows that human actions still have the potential to determine the future course of global climate. There must be strong, sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from human activities.

“We can act on climate change but time is running out.” IPCC

What the International Energy Agency Says

An International Energy Agency (IEA) flagship report released in May 2021 echoes the UN calls for urgent, increased action. Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector states that even if the pledges made by global governments so far are fully achieved, we will be nowhere near what we need to bring energy-related CO2 to net zero by 2050.

Nevertheless, the IEA believes that the world has access to a viable pathway to net-zero emissions. But the path is narrow and it’s going to need an unprecedented transformation of the way energy is produced, transported, and used.

A screenshot of the IEA homepage that shows a sky blue picture with clouds, and the words Net Zero by 2050 over it.
Courtesy of the International Energy Agency website. Click here to see this wonderful report they did.

So, for starters, we need to stop using fossil fuels like coal, gas, and oil. We need to stop selling new internal combustion engine vehicles by 2035, and we need to phase out unabated oil and coal power plants by 2040. And that’s just the beginning.

To make net zero possible, we need massive deployment of all the available clean and efficient energy technologies right now. This, the report says, must be combined with a huge global push that will accelerate innovation. If ever there was time to think big it is now. The report calls for hugely increased annual additions of solar PV and wind power by 2030:

  • solar PV should reach 630 gigawatts
  • wind power should reach 390 gigawatts

The roadmap relies on readily available technologies to reach the 2030 targets. But about 50% of those required to hit the long-term 2050 goals are currently in prototype or even demo phases. This means that governments and companies will have to reprioritize and increase spending on research and development to meet these needs.

Areas mentioned that have particular potential to make an impact include advanced batteries, electrolyzers for hydrogen, and methods of direct air capture and storage. The report also examines areas of uncertainty including carbon capture, the role of bioenergy, and vital behavioral changes we are going to need if we are going to reach net zero.

“A transition of such scale and speed cannot be achieved without sustained support and participation from citizens, whose lives will be affected in multiple ways.” IEA special report, Net Zero by 2050

What Are Parties to the Paris Agreement Doing to Try and Reach Net Zero?

The Paris Agreement requires all parties to the Agreement to submit their national action plans to reduce greenhouse gases, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), every five years.

A total of 192 parties of the 197 that attended the Convention have submitted their first NDC, including Eritrea, which isn’t yet a party to the Paris Agreement. But according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), only 11 of these countries have submitted an updated NDC, which should have been done by February 2020.

At least two of these, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, are highly dependent economically on fossil fuels.

They are, in alphabetical order:

  1. Argentina, which has an in-policy document for 2050
  2. Bhutan, which has already achieved net zero
  3. Grenada, which has an in-policy document for 2050
  4. The Marshall Islands, which has an in-policy document for 2050
  5. Nepal, which has an in-policy document for 2050
  6. Oman, which has pledged to cut its emissions 7%
  7. Papua New Guinea, still discussing how and when to reach net zero
  8. Samoa, which is still discussing how and when to reach net zero
  9. Suriname, which has already achieved net zero
  10. Tonga, which is still discussing how and when to reach net zero
  11. The United Arab Emirates, which has a long-term plan for half of its power capacity to be free of emissions by 2050, but which is reported to be considering a 2050 net zero target

The pressure is now on the rest of them to submit their second NDCs before the next UN global climate conference scheduled for November 2021.

You can access each country’s most recent NDC from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change UNFCCC NDC Registry.

A screenshot of the NDC country search homepage. Shows a search box with a picture of wind turbines in a field behind it.
Courtesy of the NDC Registry country search homepage.

But trying to analyze what they all mean is virtually impossible. Definitions in these documents are loose and plans are difficult to compare. Some targets cover all greenhouse gases while others focus only on CO2. Goals for some countries don’t aim to reduce emissions but rather to compensate for them with offsets.

Another problem is that emerging economies don’t have the financial strength to fight climate change. The Paris Agreement includes a pledge by rich countries to provide poorer countries with US$100 billion a year to help them tackle climate change. This should have been done by 2020. But the UN reports that rich countries aren’t meeting their commitments.

The challenges are real. But there is hope as more than 160 companies with US$70 trillion in assets have made a new 2021 pledge to accelerate the global transition to net zero emissions by no later than 2050. And at least 115 businesses, including multinational corporations, have pledged to drastically reduce carbon emissions and reach net zero by 2040.

“The climate emergency is a race we are losing, but it is a race that we can win.” UN Secretary-General António Guterres

Keeping Track of Net Zero Commitments

To know whether it’s possible to win the climate emergency race it’s essential to keep track of the net-zero commitments made by various countries.

The Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), which is based in the UK, has developed a user-friendly Net Zero Tracker that shows where countries that are parties to the Agreement are in the emissions race. However, only a total of 134 countries is shown on the current tracker (30 August 2021).

A screenshot of the Net Zero Tracker page showing the top countries in a bar graph that are already at or on their way to net zero by a certain year.
Courtesy of the Net Zero Tracker homepage.

Countries That Have Achieved Net Zero

Only two countries have already achieved net zero:

  • Bhutan
  • Suriname

Countries That Already Have Net Zero in Law

A total of 12 countries have incorporated net-zero goals in law. Two have 2045 as their deadline:

  • Germany
  • Sweden

The other 10 have named the ultimate 2050 deadline:

  • Canada
  • Denmark
  • European Union
  • France
  • Hungary
  • Japan
  • Luxembourg
  • New Zealand
  • Spain
  • United Kingdom

Countries That Have Proposed Legislation for 2050

  • South Korea
  • Ireland
  • Chile
  • Fiji

Countries That Have In-Policy Documents

A total of 37 countries are listed as having in-policy documents, one for 2035, two for 2040, 30 for 2050, and four for 2060:

  • Finland (2035)
  • Austria (2040)
  • Iceland (2040)
  • Andorra (2050)
  • Argentina (2050)
  • Barbados (2050)
  • Brazil (2050)
  • Cabo Verde (2050)
  • Columbia (2050)
  • Costa Rica (2050)
  • Dominican Republic (2050)
  • Grenada (2050)
  • Italy (2050)
  • Jamaica (2050)
  • Latvia (2050)
  • Laos (2050)
  • Malawi (2050)
  • Maldives (2050)
  • Marshall Islands (2050)
  • Mauritius (2050)
  • Monaco (2050)
  • Nauru (2050)
  • Nepal (2050)
  • Norway (2050)
  • Panama (2050)
  • Portugal (2050)
  • Slovakia (2050)
  • Slovenia (2050)
  • South Africa (2050)
  • Switzerland (2050)
  • Uruguay (2050)
  • U.S. (2050)
  • Vatican City (2050)
  • China (2060)
  • Indonesia (2060)
  • Kazakhstan (2060)
  • Ukraine (2060)

Countries That Are Still Discussing Targets

A total of 79 countries that show up on the tracker all have targets that are still under discussion:

  • Afghanistan (before the takeover by the Taliban in August 2021)
  • Angola
  • Antigua and Barbuda
  • Armenia
  • Bahamas
  • Bangladesh
  • Belgium
  • Belize
  • Benin
  • Bulgaria
  • Burkina Faso
  • Burundi
  • Cambodia
  • Central African Republic
  • Chad
  • Comoros
  • Cook Islands
  • Croatia
  • Cyprus
  • Czechia
  • Democratic Republic of Congo
  • Djibouti
  • Dominica
  • Ecuador
  • Eritrea (not a party to the Paris Agreement)
  • Estonia
  • Ethiopia
  • Gambia
  • Greece
  • Guinea
  • Guinea-Bissau
  • Guyana
  • Haiti
  • Kiribati
  • Lebanon
  • Lesotho
  • Liberia
  • Lithuania
  • Madagascar
  • Mali
  • Malta
  • Mauritania
  • Mexico
  • Micronesia
  • Mozambique
  • Myanmar
  • Namibia
  • Nicaragua
  • Niger
  • Niue
  • Pakistan
  • Palau
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Peru
  • Romania
  • Rwanda
  • Saint Kitts and Nevis
  • Saint Lucia
  • Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
  • Samoa
  • Sao Tome and Principe
  • Senegal
  • Seychelles
  • Sierra Leone
  • Solomon Islands
  • Somalia
  • South Sudan
  • Sudan
  • Tanzania
  • The Netherlands
  • Timor-Leste
  • Togo
  • Tonga
  • Trinidad and Tobago
  • Tuvalu
  • Uganda
  • Vanuatu
  • Yemen
  • Zambia

Some additional highlights since the Paris Agreement, with targets we can look forward to, include:

  • 2017: Sweden is the first nation to makes a net-zero target (2045) law
  • 2019: The UK is the first G7 economy to legislate for net zero by 2050
  • 2020: The world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, China, commits to carbon neutrality by 2060

By 2021 net zero pledges cover 68% of the global economy. But the ECIU, like the UN and IEA, points out that it is essential to turn pledges into plans so that the race to zero emissions becomes “a race of integrity” and not just intention.

Another Deadline: UN Climate Change Conference COP 26

Originally scheduled for November 2020, the 26th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC is now due to take place from 1-12 November 2021 in Glasgow, UK. Delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this has given the parties time to breathe in terms of NDC second submissions, but it doesn’t help the race to net zero.

All parties are expected to submit their updated NDC pledges that should set tougher targets for emission reduction by 2030.

a picture of the sun setting in the background with a field of solar panels and wind turbines in the foreground.

The first week of COP 26 will entail technical negotiations by government officials. The second will most involve high-level ministerial and heads of state meetings. The US$100 billion target for rich-country contributions is likely to be on the agenda.

Corporations and Companies Set Net Zero Targets

With time running out, and COP 26 looming, new alliances and pledges have been established. They include an industry-led, UN-convened Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero and The Climate Pledge, which is a public commitment for companies to achieve net zero by 2040.

With pathways that align with the guts of the Paris Agreement, these new commitments hold hope that net zero will be possible.

Net Zero Financial Alliance

Chaired by the UN special envoy of Climate Action and Finance, Mark Carney, the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) was launched in April 2021. It is described by Carney as “the gold standard for net-zero commitments in the financial sector.”

GFANZ  brings together several other industry-led alliances including the relatively new Net Zero Banking Alliance (NZBA), the Net Zero Asset Managers Initiative, and the Net Zero asset Owner Alliance in one forum.

The Alliance includes the largest financial players in the world: more than 160 financial institutions, which, in turn, represent asset managers, banks, and asset owners responsible for more than US$70 trillion.

Ahead of COP 26, and thinking way ahead, it is working to raise the bar by mobilizing the trillions of dollars needed to build a global net-zero emissions economy and deliver the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Additionally, all GFANZ members will be setting action plans as well as interim and long-term goals to support the transition to net zero by 2050 at the latest. These have to use science-based guidelines and there have to be 2030 interim targets. Transparent reporting and accounting in line with the official UN race to net-zero criteria is also mandatory.

“GFANZ will act as the strategic forum to ensure the financial system works together to broaden, deepen, and accelerate the transition to a net-zero economy.” Mark Carney

The Climate Pledge

Originally launched by Amazon and the environmental group Global Optimism in 2019, The Climate Pledge aims to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement in 2040, a decade before the deadline. It also aims to meet them in line with the latest climate science. 

So, they started with a premise that it won’t be possible unless we change the way we do business, and they set five basic goals:

  1. Use wind or solar, or both
  2. Plant more trees instead of cutting them down
  3. Do more sustainable farming
  4. Speed up to all-electric vehicles
  5. Protect the water on earth
a picture of a solar home with a wind turbine in the background, and an electric car plugged in sitting in the driveway.

On The Climate Pledge website, they link these five goals with companies that have committed to the pledge:

  1. Amazon claims to be the world’s largest corporate buyer of renewable energy
  2. Verizon has plans to plant 20 million trees by the end of 2030
  3. UK food producer Cranswick has a climate-ready action plan
  4. Amazon ordered 100,000 electric delivery vehicles from Rivian
  5. Unilever launched a dedicated US$1 billion Climate & Nature Fund

The idea is that all the businesses that take the climate pledge will do something similar. They must, in any case, measure and report greenhouse gas emissions regularly, implement decarbonization strategies in line with the Paris Agreement, and neutralize any remaining emissions.

So far there are 115 signatories, starting with founder Amazon on 18 September 2019, and the list keeps growing. They are, as of 31 August 2021, as listed on The Climate Pledge website, in order of joining:

2019:

  • Amazon – retailers

2020:

  • Reckitt – household and personal products
  • Infosys – commercial services
  • Verizon – telecommunications
  • Oak View Group – construction
  • Seattle Kraken
  • Climate Pledge Arena – tourism and leisure
  • Mercedes-Benz – automotive
  • Real Betis
  • Siemens – commercial services
  • Schneider Electric – commercial services
  • Best Buy – retailers
  • McKinstry – construction
  • Signify – equipment
  • Henkel – household and personal products
  • Rivian – automotive
  • Uber – logistics
  • JetBlue Airways – aviation
  • Cabify – logistics
  • Boom Supersonic – aviation
  • Canary Wharf Group – real estate
  • ITV – media
  • Atos – commercial services
  • Rubicon – commercial services
  • Harbour Air Group – aviation
  • VAUDE – textiles and apparel
  • Neste – energy
  • Coca-Cola European Partners – food and beverage products
  • ERM – commercial services
  • Brooks Running – textiles and apparel
  • Groupe SEB France – household and personal products
  • Unilever – household and personal products
  • Microsoft – technology hardware

2021:

  • Green Britain Group – energy
  • IBM – commercial services
  • Daabon Group – agriculture
  • Hotelbeds – tourism and leisure
  • ACCIONA – energy
  • Vanderlande – construction
  • UPM – forest and paper products
  • Prosegur Cash – commercial services
  • Prosegur Compania de Seguridad – commercial services
  • Iceland Foods – retailers
  • FREE NOW – logistics
  • Cranswick PLC – food and beverage products
  • S4Capital – media
  • Johnson Controls – equipment
  • Generation Investment Management – financial services
  • Orsted – energy
  • Miir – household and personal services
  • Slalom – commercial services
  • Interface – construction
  • Colis Prive – logistics
  • BNBuilders – construction
  • Fila Solutions
  • SecuriGroup Limited
  • Royal Philips – household and personal products
  • Sainsbury’s – food and beverage products
  • Protector Cellars – food and beverage products
  • Posti – logistics
  • Russell Group – logistics
  • Sonnedix
  • Springer Nature Group
  • Storegga Geotechnologies – energy
  • STV Group – media
  • Portland General Electric – energy
  • Pollination – financial services
  • PepsiCo – food and beverage products
  • Optimus Rise
  • Natural Capital Partners
  • Morgan Sindall Group – construction
  • Rail Delivery Group – transport and logistics
  • The Sustainable City
  • Quorn Foods – food and beverage products
  • Telefonica – telecommunications
  • Pregis
  • Lime
  • Teleperformance
  • Lil Packaging Limited – logistics
  • LeasePlan Corporation – automotive
  • LifeStraw (Vestergaard Frandsen Inc) – household and personal products
  • Karma Automotive LLC – automotive
  • Inn At Laurel Point – tourism and leisure
  • EV Private Equity
  • IMI – construction
  • Elisa Corporation – telecommunications
  • IGS Energy – energy
  • Edmonton International Airport – aviation
  • HH Global
  • Direct Healthcare Solutions – healthcare
  • Heineken – household and personal products
  • Delphis Eco – household and personal products
  • Greencore Group – food and beverage products
  • Convoy – logistics
  • Graebel
  • Urenco
  • UST – commercial services
  • Colgate-Palmolive – household and personal products
  • Blackland – transport and logistics
  • Bellrock Group – real estate
  • Atlantia
  • Alaska Airlines – aviation
  • Aimee – logistics
  • AECOM
  • JLL – real estate – commercial services
  • Iron Mountain
  • Spin
  • Interpublic Group – media
  • WFN Strategies – telecommunications
  • Klarna – financial services
  • RELX – media
  • Flock Freight – logistics
  • Macquarie Asset Management – financial services

All these companies have committed to meeting the net-zero deadline by 2040. They are expected to report their progress publicly so that they can be held accountable for their commitments.

So Where to From Here?

We know that everyone is talking about net zero, but the problem is ensuring they understand what it is and what its implications are. Countries, companies, and corporations worldwide have pledged to do everything possible to meet the net-zero deadline set by the Paris Agreement in 2015.

It’s up to you and me to make sure that it happens.

Governments signed the Paris Agreement. Banks and big businesses have aligned themselves with the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero. Companies and corporations have committed to The Climate Pledge. We can stay in touch with the latest news and check on their net-zero progress. We can use our social media channels to spread the news.

We can also do our bit, however small it may be, to reach the global goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. Let’s do what we can together.

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