Net zero artist impression
Net zero artist impression
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Climate Change

Explainer

Interactive: Which countries are leading the way on net zero?

While much of the world has set a date of 2050 to reach net zero emissions, some countries have gone further than others.

Published Thursday 11 November 2021
Source: SBS News

As the climate crisis accelerates, countries across the world are promising to limit their carbon emissions to net zero in the next few decades. 

Two countries have already reached net zero, some have vowed to meet the target earlier than 2050, and some haven’t formally announced anything yet.

A few countries have enshrined their pledge in law, while a handful more are in the process of joining them.

Check out the graphic below to see what each country has promised. 

What does net zero mean?

Simply put, it means the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere is the same or less than what’s being removed. And it matters because reaching net zero is considered critical in limiting global warming to 1.5C  as set out under the Paris Agreement.

But while getting to net zero by 2050 is important, the “main game” is emissions reductions by 2030, says Mark Howden, director of the Australian National University’s Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions. 

“Net zero by 2050 or a similar date is important, but even more important is rapid action now to reduce our emissions, so we start on a trajectory that lowers greenhouse gas emissions, not waiting for several years before we do that.” 

“Every year that we wait for greenhouse gas emission reduction really matters in terms of keeping temperatures down. 

“It is possible to reach net zero by 2050 but to not achieve the Paris Agreement goals - if we kept on emitting at high levels and then went cold turkey just before 2050 we could still go net zero, but we'd completely blow the Paris Agreement.”

Where does Australia stand?

The Morrison government formally committed Australia to a net zero by 2050 target days ahead of the COP26 climate summit. The long-awaited modelling underpinning how it will get there will be released before parliament resumes on 22 November, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said. 

The government has also pledged to reduce emissions by 26 to 28 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030 and says it's on target to surpass that.

But the net zero pledge came well after those made by many of its allies and global partners and has not been enshrined in legislation.

“Australia was indeed late to the party in terms of signing up to net zero, but it is welcome,” Professor Howden says.

“Australia, in essence, had already signed up to net zero as part of the Paris Agreement, we just hadn't put a specific date on it. And this decision by the federal government does put a date on it, which is a step forward.

“But I think it's really important to note that many other countries had already made that commitment.”

Announcing the net zero target last month, Mr Morrison said: "Australians will set our own path by 2050 and we'll set it here by Australians for Australians". He said the government would get "the balance right" between protecting jobs and industries in the transition to a decarbonised economy.

Which countries are leading the way?

The small country of Suriname in South America and Bhutan in southern Asia are the only countries that have achieved net zero so far. Professor Howden says net zero is easier to achieve in smaller, developing countries.

“Net zero is much harder for countries where a really significant part of the economy is in hard to abate sectors, such as steel, agriculture, gas extraction and similar things … and so that's where net zero is going to be harder for countries.” 

“Whereas for countries which are smaller in geographical scale, where there’s already move away from coal or gas as a key power sources, it's going to be much easier to achieve.”

Finland has pledged to reach the target by 2035, and both Austria and Iceland by 2040.

Meanwhile, Germany and Sweden have enshrined their pledges to reach net zero by 2045 in law, which Professor Howden says provides “a buffer against backsliding when you get a change in government”.

“That could be very important in some jurisdictions.” 

Key Australian allies such as Britain, the United States, Japan and Canada have all pledged to reach net zero by 2050.

“Among the developed countries, the key vows are from the UK, a whole range of European countries which have very ambitious emission reduction targets, but also now the US, with its 50 to 52 per cent reduction by 2030,” Professor Howden says.

Which countries are lagging behind?

China, India, Saudi Arabia and Russia are all heavy emitters and none have promised to reach net zero by 2050.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told COP26 the country had committed to a 2070 target. China, Saudi Arabia and Russia have set a 2060 target.

China has also announced a new pact with the US, vowing to work together to accelerate climate action this decade.

“There's a range of countries which have taken a very ambitious approach to this and there are some countries who are taking a more staged approach, and the likes of India and China are key among them,” Professor Howden says.

“They are huge emitters with very large growth potential in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Interactive by Ken Macleod. Lead artwork by Jono Delbridge. Additional reporting by Evan Young.