The world can collectively meet the Paris Agreement climate goals and slow down global warming if countries all achieve their net zero emission targets. 

What is Happening? 

Existing policies are not enough to reach net zero emissions. A recent study published in Nature Climate Change in September shows that if policies are adopted to realise net zero targets, reducing climate warming to 2°C by 2100 is possible.

Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane act like the glass panes of a greenhouse, trapping heat from the sun and keeping our planet warm. However, the burning of fossil fuels unloads large quantities of greenhouse gases that have caused excess warming of the Earth. 

Other activities, like deforestation, have suppressed the uptake of these gases. Compared to pre-industrial temperatures, human activities have led to about 1°C of global warming, and at the current rate, the average surface warming of the planet is projected to reach about 3°C by 2100. 

The Paris Agreement is an international treaty where 191 parties have pledged to limit climate warming to 2°C while pursuing a stretch-goal of 1.5°C. The main requirement of the Paris Accords is a global net zero target: for humans to balance emissions with removals by ecosystems like forests and wetlands. 

From the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015, a ripple of announcements (in approximate chronological order) from the United Kingdom, the European Union, China, South Africa, Japan, South Korea, the United States, and others have culminated to a total of 131 countries announcing to go net zero.

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This study, with Niklas Höhne and Matthew Gidden as lead authors, analysed data from the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the Climate Action Tracker (CAT). These data were used to estimate the level of future emissions from “current policies”, “current pledges”, and “net-zero” scenarios, and calculate the level of warming at these scenarios. 

Modelling with either UNEP and CAT data yielded similar results: Net zero targets can reduce temperature by about 0.8-0.9°C, and following through with them will allow meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement.

The authors, however, noted a caveat. Countries should aim to reach net zero not by “extraterritorial removals or offsets of low quality” — such as carbon capture technology, which recently saw the opening of the world’s largest plant in Iceland –  but by minimising their own emissions. It is clear from this study that institutional and systemic action, including net zero targets, are key to decreasing climate change.

Unfortunately, according to a separate report by CAT, none of the world’s leading economies, including every single G20 country, are on track to achieve their net zero emissions pledges. Nations like the UK, which will soon play host to the UN climate change conference COP26 in Glasgow next month, have pledged targets that are in line with the accords, but its policies in practice were found to be lacking. Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia, on the other hand,  have made “critically insufficient” pledges and plans to decarbonise, hindering global progress to mitigate the climate crisis.