It is far from the norm for climate experts to proffer what could be termed, all things considered, fairly positive news. But then 2020 hasn't exactly been a normal year.
As has been well documented, 2020 is expected to see an unprecedented peacetime drop in global greenhouse gas emissions as a result of the economic downturn driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. But similar annual cuts in emissions are needed every year this decade, and as economies recover, emissions are expected to bounce back strongly in the coming years. If it were not already obvious, deep, systemic changes to the global economy are urgently needed to drive the deep ongoing cuts in emissions required to put the world on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and avert a climate catastrophe.
Yet, following a flurry of landmark climate pledges from world leaders in recent months, there is now growing hope that the much-needed, systemic re-tooling of the global economy that embeds green infrastructure, processes and behaviors for the long-term finally could be on the cards.
Such a goal remains, as it always has been, a tall order. But it is hard not to feel a little buoyed by last week's encouraging findings from climate scientists and policy experts at the Climate Action Tracker (CAT) initiative, who have assessed the planet's potential global warming pathway should countries and world leaders deliver on the emissions reduction promises they have made to date.
Since September alone, China has pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2060, and Japan, South Korea, South Africa and Canada also have set their sights on net-zero by 2050. Add these commitments up alongside pre-existing national climate commitments around the world, such as the EU's landmark net-zero goal, and President-elect Joe Biden's promise to put the U.S. on a net-zero footing by 2050, and 63 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions are emitted in territories soon to be governed by some form of net-zero commitment.
We have been doing this work for years now, and it's usually a frustrating business to see that not much is moving. But indeed, now in the last 3 months, I have been positively surprised by what's possible.
All in all, CAT estimates that if governments and world leaders deliver on these public commitments, the world could move onto a 2.1 degree Celsius global warming trajectory, putting the Paris Agreement goal to limit average temperature rise to 2 C or "well below" 1.5 C "within reach." Even if the U.S. and other net-zero pledges where the precise legal status of the targets remains unclear are removed from the calculations, then CAT still reckons current commitments could deliver a 2.24 C temperature trajectory. It may be a depressingly long way from "mission accomplished," but it is also a far cry from the 2.7 C to 3.7 C projected warming range calculated in 2015 based on the emissions reductions goals submitted under the Paris Agreement.
For Professor Niklas Höhne of the NewClimate Institute — a CAT partner organization — the last couple of months have been a welcome surprise. After all, having contributed to CAT's analysis for many years, he is as well-used as anyone to dispiriting progress on climate action.
"For us, it's unusual to have positive news," he tells BusinessGreen. "We have been doing this work for years now, and it's usually a frustrating business to see that not much is moving. But indeed, now in the last three months, I have been positively surprised by what's possible."
China's 2060 pledge appeared to trigger a tipping point that saw Japan, South Korea, South Africa and others follow in the space of just weeks, he explains. "It's all a dynamic I did not see coming four months ago," says Höhne.
It is hugely encouraging news. Still, it is vital to note the many caveats to CAT's analysis, and the monumental political, economic, social and technological hurdles that must be scaled to deliver on the historic wave of net-zero pledges and ensure a stable climate.
But focusing solely on the size of the journey ahead risks masking how much progress has been made, and how quickly. And arguably, the pace of change underscored by CAT's analysis is most galvanizing.
"That's why I think there's a kind of domino effect or wave that is happening," Höhne explains. "And if the fast speed that we've seen in the last four months continues, then I think we will have other countries tipping over quite soon."
Indeed, it is worth noting how rapidly the outlook has changed. CAT has been analyzing the effects of policy pledges on planetary warming since 2009, the year of the dispiriting COP15 U.N. climate change summit in Copenhagen, at which no meaningful agreement to cut emissions was brokered. Back then, CAT's estimate for global average temperature rise by 2100 was 3.5 C. Fast forward to 2015 after the Paris Agreement was adopted at COP21 in France, which saw almost every nation on the planet commit to limiting global warming, and CAT's estimate had fallen significantly to 2.7 C. Now, just as governments envisaged when they included a ratchet mechanism in the Paris Agreement that required countries to submit new emissions plans every five years, the outlook has improved again.
"I think the critical mass has now been achieved," Höhne adds. "It seems to me that it is very difficult now to stay out."
The past five years hardly have been plain sailing, of course. The White House has been occupied by a climate-sceptic president for the past four years, and with COP26 postponed due to a global pandemic, climate diplomacy risked being put on the back burner. Emissions may have flatlined in the immediate wake of the Paris Agreement, fueling hopes economic growth and emissions had been decoupled, but they started climbing again towards the end of the decade.
There is still a long way to go, with 37% of global greenhouse gas emissions still to be covered by net-zero goals, and major emitters are likely to continue holding out against suitably ambitious decarbonization goals.
But now, with the escalation of net-zero commitments in the run-up to COP26, and the potential of more ambitious national decarbonization plans emerging in the next fortnight to coincide with the upcoming U.N. Climate Ambition Summit, it is suddenly possible to envisage how global decarbonization could start to gather pace over the coming years.
"I think this issue of net-zero targets is really a breakthrough," says Höhne. "That was already in the Paris Agreement in 2015 that all countries should go to net-zero, but now individual countries as large as China, the U.S. and EU are really serious about it, and that is new."
This sense of optimism is further amplified by the economic and technological trends underpinning the new wave of net zero targets. The past five years have seen renewables costs plummet, smart grid technologies advance and electric vehicles enter the mainstream, while even carbon intensive industries have started to map out credible decarbonization pathways. A growing band of industrialized nations have demonstrated that it is possible to deliver deep emissions cuts while still improving living standards, and while some of their emissions reductions have been achieved by moving manufacturing offshore clean technologies also have played a critical role. Governments have been convinced to set more ambitious emissions targets because there is now an evidence base that suggests they can be achieved.
There are good reasons to believe many more nations, regions, states and businesses will set ambitious net zero targets backed by stretching interim goals in the months leading to the crucial COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow next November. But there is still a long way to go, with 37 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions still to be covered by net-zero goals, and major emitters such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Iran are likely to continue holding out against suitably ambitious decarbonization goals for quite some time yet, given their fossil fuel-dominated economies.
And even then, while long-term climate targets are crucial in setting the ambition, pledges alone do not automatically equate to action on the ground. Near-term decarbonization targets for 2030 are likely to play a critical role in determining whether CAT's encouraging temperature projections can be realized. Yet here global commitments remain far below par, with most national climate plans for 2030 submitted under the Paris Agreement still not in line with delivering net zero by 2050. The United Kingdom was the first major economy to set a legal net-zero target nearly 18 months ago, but the government's decarbonization strategy is still not in line with the emissions trajectory required to meet the goal. Many other countries are experiencing precisely the same disconnect between their admirable long term emissions targets and inadequate short term climate policies.
As such, CAT estimates that even despite the COVID-19 drop in emissions in 2020, global greenhouse gases are actually set to keep rising until 2030, right when global emissions would need to have been cut in half in order to stand a chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 C.
The sobering reality is that the execution of promised net-zero plans faces immense challenges and little time is left for setbacks or delays. Hard to decarbonize sectors such as aviation, shipping and heavy industry face immense technical challenges if they are to curb emissions. Even in areas such as power and road transport where low carbon alternative technologies exist, clean tech providers face powerful incumbents and numerous policy barriers. As the Trump experiment demonstrated, the political consensus on climate action can be fractured quickly, undermining investment in the net-zero transition. Public opinion polling the world over shows growing concern at the climate crisis and support for clean technologies, but the disruption caused by the transition away from high carbon practices could yet spark considerable opposition.
Moreover, achieving net-zero emissions by mid-century is really only half of the story. Almost all scenarios for limiting temperature rises to 1.5 C require some sort of carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere in the second half of the century — including natural measures such as forestry and soil sequestration, as well as carbon capture technologies — in order to essentially go beyond net-zero to "net negative" after 2050. "Going to net-zero is probably not enough, because we are simply too late," Höhne concedes. "We need to go to net-zero and afterwards to net negative, so removing CO2 emissions from the atmosphere."
Many national and corporate net-zero targets rely at least in part on negative emissions projects and technologies, the bulk of which have not been tested at scale or could turn out to be unviable. For example, thousands of businesses have pledged to become carbon neutral by securing various carbon offsets, but experts fear there is simply not sufficient land to plant trees for all of them. Some climate scientists, including University of Manchester professor Kevin Anderson, therefore have estimated that if negative emissions assumptions are removed from the equation, the global warming trajectory could be closer to between 2.5 C and 3 C by the end of the year — far higher than CAT's analysis and a level that likely would result in catastrophic economic and social consequences in the second half of the century.
There are uncertainties, but uncertainty should not be taken as an excuse not to do anything and assume it's impossible. ... Let's focus on what we know. We know how to reduce emissions to 0 in almost all sectors.
But CAT's analysis assumes that once countries reach their net-zero targets, they do not make additional efforts to move to significant net negative emissions. If they do, it estimates net negative emissions could double the reduction in the temperature trajectory. So, if the global impact of U.S. achieving net zero emissions by 2050 is to knock 0.1 C of the global warming trajectory, the emergence thereafter of a net negative emission economy could see the country knock 0.2 C from the global warming trajectory by 2100. Meanwhile, engineers and investors are stepping up their pursuit of effective negative emission technologies that could remove carbon dioxide direct from the atmosphere and make such negative emission scenarios a reality.
And there are signs that the projected warming trajectory could be lower still. So far, only Norway and Chile have come forward with more ambitious climate plans — or nationally determined contributions (NDCs) in the U.N. jargon — since the Paris Agreement was adopted five years ago, but if all other signatures follow suit over the next 12 months, the planet's warming trajectory would drop further, according to CAT's analysis. The success of COP26 next year in Glasgow therefore largely will be determined by how many countries raise their ambitions in support of the Paris Agreement. Just last week, Financial Times reported U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is considering strengthening the U.K.'s 2030 emissions target as part of a new NDC for the Summit host.
"Currently, all short-term targets fall short of what's necessary and are not in line with the long-term ambition to go to net-zero, and that applies to basically all countries," acknowledges Höhne. "So the next 10 years are absolutely crucial to even put them on a path towards net-zero. If we don't get it right in the next 10 years, then we cannot meet those ambitious goals."
It remains the starkest of warnings, but for all Höhne's disappointment with progress over his years analyzing climate policy, he is bullish about humanity's potential to overcome the many hurdles it faces. "There are uncertainties, but uncertainty should not be taken as an excuse not to do anything and assume it's impossible," he argues. "So let's focus on what we know. We know how to reduce emissions to zero in almost all sectors. We have the technologies today, and only a few where we don't."
In the midst of a pandemic that has caused untold misery and immense disruption, it is suddenly possible to envisage a scenario where next year's COP26 Summit results in credible targets and strategies that would deliver on the goals of the Paris Agreement, limit global temperature increases to below 2 C, and avert the worst climate impacts. It is at this point that many observers would rightly warn against even the slightest hint of complacency setting in, given the hugely damaging impacts that would result from 2 C of warming and unprecedented scale of the decarbonization challenge ahead. But given the catastrophic warming trajectory envisaged just five years ago, it would also would represent truly remarkable progress.