Countries have to speed up their efforts to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions in order to avoid severe effects of climate change, according to the United Nations.
Right now, around 115 countries accounting for roughly 50% of global emissions have pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2050. China, the biggest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, has committed to reaching this point by 2060.
The UN is calling on all countries to make similar net zero commitments to achieve the goals of the Paris climate agreement, which aims to keep temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees or 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
But while pledges like these are key for generating global climate action momentum, they need to be backed by concrete plans and clear financing mechanisms, according to the UN.
In other words, countries must lay out exactly how net zero goals will be executed and then fully fund these plans, an undertaking that will require global cooperation. Wealthy countries will have to invest in adaptation and mitigation efforts in developing countries that have historically contributed the least to climate change, but stand to face the harshest consequences from it, through the UN’s Green Climate Fund that calls for $100 billion in annual funding.
“No such bold commitments have yet been made to mobilize the finance necessary to achieve the net zero commitment by 2050 nor, more broadly, the SDGs,” António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, recently said in a speech calling on countries to increase climate commitments.
In the midst of a global pandemic, worsening climate disasters, dwindling natural resources, and growing protest movements calling for climate action, Guterres said that countries have a unique opportunity to chart a new, bolder path forward.
Countries can outline this path through their updated nationally determined contributions (NDCs) that are due as part of the Paris climate agreement.
Achieving net zero emissions is not just about avoiding doomsday scenarios of extreme storms and droughts, higher temperatures and rising sea levels.
It’s mostly about achieving a more just, equitable, and joyous world.
Getting to Net Zero
“Net zero emissions” doesn’t mean that emissions from human activities will be fully eliminated. Instead, it means that human-related emissions — from vehicles, agriculture, energy production, and so on — will be reduced to a level so low that they can be offset by efforts to absorb and otherwise remove emissions from the atmosphere. In this way, the grand total of emissions in the air would not increase.
And that’s critical because countries are rapidly running out of the remaining global carbon budget — the amount of carbon dioxide that can still be released if countries want to achieve the Paris climate agreement. As of 2018, countries had a 50% chance of staying under the 1.5 degrees Celsius level if they collectively emitted less than 580 gigatons of carbon dioxide going forward.
Since countries annually release around 40 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and were expected to reach 50 gigatons annually by 2030, they were on track to all but lock in temperature increases beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius.
But then COVID-19 arrived and disrupted economies around the world, leading to an unexpected decline in emissions. While scientists believe that emissions will rebound after the pandemic, many countries have vowed to recover economically by investing in climate action initiatives such as green infrastructure, clean energy production, and sustainable agriculture.
As a result, the next decade could feature ongoing emissions reductions that could put the world back on track to achieving the Paris climate agreement.
In fact, the UN argues that countries can only stay within the safe zone of temperature increases if emissions decline by 7.6% annually by 2030 and then zero out by 2050.
This can only happen if countries truly seize the moment to reimagine and restructure their economies and, more broadly, their societies.
What Net Zero Looks Like
A net zero world involves every aspect of human society.
Most immediately, it means that countries will generate their electricity from clean energy sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal. The International Energy Agency reports that 90% of new electricity generation added in 2020 came from clean energy sources and that the next decade will feature explosive renewable energy growth.
Countries also have to make their buildings and homes energy efficient. All the technology exists to make this happen — from smart heating and cooling systems to solar paneled roofs to improved insulation — but countries have to mobilize the resources.
Transportation systems have to be transformed in multiple ways. First, gasoline-powered cars have to be phased out and replaced with electric vehicles. Second, countries have to modernize their public transportation systems to ensure that citizens have reliable alternatives to cars that are less environmentally intensive.
Agriculture is another major source of emissions that has to be addressed. Countries can do this by investing in smallholder rather than industrial farmers, advocating for regenerative agriculture that restores soil, promoting plant-based diets that have less of an impact on the environment, and producing more food on less agricultural land.
Agriculture is one of the leading causes of deforestation and environmental degradation. Getting to net zero emissions requires countries to expand forested areas, swamplands, peat bogs, and other natural ecosystems that absorb emissions from the atmosphere, the UN says.
Transforming society in these ways has benefits far beyond avoiding catastrophic temperature increases.
By phasing out coal, oil, and natural gas, air, water, and food pollution will decrease worldwide, improving the quality of life of billions of people. Transforming agricultural systems to focus on sustainability means that people will have greater access to healthy foods and more food sovereignty. Making homes more efficient means that energy bills will be lower for consumers. On a global scale, these projects will generate millions of good-paying jobs, while also promoting the tenets of climate justice, a philosophy that strives to ensure equitable and just livelihoods for all.
A world of climate justice would mean that everyone has access to clean water, air, and food, safe and dignified shelter, meaningful work, and the ability to cultivate community — all core aspects of the UN’s Global Goals.