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The Race To Zero Emissions, And Why The World Depends On It

Maxime Pontoire | A person carrying a red sun brolly walks through a solar panel farm in France.

A host of countries have recently announced major commitments to significantly cut their carbon emissions, promising to reach "net zero" in the coming years. The term is becoming a global rallying cry, frequently cited as a necessary step to successfully beat back climate change, and the devastation it is causing.

What is net zero and why is it important?

Put simply, net zero means we are not adding new emissions to the atmosphere. Emissions will continue, but will be balanced by absorbing an equivalent amount from the atmosphere.

Practically every country has joined the Paris Agreement on climate change, which calls for keeping the global temperature to 1.5°C above pre-industrial era levels. If we continue to pump out the emissions that cause climate change, however, temperatures will continue to rise well beyond 1.5, to levels that threaten the lives and livelihoods of people everywhere.

This is why a growing number of countries are making commitments to achieve carbon neutrality, or "net zero" emissions within the next few decades. It’s a big task, requiring ambitious actions starting right now.

Net zero by 2050 is the goal. But countries also need to demonstrate how they will get there. Efforts to reach net-zero must be complemented with adaptation and resilience measures, and the mobilization of climate financing for developing countries.

Unsplash/Appolinary Kalashnikova Clean energy, like wind power, is a key element in reaching net zero emissions. is wind farm in Montenegro.

So how can the world move toward net zero?

The good news is that the technology exists to reach net zero – and it is affordable.

A key element is powering economies with clean energy, replacing polluting coal - and gas and oil-fired power stations - with renewable energy sources, such as wind or solar farms. This would dramatically reduce carbon emissions. Plus, renewable energy is now not only cleaner, but often cheaper than fossil fuels.

A wholesale switch to electric transport, powered by renewable energy, would also play a huge role in lowering emissions, with the added bonus of slashing air pollution in the world’s major cities. Electric vehicles are rapidly becoming cheaper and more efficient, and many countries, including those committed to net zero, have proposed plans to phase out the sale of fossil-fuel powered cars.

Other harmful emissions come from agriculture (livestock produce significant levels of methane, a greenhouse gas). These could be reduced drastically if we eat less meat and more plant-based foods. Here again, the signs are promising, such as the rising popularity of "plant-based meats" now being sold in major international fast-food chains.

Unsplash/Marc Heckner An electric hybrid vehicle at a charging station in Germany.

What will happen to remaining emissions?

Reducing emissions is extremely important. To get to net zero, we also need to find ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Here again, solutions are at hand. The most important have existed in nature for thousands of years.

These "nature-based solutions" include forests, peatbogs, mangroves, soil and even underground seaweed forests, which are all highly efficient at absorbing carbon. This is why huge efforts are being made around the world to save forests, plant trees, and rehabilitate peat and mangrove areas, as well as to improve farming techniques.

Who is responsible for getting to net zero?

We are all responsible as individuals, in terms of changing our habits and living in a way which is more sustainable, and which does less harm to the planet, making the kind of lifestyle changes which are highlighted in the UN’s Act Now campaign.

The private sector also needs to get in on the act and it is doing so through the UN Global Compact, which helps businesses to align with the UN’s environmental and societal goals.

It’s clear, however, that the main driving force for change will be made at a national government level, such as through legislation and regulations to reduce emissions.

Many governments are now moving in the right direction. By early 2021, countries representing more than 65 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions and more than 70 per cent of the world economy, will have made ambitious commitments to carbon neutrality.

The European Union, Japan and the Republic of Korea, together with more than 110 other countries, have pledged carbon neutrality by 2050; China says it will do so before 2060.

Some climate facts:

  • The earth is now 1.1°C warmer than it was at the start of the industrial revolution. We are not on track to meet agreed targets in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, which stipulated keeping global temperature increase well below 2 °C or at 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.
  • 2010-2019 is the warmest decade on record. On the current path of carbon dioxide emissions, the global temperature is expected to increase by 3 to 5 degrees Celsius by the end of century. To avoid the worst of warming (maximum 1.5°C rise), the world will need to decrease fossil fuel production by roughly 6 per cent per year between 2020 and 2030. Countries are instead planning and projecting an average annual increase of 2 per cent.
  • Climate action is not a budget buster or economy-wrecker: In fact, shifting to a green economy will add jobs. It could yield a direct economic gain of US$26 trillion through to 2030 compared with business-as-usual. And this is likely to be a conservative estimate.
UNDP Restoring natural habitats as pictured here in Cuba will help to slow down climate change

Are these commitments any more than just political statements?

These commitments are important signals of good intentions to reach the goal, but must be backed by rapid and ambitious action. One important step is to provide detailed plans for action in nationally determined contributions or NDCs. These define targets and actions to reduce emissions within the next 5 to 10 years. They are critical to guide the right investments and attract enough finance.

So far, 186 parties to the Paris Agreement have developed NDCs. This year, they are expected to submit new or updated plans demonstrating higher ambition and action. Click here to see the NDC registry.

Is net zero realistic?

Yes! Especially if every country, city, financial institution and company adopts realistic plans for transitioning to net zero emissions by 2050.

The COVID-19 pandemic recovery could be an important and positive turning point. When economic stimulus packages kick in, there will be a genuine opportunity to promote renewable energy investments, smart buildings, green and public transport, and a whole range of other interventions that will help to slow climate change.

But not all countries are in the same position to affect change, are they?

That’s absolutely true. Major emitters, such as the G20 countries, which generate 80 per cent of carbon emissions, in particular, need to significantly increase their present levels of ambition and action.

Also, keep in mind that far greater efforts are needed to build resilience in vulnerable countries and for the most vulnerable people; they do the least to cause

climate change but bear the worst impacts. Resilience and adaptation action do not get the funding they need, however.

Even as they pursue net zero, developed countries must deliver on their commitment to provide $100 billion dollars a year for mitigation, adaptation and resilience in developing countries.

Unsplash/Daniel Moqvist National governments are the main drivers of change to reduce harmful emissions.

What is the UN doing promote climate action?

  • It supports a broader process of global consensus on climate goals through the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
  • It is a leading source of scientific findings and research on climate change.
  • Within developing countries, it assists governments with the practicalities of establishing and monitoring NDCs, and taking measures to adapt to climate change, such as by reducing disaster risks and establishing climate-smart agriculture.

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