Supervised by: Jonathan Bert McLelland Jr. BA, MA. Bert completed an interdisciplinary Bachelor of Arts in Political Theatre at the University of Alabama (UA). Bert then completed a Master of Arts at UA in Communication Studies, focusing on rhetoric and political discourse. In 2020 (in the course of this degree) he co-authored two academic papers which have since been published. Bert has recently completed a second MA in Public Policy at King’s College London.
As a professional Bert has worked on multiple political campaigns in Britain and America. He was an intern on the 2018 Alabama gubernatorial campaign of Democratic nominee Walt Maddox, and in 2019 he worked in Cardiff as a communications officer with the People’s Vote Campaign. During the 2020 election, Bert worked as a digital organizer and debate strategist for a congressional campaign and then ran social media for the first Democratic state senate campaign to unseat a Republican in 35 years.
The Paris Agreement on 12th of December 2015 historically marked the start of Net Zero sustainability goals for 192 different countries. The aim for some of these countries is to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, although other nations have extended and even shortened the timeframe to do so accordingly. Temperatures since 1750 have increased by roughly 1.1 degrees celsius (~2 degrees fahrenheit) , but it is estimated that within the next few decades, temperatures will rise by 1.5 degrees celsius (~3 degrees fahrenheit) (Nasa, 2022), representing the after effects of the industrialisation of different economies, as well as the negative side effects to such rapid economic growth over the past decades. This may not seem like a significant rise, however this can have detrimental effects to our ecosystem as well as our livelihoods, potentially leading to hundreds of millions of displaced people, sea levels rising and severe damage to the environment. This can be prevented with efficient and effective strategies implemented by different countries, although we need to take into account many other economic risks, factors and potentially even sacrifices that may be made to achieve our sustainable development goals.
In this paper, we study the different aspects of reaching Net Zero and the sustainability pledges for different countries, analyzing (1) the economic philosophies and effects of these sustainability pledges on reaching net zero by 2050, (2) how foundational industries that rely on the extraction of raw materials may suffer by implementing more sustainable practices and how it may inhibit countries from reaching their economic and sustainability goals, and (3) comparing the pledges made by 4 countries with different demographic indicators and economic statuses (Germany, The United States, China and India). We also study (4) why some countries need to revise and improve their existing sustainable development goals more than others, as well as (5) whether certain economies may profit from Net Zero and if carbon neutrality is enough to save our planet.
The industrial revolution serves as one of the most significant events in human history. Changing the course of innovation, technology, and livelihood forever, it shaped the world we live in today. This Earth, our earth, that we call home has been the primary contributor to the remarkable leaps that have been made in industrializing the planet and its people through natural resources. Nevertheless, despite the revolutionary advancements that have propelled our civilization forward, we have arguably gone too far. After almost centuries of gathering, distributing, and using up natural resources such as coal, oil and gas, the threat of the finite nature of these resources has emerged. Not only do we run a significant risk that these resources might eventually run out, given the fact that they are being used up 1.7x faster than they are being made (R.B. Richardson, 2018) thus leaving much of the machinery built unusable, but through the vast industrialization of the planet and the burning of these fossil fuels, our planet home has begun to suffer the consequences. Our climate has begun to change, and not for the better. Earth’s surface temperature has increased by 0.14℉ (0.08℃) every decade since 1880 (Lindsey, 2022) resulting in 2021 being the 6th hottest year in the last 140 years. “Scientists agree that global warming is caused mainly by human activity” (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2021) and the weight of the cause lies heavily in the hands of burning fossil fuels.
In the face of such an imminent threat, nations have come together to discuss a solution in the hope of averting a global calamity. Various committees and summits were established such as the UN Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC) where countries collaborated in the hope of finding a solution that suited all given the global nature of the issue. Nonetheless, there have been vastly different stances on climate change across the spectrum of countries, with some pledging to tackle the problem more effectively than others. At the COP 26 Conference, two major actors, China and India, began to propose more conservative measures to the movement towards sustainability and the concept of “going green”. Both countries played major roles in changing the Glasgow Accords from “phase out” coal to “phase down” coal (Koons, 2022) suggesting a less direct approach to the goal of net-zero proposed by the United Nations. Net-zero was a form of climate action taken by the UN that encouraged countries to reduce emissions to as close to zero as possible by 2050. Backed up by significant scientific research stating that in order to keep global temperatures below a 1.5℃ rise, net-zero by 2050 was required, the UN formed a growing coalition of countries that pledged to cut emissions (United Nations, 2015). Despite this coalition calling for net-zero to be reached by 2050, various countries including China have set independent timelines for reaching the endpoint. In fact, China’s pledge has made no specific indication towards net-zero and has instead opted to focus on achieving carbon neutrality by 2060, differing from the established UN coalition by an entire decade. India has further distanced itself from established UN agreements by stating that their net-zero pledge will be fulfilled by 2070 (Deshpande, 2022). Given that these are two of the top three global polluters (Climate Trade, 2021) and are the most populated countries in the world, the impacts on global and domestic economies are expected to be vast. The third top global polluter, the US, has taken a vastly different stance on the matter, pledging to aim to achieve net-zero by 2050 and establishing a $370 billion climate spending deal, they have taken a more proactive approach to the climate threat. Although the US’s contribution to the global fight against climate change is vitally important, it doesn’t diminish the damages that China and India’s looser policies open the Earth up to.
China is expected to require a total of $21.3 trillion to reach its decarbonisation pledge (Yihe, 2021) despite 60% of the necessary technology still being in conceptual stages. Despite the economic standpoint of the nation, heavy Asian funding is required for the climate aims to be met. This poses a threat to the rest of the globe. As the world’s largest polluter, it is vital that China’s climate pledges not only be met, but also beaten, if at all possible, given the evidence supporting that any date past 2050 would pose irreversible damages to Earth. Furthermore, although often considered an abstract topic, Chinese influence could divert other countries with more concrete and severe “green” pledges from sticking to the 2050 deadline. Myanmar and Indonesia, two countries with significant economic ties to China (China being the primary source of imports for both countries (World’s Richest Countries, 2022)) have both declared that they will not reach net-zero by 2050 (Zandt, 2021). It is important to note that China, as the world’s second largest economy ($17.7 trillion (WorldData, 2022)) is invested in countries all over the world. With manufacturing and agriculture being the two largest contributors to the Chinese economy (AsiaLink, 2022) and both heavily industrialized, the economic drawbacks of having to redesign the technology to fulfill these roles could be severe on a number of countries. Furthermore, the extensive monetary requirements for the development of the technology would naturally reduce Chinese expenditure elsewhere. It is important to note that these economic hurdles are all measured by 2060 and given the research suggesting that the planet only has until 2050 to implement both significant structural and revolutionary changes, the impact on other countries doesn’t terminate here.
India’s position is similar to China’s. Despite being the world’s fastest growing economy, it is still only 17.5% of China’s economy. Paired with the fact that India is a country dealing with extreme levels of poverty across the nation and is classified by the UN as a “still developing economy” (United Nations, 2022) the transition towards improved sustainability could prove to be increasingly difficult. Estimated to require $12.2 trillion to move to net-zero by 2070 (Economic Times, 2022), India will also require significant economic funds to complete the step. The two primary problems that emerge from India’s net-zero pledge are the economic toll of the global economy as well as the timeline required to do so. Like China, India has decided to independently set its own independent sustainability timeline – with the established date being 2070, research suggests that the impacts of this delay could be catastrophic. The sheer size of the nation’s industrial sector which is India’s second largest economic contributor at 25.92% (Ministry of Statistics, 2021) and $916 billion adds up to form a huge potential for damage. With $12.4 trillion in investments required to sustain a $3.54 trillion economy, India is heavily reliant on outside investments because if they were to self-finance their transition costs, “Indian household spending could fall by as much as $5.8 trillion” (Business Standard, 2022), effectively crippling the economy. Given that all of the information listed above is measured upon a 2070 deadline, India’s economy could be in even more jeopardy than China’s.
On the other side of the climate battle spectrum yet still quite central lies the United States. The United States has committed to various pledges such as net-zero by 2050 and is a legally bound member of the Paris Agreement. The Biden Administration has taken various steps towards respecting the pledges such as the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), “the most ambitious and potentially impactful climate policy in US history” (Climate Action Tracker, 2022) and although the IRA puts emissions in a “firmly downward” trajectory, it is clear a further effort is required. The $370 billion bill is indeed the US’s largest ever commitment to fighting climate change, but still falls short of their short term 2030 pledges. The US pledged to cut emissions by 50-52% from 2005 and the IRA only stands to reduce emissions by 26-42% (Climate Action Tracker, 2022). Furthermore, the US pledged $11.4 billion a year to international climate finance and yet is only delivering on $1 billion, falling very short. As the largest economy in the world, the US lies in a very different situation to that of China or India who are both developing economies. At the current stage, there is a lack of funding to the climate budget including the US Senate’s stalling on the $1.75 trillion “Build Back Better” investment. Potentially the largest detriment to the global fight against climate is the lack of monetary support offered by the US in helping to decarbonize struggling nations. As already mentioned, the US pledges $11.4 billion a year to international climate battling investments and is delivering on just over 8% of that. As exemplified by India and China, less economically developed countries are in need of external investments in order to support their climate battles, thus the US’s major shortcomings to pledges supporting international collaboration in addressing the threat truly endangers the globe.
Germany, however, might offer more reason for hope. Like the US, Germany is a developed country with the fourth largest global economy at $4.2 trillion. Unlike the US, however, Germany is more likely to achieve its 2030 and 2050 aims of significantly cutting emissions, even pledging net-zero by 2045, which is 5 years earlier than the recommended date established in the 2015 Paris Agreement. The new German government has set out to “significantly accelerate climate policy implementation” (Climate Action Tracker, 2022) and is potentially striving to overachieve in emission reduction. Germany has set out to reduce its emissions since 1990 by 65% by 2030 and charts appear to support their progress. Whilst Germany has been making significant domestic inroads in their battle against climate change, there are still various international policies that need to be considered. As the fourth largest economy in the world, Germany has the means to contribute and invest further internationally. Furthermore, to support global efforts Germany would have to “cut fossil fuel funding abroad” (Climate Action Tracker, 2022) and although such a declaration was signed at COP26, Chancellor Scholz has declared that there will be a roll back on that decision. The effects of this decision impact both Germany and various other countries as a cut on funding by such a large economy would have discouraged the use of further fossil fuels, yet the roll back on the decision suggests that there are further policies that need to be revisited in order for Germany to meet its decarbonization goals.
Given the extent of the stakes on this global battle against climate, the question of equity arises. Or more specifically, should larger economies be doing more to help the void left by still developing economies? More economically developed countries are certainly more suited to expand on their international aid policies given the greater resources available to them. The US, for example, is heavily underperforming in its pledge for increased support, while its resources could drastically assist many struggling nations. Nevertheless, to avoid a philosophical answer, total emission per capita can be analyzed. Despite China and India being major emitters, Japan, Germany, Canada, South Korea and Saudi Arabia emit more tons of carbon dioxide per person (IEA, 2022). Saudi Arabia for instance, deemed to be an economically developed country by the UN, emits 20% of what India does and yet emits 800% per person. This goes to suggest that developed countries’ lower populations do not exempt them from their denser emissions, and thus, compel them to heighten their international investments to make up for what other countries do not have the economic ability to do.
One aspect to consider in the efforts to reach “net zero” and implement national sustainability goals is what could hinder those goals. How should countries that are working to implement these efforts approach the idea that foundational industries – natural resources, major manufacturing plants, and companies that contribute to the majority of employment – might suffer when implementing practices for reduced carbon emissions that aren’t geared towards economic/company profit? Further, how would those industries inhibit said countries from reaching their “net zero” goals? Ultimately, most countries run the risk of losing important industries to their sustainability plans and could choose to pause those sustainability plans in order to revive the nation’s industries so as to support its population. Given that situation, it would surely backtrack the global effort to reverse the climate crisis and reduce carbon emissions.
For any country to create economic growth, industries must create an influx of goods, profits, and opportunities. When these areas shut down, the country must give up other endeavors to avoid a complete economic downturn. To expand on this possibility, let us look at the United States as an example. According to an article written by Alison L. Deutsch, the five industries that are driving the United States economy are healthcare, technology, construction, retail, and non-durable manufacturing (Deutsch, 2019). Healthcare is such a large industry primarily because of the hundreds of thousands of jobs it offers, but the other reason it gains that much profit is because of the United States demographics. The country’s aging population is increasing demand for healthcare services and additionally, with the healthcare crises’ like COVID-19 and Monkeypox in recent years, medical advancements and research are what have allowed the country to maintain its health and population thus far (Deutsch, 2019). This also relates to the technology industry in that technology plays a major role in the functionality of practically every other small and large business in the country. The technology sector has created the most jobs in things like software, engineering, IT, and more recently, Artificial Intelligence. Construction is the industry that contributes to the survivability of the country, creating both residential and nonresidential buildings to house the growing population as well as the growing companies and businesses. This industry, like the others, also creates job opportunities for builders, contractors, and civil engineers. Retail is an industry that is more materialistic and serves some superficial needs of the population, but nonetheless, still offers jobs and basic necessities like household products and clothing that people need to conduct their day-to-day lives. Possibly the most crucial, though, is the non-durable manufacturing industry which provides the country with the basic yet necessary commodities like gasoline, electricity, and clothing; essentially the things the country needs to run. In considering the importance of these five industries in the country, certain bills meant to move towards sustainability goals may negatively affect these major industries. The $370 billion spending bill created by the Biden administration to help the US do its part for the climate crisis primarily targets transportation and electricity generation, which are said to be the most polluting sectors of the economy (Benshoff, 2023). Though negative effects have yet to be discovered, concerns are being brought up about rising energy prices, possible inflation, and the maintenance of fossil fuel extraction industries. Another concern is that the period between the switch from the transportation used now and the more fuel-efficient and climate friendly versions could create a period of inconvenience for the country as a whole, whether that be in regards to the US postal service or the switch to renewable energy sources in public facilities. In the event that these programs create complications in these industries to where those five main industries begin to suffer, it is likely that Congress and the Biden administration will backtrack the spending bill and prioritize renewing the industries that support the population and the services/goods of the market.
Another example to consider is China, whose major industries are agriculture, the services sector, manufacturing, and technology. Since China is one of the largest exporters of products and goods, it relies heavily on these industries to maintain economic prosperity. The services industry embodies everything from retail goods to autos, and so the health of this sector as wealth and consumption increases is what allows the Chinese people to “afford their own output” (Ross, 2022). The manufacturing industry includes goods like “iron, steel, aluminum, textiles, cement, chemicals, toys, electronics, rail cars, ships, aircraft, and many other products”, and because of its immense export services, this industry and the automobile industry is thriving. Lastly, the agriculture industry in China isn’t necessarily the world’s leading, but it does produce goods and crops in quantities to feed both the population and the demand for export. China’s “carbon neutrality by 2060” plan, according to the Climate Action Tracker, is to build “domestic fossil and renewable production capacity at an accelerated rate and establish a diverse portfolio for energy imports, both from the development of overseas projects and increase in (discounted) energy cooperation with Russia” (Climate Action Tracker, 2018). In simple terms, it means that China is aiming to delegate their sources of energy production and exporting to reduce the amount of coal and other fossil fuels being mined for and used in their country, and also to create overseas agreements to help them manage these goals. The trade off in this instance is that for the national emissions trading schemes China is building, the country will have to greatly exceed their current prospective goals. The limits they set in place are meant to balance economic growth and reduce carbon emissions but to truly reach the necessary “net zero” goals, China will need to cut back much of its retail and non-retail manufacturing. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Chinese diplomats still believe that the country won’t have to give up its economic well-being because of their climate bills because of other trade-offs (Maizland, 2021). However, something to consider is how this country would be able to sustain its already enormous population and reduce its emission-unfriendly industry practices in parallel. For a country that is heavily reliant on exports and its goods/servicing industries for profits and economic growth, using carbon emission habits that force shifts in production habits – taking millions of tons of carbon capacity from steel production and also shifting to more “efficient ultra-supercritical plants” – can negatively impact those industries and in turn, those that rely on their products.
In the case pf the Indian economy, the main industries driving it are the agricultural sector, industrial production, Information Technology, business services outsourcing, and retail (Page, 2022). The complexity with India aiming to reach its national sustainability goals can be partially sourced from its reliance on the agricultural sector. India has a population of approximately 1.38 billion people, all of which rely on the country’s agricultural products; this poses a strain because India is considered a net food exporter and primarily exports vegetable oils and fresh fruits. Similar to China and the US, India is a large country that has to find the balance between producing enough to support its population, supporting its industries to maintain economic growth, and finding ways to reach their necessary “net zero” goals. India’s primary industries, if compromised, will greatly damage the sustainability of the population and the economy overall. The Prime Minister of India has set a goal to reach “net zero” by 2070 and another that by 2030, the country will aim to “reduce the emissions intensity of its economy by 45%”, according to BBC (Menon, 2021). However, much of the dispute is over the extent to which India must reduce their use of coal to power their mining industries and industry manufacturing. Coal is a major fossil fuel and India’s extreme dependence on this fossil fuel has made it increasingly difficult to reduce coal usage without negatively affecting the industries that depend on it. Though the Prime Minister has pledged to “increase [India’s] non-fossil fuel energy capacity to 500 gigawatts (GW) by 2030” from the 157GW it is currently, there is speculation about how much of those fossil fuel cuts will be made from other sources, rather than from coal (Menon, 2021). Without finding a proper way to reduce emissions without jeopardizing the manufacturing and agricultural industries that rely on said fuel sources, India will not be able to support its vast population and economy while helping reach the goals necessary for the world to reverse the climate crisis. India will need to shift their industry model as other major countries are doing to create more renewable energy sources and also implement more sustainable farming/agriculture to ensure that the population and the major industries that generate profit can be supported whilst reducing emissions.
The final country to be considered in this study is Germany. It’s leading industries are the automobile industry, chemical, textile, engineering industries and, in a less primary capacity, the healthcare industry. Germany is a prime example in the discussion of national sustainability goals because of how successful it has been so far in its effort to cut carbon emissions and reach net zero. They are on track to reach greenhouse gas neutrality by 2045 and are currently generating around 43% of their electricity from renewable resources (G7 Germany, 2022). These successes have created the blueprint for what functional and feasible sustainable development goals look like, but it is crucial to note that Germany has some advantages that other countries do not. For instance, in comparing Germany to countries like China and the United States, the primary difference we can note is population’s size; the populations of these countries are substantially larger which is why sustainability goals are harder to achieve. The industries of those larger countries are centered around agriculture and manufacturing – therefore, shifts being made in the economic structure of these industries to create more environmentally conscious business practices is more complex when needing to support such a massive population. Germany’s primary industries are automotive and engineering based, indicating that much of their profits are from exporting German goods/products and making money that way. The supply chain issue in the automobile industry has been continuing for some period of time now, and it seems that part of that can be traced back to Germany’s efforts to remodel their factories and buildings to use renewable energy sources and reduce their carbon emissions. Though the supply chain issue and slow exporting of automobiles has caused some disturbance in the global market, it is not one that is harming the human population. Germany is still maintaining economic growth by implementing a number of programs to target different aspects of the “net zero” journey, one being the German Resource Efficiency Programme. According to OECD, this programe addresses sustainably sourcing raw materials, and Germany’s goal is to “decouple economic growth as far as possible from resource use, both to reduce the burden on the environment and to strengthen the sustainability and competitiveness of its economy” (OECD, 2012). This program tackles the country’s industries by offering “efficiency advice for small and medium-sized enterprises, supporting environmental management systems, integrating resource aspects into technical standardization processes, placing greater emphasis on resource-efficient products and services in public procurement, strengthening voluntary product labeling and certification systems and enhancing closed cycle management” (OECD, 2012). Though all these practices may not be fitting for every country working towards meeting their national sustainability goals, Germany has provided a feasible blueprint that outlines how to begin employing corrective practices in parallel to supporting its industries and its economy to ensure that the country and its population continue to thrive.
In looking at these countries – few struggling and a few at the forefront of the effort for sustainability and “net zero” – it is apparent that the balance between supporting a country’s economy and its climate friendly practices is one that has yet to be found. Many of the countries with industries based through factories and manufacturing are subject to hardship because much of the approach to reach “net zero” is to shift and cut down the amount of emissions from industrialized areas. Further, if the climate crisis is prioritized and in turn slows the production capacity of agricultural, transportation, and engineering industries that we see leading countries like the US and China, the safety of the population is called into question as the economy risks a downturn. Certain countries like Germany have found the balance between shifting certain industries to be more environmentally friendly that aren’t linked to the direct welfare of their population, while maintaining profit influxes that allow the country to maintain economic growth. This is just one of many logistics to consider and troubleshoot when implementing programs to help countries reach “net zero”; ultimately, supporting the population and the economy is the primary goal of governments, and will be prioritized over making emissions cuts unless a well-balanced and efficient method can be found for favorable outcomes.
Though the US, China, India, and Germany are all major economies on the world stage, they each have different pledges and goals regarding their approach to tackling climate change through achieving net-zero emissions by a certain target year. Some factors that influence the state’s net-zero target year include economic and demographic indicators like population, wealth (measured by GDP per capita), developmental stage (measured by World Bank), and current progress in eliminating fossil fuels. In general, the net-zero target years of many nations are determined by these factors: size, wealth, developmental stage, and current market share of energy consumption that is based on renewable resources. This is clearly demonstrated in the four given case studies, as these four nations have drastically different demographic indicators that have in ways determined their different target years.
Let us first examine and compare the two smallest nations in population: Germany and the US. Germany has a net-zero emission target year of 2045 and the US has a target year of 2050, dates that are nearer than many other nations. These two nations have certain similarities that explain why their target years are so close in proximity. The wealthiest of the four nations, the US GDP per capita is $64,000 and Germany’s GDP is $46,000. Both are highly-developed, industrialized nations that have the strongest economies in the Western world, with a combined nominal GDP of $24.7 trillion. Although Germany and the US have relatively small populations in comparison to China and India, there is a major difference in population between Germany (83 M) and the US (330 M). This could be one reason why Germany’s net-zero emission target year is five years earlier than that of the US. Their similar demographic and economic characteristics help to explain why Germany and the US have similar timeframes for accomplishing their net-zero emission goals.
The next two nations to be examined and compared are the two largest in population: China and India. China and India have many characteristics that differ from the US and Germany. China and India are the two single largest countries on the planet in terms of population. To put this into perspective, China and India each have over 1.4 billion people and together comprise over one-third of the world’s population, which is more than that of the next 20 most populous countries combined. This (along with various historical factors) helps to explain why China and India have much lower GDP per capita than many Western nations, at $11,000 and $2,000 respectively. However, despite China having a slightly larger population, India’s net-zero target year is ten years beyond China’s, and this can largely be attributed to the two nations’ significant wealth gap (measured by GDP per capita). As a result, India is considered to be a low-income developing nation whereas China is a medium-income developing nation, which places China in a position to better advance its goals in terms of a closer net-zero target year. China’s population is also declining, whereas India’s is still rapidly growing, and is even forecasted to exceed that of China by the end of 2023. Because of India’s rapidly growing (yet relatively poor) population, the nation needs more time to meet its goals of reaching net-zero carbon emissions, and thus pledged its designated goal of 2070. In contrast, China’s shrinking population amid a thriving middle class places the nation in a much better position to pledge for and realistically reach net-zero emissions by 2060.
Finally, it makes sense to compare the US and China because these two nations together account for nearly 40% of global emissions. Both nations bear a heavy weight on their shoulders to act as leaders in the global fight against climate change. They have recently made some progress in the area. For example, President Biden has initiated a Build Back Better plan to help address infrastructure in the US in a way that incentivizes the utilization of renewables to assist in the transition to green energy. He has also corrected certain setbacks made by the previous Trump administration, including rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement and making a climate pledge that includes halving US carbon emissions by 2030.
In the past decade, China has also made significant improvements to reduce carbon emissions, such as connecting the nation through an extensive high-speed rail network that reduces reliance on fossil fuels and incentivizing a smooth transition to using green energy. Since 2008, China’s rapidly growing high-speed rail network has helped the nation significantly reduce carbon emissions through reductions in land and air traffic. Not only is China’s high-speed rail network already the busiest in the world, handling over 3.5 billion passenger trips per year and carrying 4.4 billion tonnes of freight, but it is also the world’s longest in length. Combined with significant investments in public transportation across major cities and mew nationwide restrictions on the sales of gas-powered vehicles, China has in many ways successfully incentivized its public to utilize more sustainable modes of transportation. Since 2013, China has been the world’s largest investor in renewable energies such as solar, wind, and nuclear power, at over $255 billion. Similarly, the US ranks second and has made $110 billion in green energy investments. While both nations are leading the world in the fight against climate change and have made significant progress, many climate experts still agree that there is a need for more drastic action if the world’s two largest economies intend on preventing global warming from exceeding 3 degrees annually.
When a country sets its carbon emission reduction targets, there are broadly two ways to set them: an absolute target and an intensity target. An absolute target generally refers to the total amount of emission one nation has emitted, while intensity targets are a normalized metric that set a company’s emissions targets relative to some sort of economic output. In other words, intensity targets can differ depending on how much economic output one nation is producing, unlike absolute targets which do not take economic output into account at all (Donovan, 2019). Emission intensity makes it clear which countries must reduce emission by what percent precisely because each country has different levels of economic growth.
India is a perfect example of a country that believes intensity target is a more appropriate way to measure its carbon emissions rather than using the unified absolute target measurement. They have been experiencing rapid economic growth in recent years, claiming that it should be expected that their carbon emissions are still showing an upward trend and have not yet reached their peak. Their carbon emissions are estimated to peak between 2040 and 2045, which is one of the latest among countries with bigger populations (Singh, Lacqua, 2021). From another perspective, some could say that India is trying to be “realistic” by setting its estimation for the carbon emission peak between 2040 and 2045. However, it is going to be too late for India to reach net zero emissions within the goal set by the UN. Carbon emissions need to be reduced by 45% by 2030, in order to reach net zero emissions by 2050, according to the UN (United Nations, 2021). Following the UN’s announcement about the goal that is meant to be shared globally, all the countries have started showing progress on their own. Take the U.S. for example: in April 2021, President Biden set a greenhouse gas pollution reduction target at 50%-52% by 2030 (The White House, 2021). So it may seem the US is aiming a little higher than the global expectations, but is 5% higher than the global standard enough? Currently, the US accounts for about 15% of all carbon emissions globally, following China’s 28% (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2022). While it may seem that the US is aiming high, it also seems reasonable for them to improvise their goals to meet a higher standard, especially as they are the second biggest contributor to global carbon emission. The US was the biggest contributor for greenhouse gas emissions until 2005 (Regan, 2021).
China, the biggest contributor to carbon emissions in the world is similar to India in terms of favouring an intensity target. Both countries have huge populations, and both are yet to reach their peak of carbon emissions. In the plan China has proposed, they pledged to cut the share of fossil fuels in China’s energy consumption to 75% by 2030. However, just like India, this pace is slower than ideal. Bernice Lee at UK think tank Chatham House says: “You can’t sugar-coat, it is disappointing. The world was expecting more from China at this point. It has missed a chance to slow global leadership.” Behind the scenes, many Chinese researchers have recommended a reduction of 70% if not more. Li Shuo, a senior policy officer for Greenpeace East Asia, said that 70% or more would mean peak carbon coming around 2025, given reasonable assumptions for economic growth. Even Kevin Rudd, former Australian Prime Minister and current President of the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York, wrote in advance of the summit that he hoped to see China reach peak carbon before 2025, and that simply reiterating the “before 2030” commitment would no longer match the expectations of the international community (Yi, 2020). China is among one of the few countries left that are yet to reach its peak carbon emissions; Mexico, Marshall Islands, and Singapore are also on this list, but the effects they have globally are much smaller compared to China (Rich, 2017).
Germany, on the other hand, is among the countries that reached their peak carbon emissions before 1990. It appeared as if the country’s gas emission had been steadily declining since, until a 4.5% annual increase in emissions ocurred in 2021. The main cause for that is thought to be because of the growing emissions from the overall energy sector (Cullen, 2022).
Regrettably, Germany has missed its emissions targets for two years at the time of writing. In 2021, Russia limited natural gas supplies to Europe for several months, following supply issues during the coronavirus pandemic. This event lead the entire group of nations in Europe to rely on coal and even fuel oil to just keep the lights on in households.
The extent of the damages caused by the climate crisis has overtaken everything from powerful nations like the EU to states in the US. Devastating wildfires in California, heatwaves all around the globe, persistent droughts that threaten crops, wildlife, and freshwater supplies, rising sea levels, acidification of the oceans (WWF, 2021) and record flooding in Europe (Hill, 2021) all show the effects of this crisis. From polar bears struggling between melting glaciers to sea turtles in Florida where no male has hatched in the last four years (Morris, 2022), climate change and its effects are accelerating (Fountain, 2019).. The likelihood of a destroyed planet is increasing with each passing day as climate related disasters are continuously piling up (Fountain, 2019).
Human civilization has reached a point where continued progress and growth threaten the stability of the climate, and the socioeconomic impacts are becoming increasingly apparent (Farr, et al., 2022). Both these, and the effects of climate change on nature, will continue to place increasing pressure on earth until our society successfully transitions to a net-zero economy and adapts to a changing climate (Farr, et al., 2022).
More and more countries are committing to a net-zero economy by 2050. But what is net-zero? Net-zero means reducing greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible and absorbing any remaining emissions from the atmosphere, e.g., through oceans and forests (United Nations, 2021). To meet our net-zero goals by 2050, we need to balance the amount of emissions we emit with the amount we absorb (National Grid, 2021). Cutting all CO2 emissions in half by 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 is expected to meet the Paris Agreement goals which include restricting the increase in global average temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as well as to avert the worst impacts of climate change to sustain life on earth (Why Is Net Zero so Important?; National Grid Group, n.d). Otherwise, man-made emissions will take an even more catastrophic toll on our planet and drive us further into an irreversible climate crisis (United Nations, 2021a). The problem is that commitments must be backed up by credible plans and actions, or global temperatures will continue to rise to as high as 2.7 degrees Celsius by 2100, making parts of the planet uninhabitable (Why Is Net Zero So Important? National Grid Group, n.d).
A net-zero economy cannot be achieved through a continuous pursuit of economic development and growth (Farr, et al., 2022). Reaching net-zero will require a complete transformation of the global economy and the search for more sustainable consumption and production methods (Farr, et al., 2022). Furthermore, the transition will demand significant changes in the seven energy and land-use systems that cause global emissions (Farr, et al., 2022). These energy and land-use systems include power, buildings, agriculture, mobility, industry, forestry, and other land use, as well as waste (Farr, et al., 2022). The energy sector in particular, which currently accounts for about three-quarters of greenhouse gas emissions, is crucial in preventing the worst impacts of climate change (Farr, et al., 2022). The replacement of polluting fossil fuels with renewable energy sources in the form of wind or solar power would cut carbon dioxide emissions drastically (Farr, et al., 2022). In order to further reduce emissions, major investments and innovations are needed to create technologically and economically feasible alternatives to fossil-fuel- and emissions-intensive technologies in sectors such as heating and transportation as well as to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide (e.g., methane) from sectors such as agriculture (Kyriacou & Burke, 2021).
To combat climate change and its negative impacts, leaders made an incredible breakthrough at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris on the 12th of December 2015 and introduced the historic Paris Agreement (United Nations, 2021b). This Agreement states that greenhouse gas emissions, such as CO2, should be kept in check to limit the increase in global temperatures to below 2 degrees Celsius and even pursues efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees Celsius (United Nations, 2021b). This is the part where the net-zero solution comes into play. Even though the Paris Agreement does not mention net-zero, governments are now realizing that a net-zero transition is crucial to achieve the Paris Agreement goals (Kyriacou & Burke, 2021). The Paris Agreement showcases the importance of net-zero, since countries are required to achieve a sustainable state of balance in which the emissions going into the atmosphere are balanced by their sequestration or absorption out of the atmosphere (What Is Net Zero?, 2022).
One thing is clear: net-zero emissions are a critical key to maintaining global temperatures, and there are already countries and companies willing to commit to it. More than 70 countries – including those responsible for more than 80% of global CO2 emissions – and more than 5,000 companies have set net-zero emissions as a goal (Farr, et al., 2022), covering about 76% of global emissions (United Nations, 2021a).
Since a net-zero transition would require a transformation of the global economy, it must be universal (Farr, et al., 2022). Achieving a successful net-zero transition thus requires all sectors and regions to contribute to a global transformation of the world economy (Farr, et al., 2022). While universal and significant, the transition would have disparate impacts on different sectors, regions, and communities, and is therefore unequal (Farr, et al., 2022). As we move towards a sustainable, low-carbon, net-zero world, different governments and regions must face significant challenges (Farr, et al., 2022). On the one hand, the extent of the economic changes that a net-zero transition would entail for our current economy and politics is enormous, and on the other hand, there is the difficulty of balancing the short-term risks of poorly prepared measures with the long-term risks of delayed action (Farr, et al., 2022).
As previously mentioned above, the challenges of a net-zero transition by 2050 are universal. Every country must decarbonize, every country is exposed to the transition, every country must accept some risk, every country must spend to reduce emissions and develop low-emissions energy sources to drive its economic growth, and every country would benefit from the transition (Farr et al. 2022). At the same time, it would not be identical across all sectors and regions, which implies that the exposure would be unevenly distributed (Farr et al. 2022). Sectors that account for substantial levels of emissions in both their operations and in the usage of their products and goods such as motor vehicles, fossil fuels and steel, are directly exposed to the net-zero transition (Farr et al. 2022). These sectors are responsible for about 20% of the global GDP (Farr et al. 2022). Furthermore, sectors that are responsible for another 10% of the GDP are similarly at risk due to the emissions in their supply chain (e.g., construction) (Farr et al. 2022). In most of these sectors, the demand for products might decrease (Farr et al. 2022). Moreover, the transition would affect low-income countries and those dependent on their large fossil fuels resources more (Farr et al. 2022). India and several other developing countries would have to make investments of about 10% or more of their GDP (Farr et al. 2022). This is about one and a half times the investment the U.S. would need to make to decarbonize and achieve low-carbon growth (Farr et al. 2022). As a result, the question of inequity would arise, especially since developing countries often argue that they have contributed far less to emissions than the world´s largest economies and yet are hit the hardest by the net-zero transition (Farr et al., 2022).
Typically, these low-income countries are facing several burdens (Farr et al., 2022). For one thing, the share of jobs, GDP, and capital stock in sectors with emissions-intensive activities, supply chains, and products that would be most affected by a net-zero transition is quite high (Farr et al., 2022). For another, they are exposed to both transition adjustments and the increasing physical risks and impacts of climate change, which could significantly affect progress toward their economic development goals (Farr et al., 2022).
There are specific communities within each country that are more affected than others if they have economies that are heavily dependent on industries that have high emission levels or whose products produce heavy emissions (Farr et al. 2022). For instance, in the United States, more than 10 percent of jobs in 44 counties are in the coal, oil and gas, fossil fuel, and automotive industries (Farr et al. 2022). By 2050, for example, the demand for jobs in the fossil fuel industry could fall by about 60 percent due to the net-zero transition, therefore employees in such sectors are particularly at risk (Farr et al. 2022). In contrast, millions of new jobs could be provided by the renewable energy sector (Farr et al. 2022).
The net-zero transition, like any change in the socio-economic traits of the world, is the beginning of something new and thus rich in possibilities. Every country can benefit from the growth potential of the net-zero transition. Furthermore, “[all countries can] secure advantages, through their endowments of natural capital such as sunshine and wind and through the availability of technological, human, and physical capital” (Farr, et al., 2022). Countries that have abundant natural-capital endowments, such as plenty of sunlight, wind, forests, mineral resources, etc. and therefore CO2 sequestration potential, may benefit from the transition (Farr et al., 2022). This is precisely the aspect many developing countries can benefit from, as most of them have a natural capital that could enable, e.g. solar power production (Farr, et al., 2022). Consider Saudi Arabia, for example, with its extensive solar resources, or China, with its gigantic reserves of minerals (Farr et al., 2022). The availability of technological and human capital is another aspect countries can benefit from (Farr et al., 2022). Markets for low-carbon goods and processes offer significant growth potential during and after the net-zero transition (Farr et al., 2022).
Generally speaking, every country in the world has some sort of natural, technological, and human capital. Depending on where the state is geographically located and how the economy is structured in that state, every single one will be exposed to different challenges during the transition but will also gain different benefits from it. There are six archetypes of countries that illustrate how the net-zero transition might differ around the world (Farr, et al., 2022).
The first archetype is fossil fuel resource producers (Farr, et al., 2022). This category includes countries such as Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (Farr, et al., 2022). The magnitude of exposure due to the net-zero transition varies from country to country (Farr, et al., 2022). Countries in this category, especially those with higher shares in fossil fuel-producing sectors, will have to face various challenges including increasing physical risks due to climate change (Farr, et al., 2022). However, the net-zero transition brings a lot of benefits and opportunities for these countries (Farr, et al., 2022). They can use their solar or wind power to develop renewable-energy sources and make green hydrogen (Farr, et al., 2022). Since some fossil fuel producers have fairly low levels of carbon intensity related to their oil and gas production, as well as low prices, a few of them could act as the last suppliers of fossil fuels in a net-zero economy (Farr, et al., 2022).
Another archetype is the emissions-intensive producers (Farr, et al., 2022). This category includes countries such as China, India, and Ukraine, which generate a significant share of their GDP based on highly exposed sectors such as emissions-intensive manufacturing, fossil fuel-based energy supply and agriculture (Farr, et al., 2022). These countries have the potential to supply growing markets with low-emissions goods (Farr, et al., 2022). Especially Asian countries, of which many belong to this category, have resources that are beneficial for low-emissions innovations (Farr, et al., 2022).
Agriculture-based economies include countries such as Ghana, Sri Lanka, and Kenya, where agriculture is the primary source of employment and income (Farr, et al., 2022), must implement new low-emissions farming practices (Farr, et al., 2022). Furthermore, they must invest in new assets, particularly related to the energy sector (Farr, et al., 2022). Countries belonging to this category have the possibility to produce solar power and use their forestland to generate carbon credits (Farr, et al., 2022), a mechanism to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (Kenton, 2019).
The fourth archetype is dedicated to land-use-intensive countries (Farr, et al., 2022). Countries belonging to this archetype include Peru, Uruguay, and Ecuador (Farr, et al., 2022). In these countries, the agriculture and forestry sectors are a significant part of the GDP, jobs, and capital stock (Farr, et al., 2022). They would be required to align their land-use needs with forest protection as well as support the communities that depend on them for their livelihoods (Farr, et al., 2022). Because of their vast natural capital, this archetype has the potential to gain profit from sectors such as renewable energy, minerals, and forest management, which includes reforestation and afforestation projects (Farr, et al., 2022).
Countries like Germany, Japan, and South Korea all belong to an archetype called “Downstream-emissions manufacturers” (Farr, et al., 2022). The greatest risk for these countries lies within the manufacturing of goods such as automobiles, and industrial machinery, which could experience a decline in demand due to their reliance on fossil fuels (Farr, et al., 2022). However, these countries can manage their exposure by reinventing products as well as supply chains (Farr, et al., 2022). Many countries are investing heavily in research and development and are thus well equipped to develop low-emissions technologies in the near future (Farr, et al., 2022).
Lastly, the archetype dedicated to services-based economies includes countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Singapore (Farr, et al., 2022). Countries of this archetype typically have a high GDP per capita and generate most of their profit or economic output in the service sectors, which means that their overall exposure to the net-zero adjustments is relatively low (Farr, et al., 2022). Nonetheless, such countries tend to have high consumer emissions with an average of 1.6 tons per capita (Farr, et al., 2022). As a result, they will need to encourage behavioral changes and face up-front costs to achieve decarbonization (Farr, et al., 2022). To reap benefits from this transition, these countries could use their natural, technological, and human capital to develop new low-emissions industries or provide services that support the transition.
Companies can also benefit from the net-zero transition (Farr et al., 2022). For instance, the decarbonization of processes and products can open new markets for low-emissions products (Farr et al., 2022). These markets for low-carbon products such as solar panels or electric vehicles offer great growth potential for countries like China that have technological capital (Farr et al., 2022). In addition, these low-carbon products and processes can replace current high-emission options (Farr et al., 2022). For example, the demand for electric vehicles instead of ICE vehicles is increasing rapidly (Farr et al., 2022).
By 2050, the transition could lead to an increase in demand for about 162 million jobs and a decrease in demand for about 152 million jobs (Farr, et al. 2022a). The job gains would be largely associated with the transition to low-emissions forms of production, such as renewable energy, whereas the losses would mainly affect employees in emissions-intensive sectors (Farr, et al. 2022a). By reducing the emissions intensity of their processes and products, companies could enjoy advantages (Farr, et al. 2022a). In some cases, the decarbonization of processes and products can make them cheaper (Farr, et al. 2022a). By improving the energy efficiency of heating systems in steel plants, for example, both emissions and operating costs are reduced (Farr, et al. 2022a).
An example of a company that takes the net-zero transition seriously is Desolenator. Desolenator is a Dutch start-up which invented the world´s first ever solar thermal desalination technology (Desolenator; Water Evolved, n.d.). This revolutionary technology can convert seawater into drinking water by using solar power to distill both seawater and contaminated water (Desolenator; Water Evolved, n.d.). The special feature of this technology is that it does not require any external power sources, filters, or chemicals (Desolenator; Water Evolved, n.d.). The start-up has clearly recognized that water scarcity is one of the biggest resource challenges (Desolenator; Water Evolved, n.d.). Currently, 2.3 billion people live in countries that are experiencing water scarcity (United Nations, 2011). This water scarcity could displace about 700 million people by the year 2030 (Desolenator; Water Evolved, n.d.). Desolenator is the key to providing water-scarce communities with this precious resource, since the only thing needed is abundant natural capital in the form of sunlight, which most water-stressed countries possess. However, the impact that the start-up has goes far beyond that (The Water Crisis, n.d.). It also supports climate action such as the net-zero transition (The Water Crisis, n.d.). Desolenator helps to waterproof water-scarce regions without damaging our planet; more specifically, it provides these regions with net-zero water (The Water Crisis, n.d.). This technology completely eliminates the need for fossil fuels and toxic chemicals, supporting the global journey toward a net-zero world (The Water Crisis, n.d.).
There is no net-zero without nature (Owen-Burge, 2022). Preserving vital ecosystems is at the heart of the world´s efforts to adapt to as well as mitigate the impacts of climate change (Owen-Burge, 2022). It is crucial to protect the natural resources and ecosystems that not only support economic growth but also health, food security, and much more (Owen-Burge, 2022). In addition, it is estimated that by 2030 nature-friendly policies and efforts can generate approximately $10 trillion in annual enterprise value as well as create 395 million jobs (Owen-Burge, 2022). “Unilever, for example, is committed to a deforestation-free supply chain by 2023, and thus is focusing on palm oil, paper and board, tea, soy, and cocoa, as these contribute to more than 65% of its impact on land. Nestlé has now made over 97% of its primary meat, palm oil, pulp and paper, soy, and sugar supply chains deforestation-free. PepsiCo aims to implement regenerative farming across the equivalent of its agricultural footprint by 2030, and to end deforestation and development on peat (Owen-Burge, 2022). Natural solutions such as planting trees and land management changes are also a viable option to remove greenhouse gasses and therefore support the net-zero transition and existing ecosystems (Kyriacou & Burke, 2021).
The most significant benefit of net-zero is not in creating new revenue streams for companies and countries, but in preventing the accumulation of physical risks posed by climate change (Farr et al., 2022). Improving public health by, for example reducing the burning of fossil fuels, reducing pollution, inventing sustainable practices, preserving vital ecosystems and species, and conserving water resources are all benefits of climate action (Consultation: Nature and Net Zero, 2021). However, net-zero is only possible if the world invests in developing countries, as they are the ones most affected by the net-zero transition (World Economic Forum, 2022). Developing countries will account for the largest share of future CO2 emissions (World Economic Forum, 2022). Newly emerging economies in Asia, Africa, as well as Latin America, are flourishing (World Economic Forum, 2022). Their emissions are expected to increase by 5 gigatons over the next two decades (World Economic Forum, 2022). Consequently, unless drastic measures are taken to transform their energy systems, there is no chance of achieving net-zero emissions (World Economic Forum, 2022).
A successful net-zero transition is still a long way off, but one thing is clear. The transition requires significant and massive changes within the different societies and national economies (Farr, et al., 2022). While this net-zero transition will be one of the most daunting challenges ever, humans have been solving problems and facing numerous challenges for the past 10,000 years. Consequently, there is no reason to doubt human ingenuity (Farr, et al., 2022).
Especially over recent years, there has been growing awareness of the detrimental impacts of climate change which, in turn, has made many major economic powers shift their focus to tackling this major issue. We have seen that emerging economies, such as India and China, may struggle more than other countries to achieve net zero in the next 30 years, due to the rapid rate of economic growth that is contributing to their high levels of CO2 emissions, so they have given themselves an extended time period to achieve their sustainability pledges. Along with these two countries and the USA, Germany is heavily reliant on their manufacturing industry, for goods such as cars that require the extraction of raw materials on a large scale. We found that although India, China and the US have struggled to cut back on emissions in the manufacturing industry without hindering their rates of economic growth, Germany have successfully cut back on CO2 emission to reach their sustainability goals, yet continue to maintain their levels of economic growth, a prime example of a nation that is still prospering while effectively making one of their leading industries sustainable. This shows that not only is net zero emissions achievable, it can also remain profitable and even create employment opportunities in an array of industries that may emerge with the climate change movement. To conclude, as long as these countries didn’t make any false promises, there isN hope that we can make this transition into a sustainable world, but risks must be taken and we may inevitably see the decline of different industries and economies that rely on unsustainable methods of creating output.
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