Uncertainty Looms Large Over Nations Meeting Net Zero Goals: Study

Net-zero implementation plans need to be translated into near-term domestic policy targets


A recent study by environmental researchers from renowned universities across the globe highlights a credibility gap between the climate change goals and the on-ground policy implementation by countries, which shows that the global targets could be missed by a large margin.

The global climate policy is currently undergoing a significant transformation. Previously centered around setting ambitious targets, the focus has shifted towards implementation strategies to achieve these goals, according to the study published in the scientific journal ‘Science.’

The study finds that this transitional phase from ambition to action is intricate and introduces substantial uncertainties through various case studies.

The study was published by researchers from some of the leading institutes like the Centre for Environmental Policy-Imperial College London, Grantham Institute for Climate Change and Environment, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis-Austria, World Resources Institute-Washington, Resources Group-University of California–Berkeley, Centre for Energy and Environmental Economics, and Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro.

The international community has embraced climate objectives in response to urgent concerns, limiting global warming to significantly less than 2°C above preindustrial levels and striving to restrict it to 1.5°C.

Under the Paris Agreement, various countries pledged action against emission reduction over the next decade and long-term plans to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. For this to happen, the governments must implement domestic policies to achieve this target.

However, as things have been moving, the updated National Determined Contributions (NDCs) and net zero targets have created uncertainty about meeting climate change goals.

Communications regarding the trajectory of global warming have led to confusion. A cautious analysis predicts that global warming will likely reach a range of 2.5°C to 3°C by the year 2100, with further increases in temperature thereafter. Conversely, analyses that consider international commitments outlined in the NDCs and long-term pledges suggest that global warming could stabilize between 1.5°C and 2°C and may even gradually reverse by the end of the century.

Estimating emissions paths for the future are inherently subject to uncertainty. Nonetheless, this uncertainty can be mitigated by evaluating the dependability of each objective and modifying anticipated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and global temperature projections according to the present credibility of accomplishing those objectives.

Net Zero Scenarios

The study identifies three key attributes of individual net-zero targets. These attributes include whether the target has legally binding status, whether there is a well-founded policy plan to guide its implementation, and whether a country’s near-term policies are already leading to a decrease in emissions over the next decade.

The study lists five scenarios, from the most conservative to the most optimistic.

  • Scenario (A), known as ‘current policies,’ focuses solely on domestic policies while disregarding NDCs, net-zero targets, or other long-term objectives.
  • Scenario (B) incorporates current policies along with higher-confidence net-zero targets.
  • Scenario (C) combines current policies with both higher-and lower-confidence net-zero targets.
  • Scenario (D) encompasses current policies along with all net-zero targets.
  • Scenario (E) incorporates current policies, NDC, and net-zero targets.

Climate Change

Credibly Off Track

The study points out that the most conservative scenario, referred to as Case A, focuses solely on current policies while disregarding NDCs, net-zero targets, and other long-term objectives. This scenario yields the highest estimates for both emissions and warming, along with the largest degree of uncertainty.

By 2030, under Case A, it is projected to result in global emissions of approximately 58 gigatons (GT) of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. Beyond 2030, the ambiguity surrounding emissions pathways leads to projected global GHG emissions for 2100 ranging from close to zero to 90 GT of carbon dioxide per year, with a best estimate of around 50 GT of carbon dioxide per year. The level of global warming follows a similar pattern of uncertainty, with the best-estimate emissions corresponding to a median temperature projection of 2.6°C for the year 2100, ranging from 1.7°C to 3°C, depending on the assumed continuation of policies beyond 2030.

In the most lenient scenario, Case E, where all country commitments regarding NDCs and net-zero targets come to fruition, the emissions, warming, and associated uncertainties are significantly reduced. In this case, the best-estimate future emissions lead to a median peak warming of 1.7°C throughout the 21st century.

Need for Improvement

The study suggests that the lack of confidence in most net-zero targets should not undermine their significance in climate policy. It is crucial that target setting is followed by implementation, and decision-makers fully comprehend the potential consequences of global warming if implementation falls short.

The study demonstrates that even if only the net-zero targets with the highest confidence are met, it is still projected to exceed the limits set by the Paris Agreement. Therefore, it becomes imperative to incorporate net-zero targets into domestic legislation, develop comprehensive implementation plans, and translate those plans into policies and measures that drive significant emissions reductions in the near term.

Several countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Nigeria, and the European Union, have already enshrined their net-zero targets in law. However, many countries are yet to do so. When net-zero legislation accompanies target setting, national institutions are more likely to support implementation.

To enhance the credibility of their net-zero targets, countries should ensure that their long-term strategies outline a clear pathway to achieving net-zero emissions. Detailed domestic implementation plans should accompany these strategies.

Effective implementation plans should establish an emission trajectory leading to the target year, define measures for achieving net zero, and include details relevant to different sectors. It is important to note that neither legally binding targets nor implementation plans guarantee the achievement of targets, making it crucial for net-zero implementation plans to be translated into domestic policy targets.

In August last year, the Union Cabinet of India approved the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) as part of the global response toward climate change goals as agreed under the Paris Agreement. As per the updated NDC, India aims to reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 45% by 2030 from 2005 levels and achieve 50% of total installed power capacity from non-fossil fuel-based sources by 2030.

Europe will need to invest over $32 trillion in energy and related technologies to achieve a net-zero economy by 2050, according to BloombergNEF.