climate change

Is net zero by 2050 the new normal?

Earlier this year Britain announced that it would be aiming to be carbon neutral by 2050, a parting gift from Theresa May. It was described by the chancellor as “one of the most ambitious long-term carbon targets in the world”.

I said at the time that it shouldn’t be seen as ambitious at all, and that “it’s actually likely to be fairly normal for a European country, or it certainly should be. As the Climate Change Committee have pointed out, 2050 is basically the least we can do to remain within the science. Anything less than that would be failing our international commitments.”

Fast forward five months, and by the end of last week’s UN summit, there were 66 countries with a net zero by 2050 target. Among them are the European Union, much of the Carribean and many small island states. Latin America is well represented and so is Scandinavia. In fact I’ll go ahead and add all 66 below, because the list hasn’t been well publicised.

Among the notable absences, such as the USA or Australia, several regions or cities have made a 2050 pledge in spite of their government’s position. Several Chinese cities are on the list, and a number of corporations based in India. There are of course other commitments beyond 2050 or involving specific targets for power or efficiency, and I might mention some of those another time.

Yes, we’ve legislated for it and others haven’t yet. But the key point is this – Britain’s 2050 target is more or less the definition of on par. A third of the UN’s membership countries now have a net zero by 2050 target or better. If you aren’t aiming for zero, there should be a very good reason why.

Among those with valid reasons for hesitating over net zero are low income countries that are rapidly developing. In which case, the build-out of infrastructure will make net zero very difficult, even with 100% renewable energy. If those countries are operating from a low emissions base, an increase in emissions is entirely legitimate, and can be managed as part of a contraction and convergence model.

This is part of the reason why sharper emissions cuts make sense in advanced economies like Britain. If we bring forward our targets to 2030 or 2035, we create more leeway for those countries that are vulnerable to climate change, but have contributed very little to it. It avoids forcing low income countries onto zero targets too soon, and helps to redress the historic imbalances in climate change. Climate justice is one of the arguments for genuinely ambitious climate targets, and why we shouldn’t consider 2050 to be the last word.

For today however, I think it’s worth pausing to celebrate just how quickly 2050 has gone from being a stretch goal to the standard, and the surprisingly diverse range of countries, regions, cities and businesses that have adopted it already.


Countries that have announced a target to be carbon neutral by 2050:

Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Austria, Bahamas, Barbados, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Cabo Verde, Chile, Colombia, Comoros, Cook Islands, Costa Rica, Denmark, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Estonia, Ethiopia, European Union, Federated Stated of Micronesia, Fiji, Finland, France, Germany, Grenada, Guyana, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Jamaica, Kiribati, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Maldives, Mauritius, Mexico, Monaco, Namibia, Nauru, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Portugal, Republic of Marshall Islands, Samoa, Seychelles, Solomon Islands, South Sudan, Spain, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Surinam, Sweden, Switzerland, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, United Kingdom, Uruguay, Vanuatu.

A full list of businesses, regions and cities is available here.

8 comments

  1. It is very good that this is becoming the new norm but I find it really scary that most countries with huge economies or huge / fast growing populations (that aspire to consume more) are not here. USA, China, India, Brazil, Nigeria etc.

    1. That’s true, and there are a number of reasons for that. Some of it is denial, in the case of Brazil or the USA. Some of it is to do with prioritising the needs of millions of people who don’t yet have access to energy, and understandably those countries don’t want to tie their own hands over how that’s provided.

      What’s helpful for now is that a standard has been set, and those countries that aren’t considering net zero by 2050 are obviously behind the curve. Others will fall in line, or can be pressured into stronger action. So I see this as an exercise in bench-marking climate change action more than anything else.

      1. I suggest the reasons may be rather different from that. These big emitters for example (the source of 44% of global emissions) plainly have no real interest in emission reduction: China, Russia, Japan, Iran, South Korea and Saudi Arabia. None of them (even China with per capita emissions 35% greater than the UK’s) has any reason to prioritise access to energy. The only logical conclusion is that they don’t really believe that continued GHG emissions are a serious problem – I suppose you’d call it ‘denial’. I don’t see any of them being pressured into ‘stronger action’.

  2. This is misleading Jeremy. According to Annex II to the COP25 announcement, the countries you list are ‘working towards achieving net-zero emissions by 2050’. That does not amount to a commitment. For example, the EU is listed but was unable to put forward an acceptable plan at the UN summit last week because Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were unable to endorse the plan; even Germany (also on the list) still has difficulties about making a full commitment to 2050.

    I’ll believe net-zero is the new normal when the twelve countries that are the source of 68% of global GHG emissions (and comprising 45% of the world’s population) are on the list. So far, none are – with the possible exception of Germany (see above).

      1. That the EU was unable to put forward an acceptable plan last week and that countries the source of 68% of global GHG emissions are not on the list are facts. Stating facts is not expressing an opinion on climate change.

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