climate change politics

The spread of national net zero targets

Earlier this year I wrote about Britain’s new target to reach net zero carbon by 2050. At the time of the announcement there were 17 countries with net zero targets in law or proposed. Within a matter of months that number had jumped to over 60 countries, making it an increasingly common benchmark. Whatever the disappointments of recent climate negotiations, 2019 has been the year that zero carbon became a mainstream proposition.

The Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit has been mapping the spread of net zero, and this is where we’re up to:

What’s interesting about the map is that there are net zero targets on every continent. There are high and low income countries, showing that it’s not just as aspiration for those who have ‘arrived’ – it can be a development pathway too. There are also regions and cities on this map, showing how regional ambition is running ahead of national policy in some places.

Obviously there are some big grey areas on that map, and some of them are the difference between a liveable climate or climate breakdown. Until every one of the United States, China, India, Russia and Brazil are on the map, the risk remains. But every new dot or country on the map shows what’s possible, and puts pressure on those lagging behind. Every new target gives citizens more evidence to call on their leaders to up their game, and makes countries look unambitious.

And what has already been called for zero carbon is not insignificant either. When you consider that some of those black dots on the map are major cities, the total impact is larger than its geographical spread. ECIU estimate that 40% of the world’s GDP is now subject to a zero carbon target.

It may not be long before half the world is under the net zero umbrella, and every new announcement makes serious climate action more politically palatable and more likely.


  1. Isn’t net zero carbon emissions a misnomer? It allows the rich to continue business as usual, burning fossil fuels and consuming like nothing has changed, whilst the rest of us experience massive social upheaval (I fear some kind of Dickensian society emerging); and it risks making people feel ok with the situation rather than working to find a genuine solution. Or have I misunderstood?

    1. It’s a good question, and net zero can hide shortcuts and abuses, for sure. Ultimately though, absolute zero is an impossible standard – human beings emit CO2 just by breathing, after all. The question is always going to be about the net impact, and whether our positive activity outweighs the negative – both as individuals and as societies, and at the planetary scale too.

      The thing with net zero targets is that further questions are needed – what is the balance of positive and negative? Are they excluding key industries to make it easier for themselves? And are they allowing offsets? Different countries are setting their own standards within that net zero goal, and some of them are stronger than others.

      As for the social justice element, it has to work within the framework of democracy or wholesale change won’t be acceptable. It has to be a just transition – the French gilets jaune movement is an example of society rejecting an environmental measure than penalised those on lower incomes more.

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