Britain is working towards the long term goal of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Japan and the EU have set the same date, Russia and China have chosen 2060. While these dates still feel like a long way away, there are some countries that have already reached net zero. This small handful of countries are part of an elite club, the Alliance of Carbon Negative Countries.
A quick reminder of what net zero is: it’s the balance point at which a country, business or organisation absorbs as much greenhouse gases as it produces. At that point, the net effect on the climate is zero. You are carbon neutral.
If we were to imagine a set of scales, on side A we have all the carbon emitted by energy, industry, transport, etc. On side B we all have all the carbon removed from the atmosphere by forests, soil and wetlands. Net zero is approached from two directions – reducing emissions on side A, and increasing removals on side B (or more controversially, by buying offsets)
The countries that are already at the net zero point, or actually carbon negative, are all small countries that have a headstart on side B. They have generous carbon removal capacity for their size.
So who’s in the Alliance of Carbon Negative Countries? There are just three formal members at the moment:
All three countries have relatively modest emissions, and extensive areas of forestry for their size. Panama has conservation reserves that cover 30% of the country already, with plans to expand tree cover. Suriname is 93% rainforest. Bhutan has been prioritising its forests for 50 years.
Another factor is low population density. Bhutan has about as many citizens as the city of Leeds in the north of England, or Seattle, spread across a country just a little smaller than Switzerland. Suriname is among the most sparsely populated places on earth, with just 10 people per square mile. (For comparison, the UK has 719).
There are other places with low population density and high forest cover that haven’t formally joined the alliance, but may be carbon negative. They include Niue and the Comoros, and possibly Madagascar*. Guyana is another with the same pattern – 85% forest and is also in the top ten least populated places, would qualify.
There are reasons for wanting to be carbon negative and telling everyone about it, beyond the kudos of climate leadership. The Carbon Negative Alliance hopes to use membership to their advantage in trade deals, or to get exemptions from carbon taxes. Countries with high population density and little forest area are going to struggle to reach net zero, and will require negative emissions elsewhere as offsets. Carbon negative countries will be able to monetise their surplus, and pioneers such as Bhutan, Suriname and Panama may find a particular niche in the global economy.
*Madagascar’s carbon accounts show that they qualify as carbon negative, though this will only be temporary. According to their first Nationally Determined Contribution to the Paris Agreement, the country emits 192 million tonnes of CO2 and absorbs 215 million. In the next decade emissions are expected to increase. Currently only 1 in 5 people have access to electricity, so those low emissions are to do with poverty. Deforestation is an ongoing problem, and so it is unlikely that Madagascar will be carbon negative for long.
Madagascar’s carbon negative status is a reminder that net zero isn’t in itself a sign of progress. Emissions can be low because of poverty and under-development. As Kate Raworth describes in her Doughnut Economics framework, and many others have made the same point, environmental goals need to be achieved in balance with social goals.