Climate change report card: These countries are reaching targets

Following the UN Climate Change Conference, we take a look at which nations are on track to meet climate goals – and which are tanking.

By Kieran Mulvaney
Published 24 Sept 2019, 16:42 BST
Steam and smoke rise from the cooling towers and chimneys of a power plant. Artificial intelligence ...
Steam and smoke rise from the cooling towers and chimneys of a power plant. Artificial intelligence is being used to prove the case that plants that burn carbon-based fuels aren't profitable.
Photograph by Robb Kendrick, Nat Geo Image Collection

It has been a little under four years since 196 countries negotiated the Paris Agreement, under which they committed to taking steps to limit the increase in global average temperature this century to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) over pre-industrial levels, and ultimately to limit that increase to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F). Under the agreement, each signatory submits its own national plan, setting targets for emissions reductions and specifying pathways by which it aims to meet those targets.

Despite the 2015 agreement, global carbon emissions increased 1.7 percent in 2017 and a further 2.7 percent in 2018; it has been estimated that the rate of increase in 2019 will be among the highest on record. The last four years have been the hottest on record, with 2019 on track to make it five. But analyses suggest that fast action now can reduce carbon emissions within 12 years and hold global increases below 2 degrees C and perhaps 1.5.

Are countries making progress? What kind? We got together with the Climate Action Tracker to see who’s dragging their heels and who is making the best efforts. The CAT covers all the biggest emitters and a representative sample of smaller emitters. Their data covers about 80 percent of global emissions and approximately 70 percent of the global population, and grades countries based on how likely their Paris commitments and actions, if replicated by other nations, would be to achieve a world of 1.5 degrees C of warming.

“Few major emitters are taking the kind of action that will keep warming to 1.5 Celsius, but some, like India, the EU, and China, could step up at the New York climate summit and announce stronger targets,” says Bill Hare, CEO of Climate Analytics, one of the CAT’s constituent organisations.

“However, if all governments meet their Paris Agreement target, we calculate the world would still see 3 C of warming, but that warming is likely to be even higher given most are not taking enough action to meet their targets. We still have a long way to go,” he says.

As countries prepare to revisit their targets at the United Nations Climate Change Summit on September 23, here is a summary of some of the leaders and stragglers so far.

Top of the class

Morocco: According to CAT, Morocco is one of only two countries with a plan to reduce its CO2 emissions to a level consistent with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C. Morocco’s National Energy Strategy calls for generating 42 percent of its electricity production from renewables by 2020, and 52 percent by 2030. Already it is at 35 percent, not least because of investment in such projects as the Noor Ouarzazate complex, the largest concentrated solar farm in the world, which covers an area the size of 3,500 football fields, it generates enough electricity to power two cities the size of Marrakesh.

The Gambia: The Gambia is the other country with a 1.5 degrees C emissions reduction strategy. As with Morocco, one of its principal pathways to reduction is the use of renewables, in the form of a program that will increase the country’s electricity capacity by one-fifth partly through construction of one of the largest photovoltaic plants in West Africa. The country has also launched a large project to restore 10,000 hectares of forests, mangroves, and savannahs. It is also replacing flooded rice paddies with dry upland rice fields and promoting adoption of efficient cook stoves to reduce the overuse of forest resources.

India: India has emerged as a global leader in renewable energy, and in fact it is investing more in them than it is in fossil fuels. Having established a goal of generating 40 percent of its power through renewables by 2030, its progress has been so rapid that it could easily reach that target a decade early, so there is every opportunity for India to increase that target. CAT calculates that India’s plan is compatible with a 2 degree C increase, but that its National Energy Plan could be 1.5 degrees C compatible if the country abandoned plans to build new coal-fired power plants.

Costa Rica: Costa Rica aims for its electricity production to be 100 percent renewable by 2021. It’s already extremely close: in 2018 it generated 98 percent of its electricity from renewable sources—primarily hydropower—for the fourth consecutive year. Two-thirds of its greenhouse gas emissions are from transportation, and the country has made it a national priority to use renewable energy across its roads and rails. The National Plan for Electric Transportation calls for at least five percent of the bus fleet to be replaced by electric buses every two years, and for at least 10 percent of new taxi concessions to be given to electric vehicles. Additionally, in February 2019 Costa Rica extended a moratorium on oil extraction and exploitation from 2021 until the end of 2050.

European Union: The EU was a comparatively early adopter of climate targets. In 2009, it set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020; its Paris target increased that to a 40 percent reduction by 2030. Its present policies, if fully enacted, would enable it to exceed that target. In May, the EU formally adopted into law a series of measures that included a binding target for 32 percent of electricity production to come from renewables by 2030. To achieve that figure across the EU, different countries within the bloc have adopted different national targets: For example, for Malta, the goal is 10 percent renewables, while for Sweden it is 49 percent.

CAT calculates that meeting this and other targets contained in the European Commission’s “Clean Energy for all Europeans” package would result in a reduction in emissions of 48 percent by 2030; a separate study has concluded that further improving energy efficiency targets and closing coal power plants across the EU by 2030 would increase that figure further, to 58 percent. However, because the EU is collectively the third-largest emitter of CO2 behind China and the United States, such a target would just place the bloc in range of a 2 degrees C-compatible reduction.

Shows some promise

United Kingdom: The U.K. is an interesting case. On the one hand, the country reduced its emissions by 44 percent between 1990 and 2018, even as its economy grew by 75 percent. The government has declared a climate emergency, and in June passed legislation codifying a goal of net zero emissions by 2050. (That was under the previous government; new Prime Minister Boris Johnson has shown support for climate deniers.) However, the government’s own Committee on Climate Change has advised that the country is lagging far behind many of its stated long-term climate goals, and the nation is roiled with political uncertainty that could directly affect policy in this area. Should Britain leave the European Union with a No-Deal Brexit, it would no longer be able to participate in the EU’s Emission Trading Scheme, for example.

Norway: Norway’s emissions are projected to decrease by only 7 percent by 2030, and its implemented policies are consistent with warming between 3 and 4 degrees C if all others followed a similar level of ambition. However, there are signs of progress. It has set an ambitious target of reducing emissions by 40 percent by 2030; and it has adopted legislation committing the country to reducing emissions by 80-95 percent relative to 1990 levels by 2050. Its parliament agreed in June to (mostly) disinvest its £802 billion Sovereign Wealth Fund from oil, gas, and coal, dumping £10 billion in stocks related to fossil fuels (though sparing those belonging to ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell) and diverting resources to renewable energy projects. Norway also leads the world in its embrace of electric cars; almost 60 percent of new cars sold in the country in March were electric. Forest cover is increasing. And electricity production is almost entirely from renewables: 96 percent from hydropower and 2 percent from wind farms.

China: The good news: China is on course to meet its Paris targets. The bad news, according to CAT: Those targets are woefully inadequate, and not ambitious enough to limit warming to below 2 degrees C, let alone to 1.5 C as required under the Paris Agreement, unless other countries make much deeper reductions at comparably greater effort. China’s CO2 emissions—already the largest in the world—grew an estimated 2.3 percent increase in 2018; in fact, with current policies, China’s greenhouse gas emissions are projected to rise until at least 2030, although a recent study concluded they may in fact peak a decade earlier. The Chinese government has heavily subsidized the manufacture of electric cars and has sought to reduce the number of gasoline-powered cars on the road; in 2018, Chinese consumers bought 1.1 million electric vehicles—more than the rest of the world combined. China is the largest manufacturer of solar technology in the world, but it is also the largest consumer of coal, and is financing the construction of coal-fired power stations around the world.

Barely trying

Russia: Russia is the fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and has only just officially joined the Paris agreement. It is on course to meet its Paris target, but only because that commitment is so weak: It would allow the country’s greenhouse gas emissions to increase by 6 to 24 percent over 2016 levels by 2020 and 15 to 22 percent by 2030. The target also does not require the government to adopt a low-carbon economic development strategy. Internal data on greenhouse gas emissions are scarce, opaque, and out-of-date, making it difficult to confirm progress, or the lack thereof.

Russia is for the first time considering legislation to regulate emissions, and President Vladimir Putin has acknowledged that Russia is experiencing the impacts of climate change. However, he has cautioned against “the complete abandonment of nuclear or hydrocarbon energy,” asking metaphorically whether it will be “comfortable for people to live on a planet with a palisade of wind turbines and several layers of solar panels” and claiming that “turbines shake so much that worms come out of the ground.”

Saudi Arabia: If anything, Saudi Arabia appears to be going backward in its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The government’s 2016 “Vision 2030” strategy is actually less ambitious than a 2013 plan that called for the country’s energy industry to diversify from oil dependence. Although Vision 2030 states that Saudi Arabia is planning to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, the government announced in December 2017 that it would slow down this subsidy phase-out to “enhance the economy.” And the kingdom maintains a get-out clause for its Paris targets if it decides the agreement places an “abnormal burden” on the economy by reducing its income from fossil fuels.

In March 2018 Saudi Arabia and the SoftBank Group signed a memorandum of understanding to build a 200 GW solar plant, the largest single solar project worldwide; but by December of that year, the project had been cancelled. At present, CAT estimates that present plans are likely to result in an increase in emissions by as much as 80 percent on 2015 levels by 2030.

Turkey: Turkey is one of only two G20 countries not to have ratified the Paris Agreement, and although the government has committed to investing almost £9 billion in energy efficiency measures, the country is seeking to achieve energy self-sufficiency through a massive expansion in coal-fired power plants. Fully 80 new plants are in the pipeline, equivalent to the capacity of the United Kingdom’s entire energy sector. The Afşin-Elbistan power plant in southern Turkey is expanding to become the biggest coal-fired power plant in the world. CAF has rated Turkey’s Paris targets as “critically insufficient,” calculating that if most other countries followed Turkey’s approach, global warming would exceed 3 to 4 degrees C (5.4 to 7.2 degrees F).

Ukraine: Ukraine appears to be heading in the wrong direction. The most recent data (from 2016) shows that the country’s emissions from fossil fuel combustion, industry, agriculture, and waste sources declined by 64 percent below 1990 levels, a function less of efficiency goals than of the fall of the Soviet Union. CAT notes that “Ukraine’s current climate target would see its emissions grow substantially from present levels.”

In 2018, Ukraine published a 2050 Low Emission Development Strategy, which if fully implemented could enable it to reach its Paris targets. However, the previous government said it would revisit its Paris pledge after “restoration of its territorial integrity and state sovereignty,” leading activists to accuse the country of using its conflict with Russia-backed rebels to justify climate inaction.

United States: Where to begin? CAT already ranked U.S. Paris targets as “insufficient.” With the Trump Administration’s ongoing hostility toward climate action, it now categorises the country’s efforts as “critically insufficient,” their lowest ranking. Among the swings that the present administration has taken at its predecessor’s climate policy: It has attempted to roll back the Clean Power Plan; sought to relax vehicle efficiency standards to such an extent that even vehicle manufacturers have objected; and announced plans to weaken regulations to limit HFC emissions and regulation of methane leaks from oil and gas production.

The administration has been working to actively censor climate science within its own agencies, and has established a climate change review panel tasked with questioning the findings of the country’s National Climate Assessment. The leader of that panel is a climate change denier who has stated that “the demonisation of carbon dioxide is just like the demonisation of the poor Jews under Hitler.”

CAT estimates that, if implemented fully, the administration’s policies could by 2030 cause an increase in the U.S.’s annual greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to the total annual emissions of the state of California.

The administration has signalled its intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement in 2020.


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