Time is running out. Nearly every government in the world has signed up to the 2015 Paris Agreement aimed at mitigating the impacts of climate change and keeping the global temperature rise below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Yet the world is already experiencing 1.2°C of warming on average, with Arctic nations such as Russia and Canada warming at two to three times the rate of other countries around the world.
Floods, heatwaves and forest fires are now part of the daily news agenda. But the latest research shows that the tiny African nation of the Gambia is the only country on the planet whose climate action policies are in line with the Paris Agreement.
There are high hopes that COP26 – the latest set of UN climate talks, which will take place in Glasgow in November – will help close the gap between the course of action the countries are on today and what is needed.
COP26, delayed by a year, is considered a “successor to the COP21 conference” at which the Paris Agreement was adopted. As host, the UK is pushing for all countries to set net-zero emissions targets and to sign up to more stringent 2030 interim targets. Also high on the agenda will be the need for rich nations to generate climate development finance for poorer nations, which they have already promised to provide.
The New Statesman‘s tracker will follow the emissions performances and pledges of countries in the weeks leading up to the COP summit.
The tracker displays two maps, the first showing the net zero commitments of all countries. These range from the two densely forested countries which have already achieved net zero – Bhutan and Suriname – to those which have so far made no commitment at all. The latest data from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) think tank shows 12 jurisdictions, including the EU, have enshrined a net-zero target in law; a further four countries have the target in proposed legislation; 37 have it in a policy document; and a further 79 are discussing the possibility of bringing it into law. These 158 countries, including each EU member state, collectively represent just under 90 per cent of global GDP and 70 per cent of global emissions.
As COP26 approaches, the net zero commitments map will be updated regularly to show how countries are responding to their climate action targets.
The second map shows countries by their annual carbon dioxide emissions, with buttons below the headline to switch between per capita and total emissions.
As well as global trends, the tracker also examines the progress of the G20 nations, which collectively represent 85 per cent of global GDP, 75 per cent of international trade and nearly 80 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. Clicking on a country reveals more details about its climate progress.
On paper, developed countries, with Australia being a notable exception, appear to have made much more significant progress than countries in the Global South.
However, a key clause in the Paris Agreement grants countries with a smaller historical responsibility for climate change some leeway for decarbonising more slowly. This means that the "fair share" of emissions reductions for each country is not equal: one assessment suggests the US’s fair share target would require it to reduce emissions by 195 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030, instead of its current goal of 50-52 per cent.
Peter Wooders, senior director at think tank the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), said there has historically been “a bit of a political standoff” between developed and developing countries during COP discussions. “Developing countries want to see more from developed countries before they are willing to make strong commitments,” he said, “while developed countries argue that all countries are in this together, and climate action must come from everyone.”
Transitioning energy systems
While countries squabble over who should bear responsibility for what, the world’s reliance on fossil fuels has not let up. The chart below shows that, in 2020, renewables represented only around 10 per cent of global energy consumption.
In 2019 the UN said the world needed to reduce emissions by 7 per cent every year of the 2020s. During the Covid pandemic in 2020, emissions reduced by close to this amount, but the International Energy Agency predicts they will rise by 5 per cent over the course of 2021.
Data analysed by the New Statesman shows how far off the world’s leading economies are from decarbonising. Since the Paris Agreement was adopted, annual G20 consumption of renewable energy may have increased by 9.3 exajoules (EJ; a unit of energy), but annual consumption of energy from fossil fuels has also increased by 14.0 EJ – more than the entire annual primary energy consumption of Brazil.
These figures are worrying. Yet energy transition analysts insist that change is happening and that the COP conference is only one part of the effort driving that change.
“We have to be looking at the COPs as just one element in a larger mosaic of mechanisms that can drive climate action,” said Wooders. He believes the net zero pledges made by countries and companies, and by projects such as The Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance – an initiative by Denmark and Costa Rica aimed at encouraging countries to end fossil fuel drilling – offer hope for the future.
COP26 “won’t solve emissions overnight”, said Gareth Redmond-King from the ECIU think tank. But the conference is a chance for “higher ambition, promises kept and new deals... to build the critical momentum needed through the 2020s to start bringing down emissions”.