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Which country has made the biggest climate commitment?

Fiona Harvey Environment correspondent
·6-min read
<span>Photograph: James Ross/AAP</span>
Photograph: James Ross/AAP

So which country has the highest target?

Well, it’s complicated. The UK has committed to cut emissions at a faster rate than other developed nations, with a target of 68% cuts by 2030. That’s measured against its emissions in 1990; over the last few years emissions have been reduced, so measured against the 2018 baseline, for example, the cut needed is smaller.

But the UK’s emissions are small in global terms, only about 2% of global emissions compared with 15% for the US. So the cuts of 50% to 52%, compared with 2005 levels, by 2030 announced by the US will have a greater impact.

The EU has pledged cuts of 55%, compared with 1990 levels, and this week put the target into legislation.

Carbon reduction interactive

The differences between the US, the EU and the UK on targets are now fairly minor – what is more important is that these three are now leading the race on targets among the world’s biggest economies, and the gap between the leaders and the rest must be bridged before November if Cop26 is to be a success.

Japan, Canada and Australia are among the major developed economies to have disappointed green campaigners at the White House summit, by either setting fresh targets that are still regarded as too low or not coming up with a target at all.

But what is an NDC?

Every country that signed up to the Paris agreement set out a target, known as a nationally determined contribution (NDC) for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by around 2030. But the initial round in 2015 was insufficient to fulfil the Paris goal, of holding global heating well below 2C above pre-industrial levels, with an aspiration to a 1.5C limit.

The accord contains a “ratchet” mechanism by which each country must toughen its target every five years, so new NDCs were due to be submitted by 31 December 2020.

That deadline was not met by most countries, owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the UN is urging countries to submit new NDCs “in good time” within the next few months, so they can be scrutinised ahead of the Cop26 climate summit, set for this November in Glasgow.

Doesn’t the UK have an even tougher target for 2035?

The UK has also set a 2035 target for a further emissions cut, taking it to 78% cuts by 2035, well on the road to net zero. This target was necessary under UK law: under the 2008 Climate Change Act, which states that the government must accept the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change for five-year carbon budgets. The committee submitted its sixth carbon budget last December, and this week the government accepted its recommendations.

What the UK is doing is like dad dancing – it is not that they’re evil, just that they are very uncoordinated.

Rachel Kyte, Dean, Fletcher School, Tufts University, Massachusetts

Who’s missing?

China is the world’s biggest emitter and has yet to submit an NDC to the UN. The country has a current target of peaking emissions by 2030. However, analysts say this is much too late, and many climate experts are pushing Beijing to seek to peak greenhouse gas emissions in 2025, which they say would be feasible.

China’s latest five-year plan, unveiled last month, disappointed many by failing to include a tougher target. But this week president Xi Jinping said China’s coal consumption would peak in 2025, which would take the country – and the world – a long way towards the cuts needed.

Why do we need NDCs when so many countries already have net zero targets?

In the past 18 months, since the last UN climate summit was held in Madrid in December 2019, the nature of the global climate argument has changed dramatically. At Madrid, only a few countries – including the UK, some European countries and some advanced developing economies – were embracing a long-term target of reaching net zero emissions by mid-century.

However, reaching net zero by mid century is not enough: the climate responds to the cumulative amount of carbon dioxide or its equivalents in the atmosphere, and so reaching net zero by mid-century is no good if emissions have risen too high in the meantime. That is why the NDCs, with their short-term 2030 targets on emissions, are so important. Cop26 will fail unless countries can show they are taking action to cut emissions in this decade, to keep the 1.5C goal within reach.

So how easy will the targets be to fulfil?

It is important to note that some countries have already cut their emissions substantially in recent years. But still emissions are rising globally. In the UK, for example, emissions from transport have barely budged in the last 10 years, and emissions from home heating remain stubbornly high.

Global emissions interactive

The EU has also cut emissions substantially already, but further cuts will need to come from member states that are heavily reliant on coal, such as Poland, and from a switch to electric vehicles.

In the US, coal has enjoyed an unexpected comeback in the past year as gas has become more expensive, while for China, India, Indonesia, Mexico and other developing nations, moving away from coal for power generation will be tough but necessary in order to give the world a chance of fulfilling the Paris agreement.

This week, the IEA said the world would see emissions rise this year by a near-record amount, the second biggest rise in history behind only the rebound in emissions seen after the financial crisis. That rebound is being led by coal. If countries do not take action to put in place a green recovery from the Covid-19 crisis, the world has little chance of meeting its 2030 targets.

Are the targets compulsory?

None of these targets are compulsory. The 2015 Paris agreement comes in two parts: the binding treaty, by which all countries have pledged to hold global heating well below 2C, with an aspiration to limit heating to no more than 1.5C, above pre-industrial levels; and the non-binding annex containing the NDCs. Countries can change or re-submit their NDCs, or ignore them – there are no sanctions.

Who has the best policies to meet their targets?

That is the real question. ““There is not a single government that has the policies needed,” said Niklas Hohne, of the NewClimate Foundation.

Meeting the NDCs will require coordinated policy across all government departments, in a “whole government” approach.

Some countries are working on this but other countries appear to be failing: the UK, for instance, has surprised observers by setting ambitious targets but putting forward measures such as a new coalmine. Rachel Kyte, formerly a top World Bank official at the Paris climate talks who is now the dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Massachusetts, said: “What the UK is doing is like dad dancing – it is not that they’re evil, just that they are very uncoordinated. They have not yet perfected a whole government approach to getting to net zero.”

Countries can no longer afford the dad-dancing approach: coordination across entire economies, and political unanimity across governments, is the only way.