July 13, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Federico Citterich (31 May 2024)

Failure to meet short-term sustainability goals raises concerns about attaining future climate pledges.

19 out of 34 countries failed to achieve their CO2 emissions targets set at COP15 for the year 2020, new research has found.

The study, published in Nature Climate Change, was the first to assess the extent to which countries were able to meet the climate pledges set at COP15 in 2009.

To do this, the authors used emission and energy data from the International Energy Agency and global models of CO2 emissions based on national accounts.

Only 15 of the 34 countries – Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States – achieved their emissions reduction goals.

Of the 19 countries that failed to fully meet their CO2 emissions targets for 2020, 12 failed outright. These included Australia, Austria, Canada, Cyprus, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, and Switzerland. The remaining seven – Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Luxembourg, Malta, and Poland – reduced carbon emissions within their own borders, but achieved that by outsourcing carbon-intensive processes to other countries, a practice known as “carbon transfer”. 

“To detect carbon transfer, it is crucial to differentiate between territorial and consumption-based emissions,” said Klaus Hubacek, a Professor in Science, Technology and Society at the University of Groningen and co-author of the study. “This enables us to understand whether countries reduced their territorial CO2 emissions by outsourcing polluting practices.”

The authors highlighted that territorial carbon mitigation should be achieved by improving sustainability efforts rather than by outsourcing pollution to other countries. 

“However, completely avoiding carbon transfer is challenging because it is an integral part of international trade, an important component of our society,” Hubacek added. “Avoiding carbon transfer is impossible without also avoiding trade.”

Rather than cutting trade-based carbon transfer, Hubacek explained that countries should primarily focus on territorial mitigation efforts and emissions along the entire supply chain.

According to the authors, timely tracking the countries’ mitigation efforts is “critical for meeting the Paris Agreement targets,” the climate pledges set at COP21 in 2015 that aim to “keep the rise in global surface temperature to well below 2 °C (3.6 °F) above pre-industrial levels.”

The fact that most countries failed to achieve their emissions reduction goals for 2020 raises concerns as to whether they will be able to meet their Paris Agreement targets.

 “It is important to highlight that the countries set their targets based on their own capabilities, yet they still failed to achieve them,” said Hubacek. “Moreover, these targets are not ambitious enough.”

Countries unable to meet their targets mainly failed because their CO2 reduction efforts were surpassed by the increased consumption associated with rising economic and demographic growth.

According to the authors, this shows that developed countries should focus away from GDP growth in favour of fostering a more equal and fair society.

“We need to accept our responsibilities for the impacts that our emissions create globally, and we need to implement new, sustainable ways of producing and consuming,” concluded Hubacek. “Now is the time to act. I am worried, but hopeful.”