Only 11 developed countries have reduced emissions and none of those are anywhere close to hitting their Paris accord obligations to prevent global temperatures rising more than 1.5C before reaching zero in 2050. At the current rate of reduction, it will take more than 200 years for the developed world to reach carbon-zero and unless the leading economies of the world commit to make real and deep structural changes and invest trillions of dollars over the next few years, the world is headed for a climate catastrophe.
That is the conclusion of scientists in a new study published in the Lancet.
Researchers have previously raised concerns about whether high-income countries, with their high per-capita CO2 emissions, can decarbonise fast enough to meet their obligations under the Paris Agreement if they continue to pursue aggregate economic growth.
The Lancet paints a very grim picture. Scientists have found that the emission reductions in high-income countries are declining in absolute terms, but still fall “very far short” of Paris-compliant rates. Absolute decoupling is reducing a country’s CO2 emissions while still increasing its gross domestic product (GDP), also known as “green growth.”
The scientists that compiled the report are from the University of Leeds in the UK, the Autonomous University of Barcelona in Spain, and the London School of Economics.
Politicians in high-income countries have typically responded to this problem by insisting that economic growth can be made green, but the report shows that these are platitudes and mask a failure to push through painful measures needed to make a real difference.
“It has long been understood that emissions can decline alongside growing GDP, specifically when the percentage increase in GDP is outweighed by a larger percentage reduction in the emissions intensity of GDP. Such absolute decoupling is of course necessary for green growth, but it is not sufficient,” the report says. “It is not enough to just reduce emissions by any amount; countries need to reduce their emissions to net zero, and fast enough to limit global warming to 1·5°C.. Thwe benchmark for green growth should therefore not just be about whether countries achieve absolute decoupling, but whether they achieve sufficiently rapid absolute decoupling to meet Paris climate and equity commitments.”
The Paris Agreement’s goal is to keep the rise in mean global temperature preferably to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. Emissions should be reduced as soon as they can be, and reach net zero by 2050. Emissions would need to be cut by roughly 50% by 2030.
If the targets are missed then the results are unpredictable, but the raging storms and biblical flash floods already seen this summer, the hottest on record, are a mild foretaste of what is to come if the Paris imitative fails, say experts. And if the target is missed, the damage to the ecosystem is irreversible, say scientists.
Miles off target
Governments around the world are conscious of the need to reduce emissions and most have put some sort of green policies in place. The EU’s Green Deal is one of the most comprehensive and many governments have committed to zero-carbon goals by 2050. But the Lancet reports the pace of reductions falls far short of what is needed to hit the Paris targets.
Worryingly the UN also just published its global stocktake of the fight to reduce emissions ahead of the COP28 climate summit that also rang alarm bells. According to the UN the world has two years left to take drastic action to reduce emissions dramatically or face an environmental disaster. Hope is not lost, but the scale of the action and the price tag that will run into trillions of dollars means that the chances of success are already small and dwindling rapidly.
At the current rate of reduction, high-income countries would take more than a staggering 220 years on average to reduce their emissions by 95%, in the process emitting a whopping 27-times their remaining 1·5°C “fair shares” of the Paris Agreement reduction. The Paris targets are not being missed by a little. They are being missed by hundreds of miles.
“To meet their 1·5°C fair shares alongside continued economic growth, decoupling rates would on average need to increase by a factor of ten by as soon as 2025,” said the researchers.
“The decoupling rates achieved in high-income countries are inadequate for meeting the climate and equity commitments of the Paris Agreement and cannot legitimately be considered green,” they said.
“Green growth is therefore not occurring, and appears out of reach for high-income countries,” they said. High-income countries may not achieve green growth in the future, they said.
Previous studies have compared national decoupling-based emission reduction rates to the global average rates required for meeting particular climate targets, but this is the first-time scientists have looked at the – much faster – rates needed in high-income countries to align with the Paris Agreement’s climate and equity commitments.
Only 11 of the 36 assessed high-income countries achieved absolute decoupling of consumption-based CO2 emissions from GDP between 2013 and 2019, the study found. These countries are Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK.
“However, none of these countries achieved emission reductions that are fast enough for a 50% chance of staying under 1·5°C with minimum equity principles (chart). The discrepancy between existing trends and required emission reductions is extremely large.
The 11 high-income countries that achieved absolute decoupling differ in how far they fall short of the required mitigation rates (chart).
“These differences are caused by differences in their achieved mitigation rates (red trend lines), and differences in how fast they need to cut their emissions (dotted green curves) to stay within their respective carbon-budget fair-shares, as they start from substantially different per-capita emissions. The UK comes closest to what would be required for meeting its 1·5°C fair-share, but still falls markedly short,” the report says.
“A continuation of the 2013–19 average emission reduction rates achieved in the 11 countries through decoupling (business as usual) would not even suffice to reduce their emissions to net zero by 2050, much less to deliver the earlier net-zero dates (on average, in the late 2030s) required for these countries to comply with their 1·5°C fair-shares,” the scientists estimate.
Just how unrealistic the goal of reaching net-zero carbon is becomes clear when estimating just how long it would take given the current rates of reduction.
On the basis of their 2013–19 decoupling achievements, the 11 countries would need between 73 years and 369 years -- 223 years, on average -- to reduce their respective 2022 emissions by 95%. That means they would burn between five times and 162 times -- on average, 27 times -- their respective remaining post-2022 national fair-shares of the global carbon budget for 1·5°C in the process.
Put in percentage reduction terms (chart), the 11 reduction leaders have been reducing emissions by 1%-6% a year between 2013 and 2019, however, to hit the targets the rate of reduction needs to be an order of magnitude bigger or circa 30% a year.
Even the UK, one of the better performing countries, would need to increase its mitigation rate at least five-fold to hit its target. The other ten countries need to increase their mitigation rates at least ten-fold within the next four years, the study found. The worst-performing countries in the sample -- Belgium, Australia, Austria, Canada, and Germany – need to increase it by more than a factor of 30.
The amount of time needed to reach net-zero at these rates means that nothing short of a radical overhaul of policy is needed and the gap is already so wide that even that will struggle to hit the Paris targets.
“The emission reductions achieved via decoupling during 2013–19 are clearly inadequate for high-income countries to deliver on their 1·5°C fair-shares. Furthermore, the disjuncture between achieved and required mitigations rates is very large,” the report said.
To make things worse, the scientists say their analysis is a very conservative one, and should thus be seen as a “best case” for green growth. Their method of allocating the global carbon budget to individual countries reflects only a minimum interpretation of equity regarding future mitigation.
Additionally, recent estimates suggest that the remaining global carbon budgets might be even smaller than the ones used in the study, which would require even faster mitigation and decoupling rates. The scientists also estimate decoupling rates for the business-as-usual and fair-share pathways assuming a continuation of 2013-2019 average GDP growth rates. And the analysis assumes adequate mitigation beginning in 2023.
They also emphasise that the consumption-based CO2 emissions data used do not include emissions from agriculture, forestry and land use, or emissions from international aviation and shipping, making the conclusions even more conservative and pressing.
Decoupling green growth
The Lancet scientists cite a Financial Times article in 2022 that, for example, pointed to absolute decoupling, claiming that “green growth is already here”, and “may take us to net zero all on its own”. This sort of narrative is “greenwashing”, the authors conclude. The UN report also singled out big business, and energy companies in particular, of routinely greenwashing their efforts to reduce emissions, without taking any effective action.
If high-income countries exceed their fair-share carbon budgets, they either exacerbate climate breakdown or appropriate the carbon budget shares of lower-income countries, or most likely they do both, the scientists say.
“There is nothing green about this. If we are to refer to what is happening in these countries as green growth, then green growth is not adequate for avoiding climate catastrophe, much less for achieving climate justice,” they continued.
“Further economic growth in high-income countries is at odds with the climate and equity commitments of the Paris Agreement,” the scientists concluded.
The report suggests one of the few solutions is to fundamental change the way economies are run, abandoning the pursuit of infinite growth and the radical idea of reducing economic activity as one of the only real ways to reduce energy consumption. And all of this needs to be put in place over the next two years.
“To achieve Paris-compliant emission reductions, high-income countries will need to pursue post-growth demand-reduction strategies, reorienting the economy towards sufficiency, equity and human wellbeing, while also accelerating technological change and efficiency improvements,” they said, eliciting what is essentially an ESG strategy.
Post-growth demand-reduction strategies are needed in addition to technological decarbonisation efforts, says the study.