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Climate Change and The Race to Net Zero


Over the last few decades, CO2 emissions have become a hot topic in the climate change debate, and rightly so. Today, we see more carbon dioxide in our air than there ever has been in the past 800,000 years, and though in some part this phenomenon is cyclical, our emissions are a key contributor to its acceleration.

For every decade since the 1800s, our climate gets roughly 0.1C degree hotter on average. One area that this affects is the polar ice caps – the warming of which increases the threat of coastal cities being submerged, and thus bringing with it the high costs of relocating cities towards the mainlands.

More alarmingly, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predict that should trends continue, the majority of coastal cities will be submerged within the next 100 years.

In addition, temperature rises come with a host of more immediate socio-economic problems, such as damaging effects on farming and agriculture.

Optimal temperatures are very important for good yields, and more generally for food and animals. As temperatures increase, many industries will thus be affected much sooner than expected. For example, in 2012 in Michigan, US, nighttime temperature increases caused over $220M in losses for cherry farmers alone, as the latter are responsible for 75% of US cherry supply.

Extrapolating these trends across industries, countries, and types of disaster, current trends indicate that global yields are expected to decrease by up to 80% should no alternative sources of farming be established.

Historically, efforts to curb our emissions have not always proved effective as many economies are highly reliant on industries that produce emissions. However, recently, countries are becoming increasingly vigilant.

Today, agreements such as the Kyoto protocol and the Paris agreement serve as a global benchmark for the commitment of governments and their leaders to help tackle this issue.

Ultimately, it is very easy to make claims that a country is committed to ecological and environmental preservation, but for some, walking the walk is a different story entirely. Indeed, countries as well as industries are key contributors to climate change; but who is in the lead towards Net-Zero? 

The key contributors

With energy and industry accounting for more than two thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions, the recent surge towards sustainable living and eating is a symbol of our changing public sentiment about our actions.

Breaking it down by country, we can see that the largest contributors are China, the US, and the EU.

Source: The Asset Note: Baseline refers to projected emissions with no new, or tightening of existing, mitigation policy.

Despite claims that China is committed to tackling climate change, many of its industries remain highly dependent on coal. In fact, in 2019, coal made up 57.7% of China’s energy usage.

This is expected to increase over the coming years, before decreasing, as switching to renewable energy requires time, money and infrastructure.

Regardless, within the climate change discussion, this is hardly new information. As the vast majority of countries rush towards Net-Zero carbon emissions, let’s see who is in the lead.

Net-Zero race

When we look at all the countries committed to achieving Net-Zero, we see some interesting leaders. For many countries, the degree of dedication varies from legislation to under discussion.

As of today, in terms of emissions, the only two countries that have achieved Net-Zero are Suriname in South America, and Bhutan in Asia.

For Suriname, dense forests cover 93% of the country and as such, since 2014, they have removed more carbon than they emit. However, this feat is fragile, as logging and mining companies threaten it.

For Bhutan, a similar story is true. Roughly 70% of the country is covered in dense forest, making the country a “Carbon Sink”. Today, Bhutan absorbs an excess of five million tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Source: Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit

Out of the countries that have completely committed to tackle their emissions both in action and through legislation, Germany and Sweden are in the lead.

For those that aren’t quite there yet there yet. There are also some notable mentions that that go beyond their legislative efforts: Austria, Iceland, Finland.

Despite the differences in stages within their respective legislative processes, the goal of Net-Zero carbon emissions is still expected to be attained between 2040-45 for most, however Finland are expected to attain it sooner.

Due to the effective implementation of green policies, the national objectives set by the Finnish Prime Minister, Sanna Marin, have resulted in the country being well on target to achieve Net-Zero by 2035, despite the fact that their legislative efforts haven’t gone to the extent of others.

For many in the Nordic and Central European countries, whole communities are long-standing proponents of the goal of Net-Zero and tackling climate change in general (Sweden was one of the first to adopt the target and their efforts are in legislation).

Community efforts in Finland can be seen from examples such as the Finnish town of Lahti, who through sustainable power generation aim to achieve Net-Zero 10 years before the rest of the country.

Dedication to tackling climate change also extends beyond emissions for these countries as they have also been key players in recycling; Germany is a global leader in recycling, reusing 56.1% of its annual waste, with Austria as a close second at 53.1%.

For Iceland, a country so rife with natural resources, CO2 emissions have still been steadily decreasing for the last two decades. Nonetheless, it is in a position that makes it too expensive for the country to clean its air for now.

Whilst direct-air capture is the inevitable solution, it is a very expensive process, and currently, there are only 15 plants in operation around the world. Estimates by the IPCC suggest that should we want to limit this century’s expected temperature rise to a maximum of 2 degrees celsius, we would need 10,000-14,000 plants over the next 30 years.

Final thoughts

The race towards Net-Zero is predicated on three factors: geographic qualities, legislative progress such as bans and economic dis/incentives, and the attitudes of the individuals within the country.

For the countries in the majority, the goal is to reach Net-Zero by 2050. Where the challenge lies however, is in the difference in legislative progress. For a vast majority, legislative devotion is capped at discussion and therefore, companies have no incentive to slow down their emissions.

Disincentivising firms from chipping away at natural resources and limiting emissions is very important, as, for many, economic needs trump environmental ones.

One way to encourage this, is through the rise of green economic policies, which are a government tool that aims to incentivise companies to curb their emissions. Processes such as Emission Reduction Currency Systems for example bridge the gap between economic and environmental needs.

On some level, economic needs must take a back seat in the context of climate change lest we want to trade an economic catastrophe for an environmental one, which in itself would bring much more economic turmoil.

Finally, attitudes towards the issue are also vital. When considering climate change, the issue is wider than air pollution. Scandinavian and Central European countries for some time have been thought leaders in these areas, highlighting the importance or focusing on other areas such as recycling and reducing water pollution.

The push towards clean and sustainable living needs to be both a global and individual effort. Starting from individual efforts such as attitudes towards recycling to ending at global government initiatives such as legislation and tax incentives, the race to Net-Zero is dependent on the individual country’s needs and views.

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