The origin of the race to zero: Climate neutrality concept in the international climate negotiation process

About 120 countries around the world currently declare the goal of achieving climate neutrality or zero emissions by the middle of this century, but often declarations are not based on specific plans and actions. Meanwhile, the present decade is crucial for achieving zero emissions in or shortly after 2050.

Long-term goal of the UNFCCC Convention and the Paris Agreement vs. climate neutrality

Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)  adopted the Paris Agreement at the Conference of Parties (COP) in Paris in 2015. The long-term temperature goal of the Paris Agreement was set with the aim of holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above the pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above the pre-industrial levels. This temperature goal is meant to be achieved by the end of this century and enhance the efforts to prevent anthropogenic climate change at the level enabling adaption to the adverse impacts of climate change and possibly to reverse the trend. The general temperature goal stems from the framework character of the Convention because it indicates only the main long-term goal. The Parties to the Convention have agreed to achieve the goal in the long-term perspective and they may undertake additional agreements or accede particular protocols, such as the Kyoto Protocol (1997), the Cancun Agreements (2010) or the Paris Agreement (2015).The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) elaborates recommendations on climate change to the Parties to the UNFCCC Convention that are also Parties to the Paris Agreement. The goal of holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C appeared in the final documents of the COP15 in Copenhagen (2009). It was accepted as a long-term ambition reference of the UNFCCC Parties incorporated into the Cancun Agreements of the COP16 in 2010. 

Nevertheless, the below 2 °C  long-term goal was assumed as long ago as the year before the Kyoto Protocol (1997), when the European Union, at that time the EU15, adopted it in 1996.It was the Kyoto Protocol which set the reduction commitments for the first time in 1997. 

Commitments to reduce emissions

The so called ‘developed countries’ undertook their reduction goals set against  the baseline of 1990. At the same time ‘developing countries’ – China, India and Brazil among others, although joining the Protocol, were not included into the commitment framework because of then comparably low amount of their emissions at that time. The aim of the Kyoto Protocol was to achieve the developed countries’ emission reduction in  the period 2008-2012 (the first commitment period) by 5% below the 1990 levels. The European Union (EU15) declared joint emission reduction by 8% compared to 1990 level and managed it internally as a ‘burden-sharing’ agreement. 

Poland, at that time not yet an EU Member State, was classified with other former Soviet block countries  as an ‘Economy in Transition’ within the UNFCCC framework. The Polish reduction target was 6% compared to a baseline of 1988 emissions levels. This goal was overachieved fivefold. Among many different reasons of that substantial reduction processes such as a rapid economy transformation, dramatic collapse of heavy industry and significant energy efficiency improvement, combined with a spectacular fall of emissivity of the national GDP. The total emission reduction within the 1988-2016 period, realized in the framework of the Kyoto Protocol accomplished by Poland amounted to 30%. At the same time the country doubled its GDP what proved that significant decarbonization of the economic growth occurred in that period (GDP-GHG emissions decoupling).   The second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol (2013-2020) was successfully fulfilled by the European Union. The EU overachieved, despite the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol entering into force just before the end of the Kyoto’s second phase. In that period Poland was not implementing its own target because as an EU Member State the country participated in the joint European goal. The overall EU goal was set at the level of 80% of total European emissions what meant a 20% reduction of the Member States’ emissions compared to their baselines (baseline years). Notwithstanding, the Kyoto Protocol was not an ambitious enough agreement to be able to assure achievement of the long-term UNFCCC goal. It was due to very limited number of committed Parties to the Protocol especially since neither the United States nor the Russian Federation participated in the Kyoto’s second phase.

In 2009-2010, the Parties to the Convention adopted a goal of emission reduction adequate to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2 °C till the end of the century.  To achieve that goal, the developed countries should have committed themselves  to reducing their emissions by the mid-century by circa 40% compared to the 1990 levels, while developing countries were expected to aim for a low-emissions growth. Moreover, developed countries would have to reduce their emissions by 80 to 95% by 2050. Long-term emission reduction goal of 80-95% was also adopted by the European Council, with the higher level in the proposed range to be achieved, provided the other developed countries committed to achieve comparable levels of reductions. Because of the historical responsibility for the past GHG emissions, the developed countries were considered as responsible for the emission reduction, while the developing countries were expected to aim for a low-carbon development. Since the adoption of the Paris Agreement  in 2015, all the Parties, including the industrialized developing countries, declared participation in emission reduction efforts aiming at zero emissions goal sometime in the second half of the century.                                                                                                                           

Way to the goal 1.5 degrees

At the request of the Parties to the Convention, the IPCC undertook the study on the possible ambition increase and its associated profits. The IPCC produced a special report on the 1.5 °C goal (IPCC 1.5 C Special Report) in 2018, recommending that the Parties increase their ambition. Its main conclusion was that the 1.5 °C goal remained still feasible. The scientists who analysed the results of models used to elaborate possible 1.5 °C scenarios, recommended halving emission reduction compared to the 2010 levels by the year 2030, and reaching the net-zero emissions levels in 2050. The Report also concluded that the 1.5 °C goal was justified by the substantial limitations of the possible damages caused by the global consequences of the climate change. 

After the 1.5 °C IPCC Special Report was published in October 2018, countries negotiated first at the IPCC and then at the COP level whether to accept the recommendations. In the end, the consensus has not been reached, resulting in the long-term goal of the Paris Agreement remaining the same as adopted in 2015. Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) notified within the framework of the Paris Agreement were analysed by the UNFCCC Secretariat. Independently, an expert team and the UNEP team elaborating a yearly global emission report since 2010, prepared their review known as the Emissions Gap Report. The conclusions of that analysis revealed that all combined NDCs would result in a limitation of the global temperature increase by 3.2 °C till the end of the century. The IPCC argues that the increase of the global average temperature by more than 1.5 °C will  increase the frequency and intensity of such events as storms and heat-waves in different parts of the world. That was the reason why some political initiatives appeared and they try to convince governments to declare rapid and radical actions aiming at the GHG emission reduction and – just to use a popular political and expert jargon – to increase the climate ambition by the Parties of the Agreement.

Till the publication of the IPCC 1.5 °C Report, the most ambitious developed countries realizing Convention goals declared their wish of emission reduction by 75-80% by the mid-century according to IPCC IV Report. Aiming at diminishing global temperature rise up to 1.5 °C, all combined emissions have to be halved by 2030 against 2010 levels and a zero-emission should be reached by 2050. The G-20 group countries responsible for 78% global emissions  should undertake the main efforts. The 2019 UNEP GAP Report argues that it would mean the emission reduction ratio of 7.6% yearly.  Such a radical emission reduction perspective did not receive an universal support of the Parties to the Convention just after the Special Report publication at the COP24 in Katowice. It was caused by some concerns of many governments who feared the adoption of the Agreement’s 1.5 °C goal without assuring an adequate international financial support enabling implementation of the of carbon reduction measures. However, more than 30 countries between COP24 and COP25 and during the Conference in Madrid, adopted a zero-emission goal, declared carbon neutrality, or climate neutrality by 2050. Actually, as the experts say, around 120 countries declared officially a climate neutrality goal or zero-emission goal by the mid-century. Nevertheless, many of those declarations remain wishful as they are not followed by real plans and measures. 

Roughly estimated global emissions indicate that the level of CO2 content in atmosphere leading to global temperature rise on average of 1.5 °C will be achieved within 10-11 years. Those estimates are based upon the assumption that the GHG emissions no longer rise but stay at the same level year by year. It is still not clear if that assumption is right because many experts say that global GHG emissions are not at the same level and emission rise slows down. Meanwhile, the UNEP GHG emission reports alarm about GHG emissions rising still. Global GHG emissions raised by 1.5% in the last decade. The UNEP estimates that GHG emission should decrease by 2.7% a year, just to reach the 2 °C goal, in 2020-2030 period. The same ratio should be threefold higher enabling achievement of the 1.5 °C goal. It is believed generally that the current decade is a key period for achievement of zero-emission level at 2050 or shortly after.

The GHG emissions fell down in most of the countries in 2020, compared to previous year. Only China’s emissions grew by 3%, as it is estimated. The rise was smaller than expected before pandemic, nevertheless it is still exceptional compared to other countries. It is said that the global GHG emissions were at least 7% lower than expected before.  Significant emission drop was due to the anti-pandemic restrictions introduced in many countries. Germany, for example, achieved its 2020 reduction goal because of pandemic although it seemed doubtful in 2019 yet. If the big economies will come back to their previous performance model in 2021 and in the following years, the chance to carry out the green transformation will be lost and the long-term goal of the Convention and the Paris Agreement will remain unachievable.  

It should be stressed that all the data used by the experts are an estimation. All the GHGs are compared to the CO2 emissions and expressed in CO2 equivalent. The amount of the CO2 emission which could be emitted just to reach the 1.5 °C threshold is called a global CO2 budget. Actually, it is estimated the remaining budget since 2020 will be enough for 6 to 11 years, depending on the rise of emissions – should it stay at the current level or speed up after pandemic. In order for the budget not to be exhausted, the emissions must fall down by 45% overall. Some scientists believe that the budget has already exhausted. Tokarska and Matthews  state, with the 1 to 6 probability, that the emission budget leading to the 1.5 °C threshold could have been exhausted some time ago. This is due to the estimation of the anthropogenic emissions from agriculture and deforestation which are burdened with a high risk of error. Many countries do not monitor their industrial or transport emissions and give their estimates based upon the general IPCC methodologies instead.

Meaning of zero net emissions, carbon neutrality and climate neutrality

The Paris Agreement uses the term ‘climate neutrality’. The media use also other terms:  ‘carbon neutrality’ and ‘zero-emissions’ or ‘zero net emissions’. All of them are very similar and they require some explanation. 

The concept of zero-emissions is similar or even the same as climate neutrality. It is impossible to eliminate anthropogenic GHG emissions totally and because of that the remaining emissions should be balanced in such a way that they are climate neutral (zero net emissions). Zero net emissions will be achieved through the removal of that part of GHG emissions which cannot be fully reduced (some agricultural emissions for example). Emissions removal should be a result of natural removals by sinks such as forests or other green areas. The another way of removal is the mechanical technology such as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) or a Direct air capture and storage (DACS). The concept of the climate neutrality and the role of forests, those of the temperate climate zone as well, were actively promoted by the Polish delegation, headed by the Minister of Environment, Professor Jan Szyszko, during the Paris Agreement final text negotiations at the COP21. The EU Member States representatives were convinced to support this concept. Because of that the EU was active to include forests and also the forests of our climate zone, into Agreement final text.

The term of ‘carbon neutrality’ is connected with recalculation of other GHG emission into CO2 equivalent. Emission level is usually expressed in CO2e units and emissions are referred to as ‘carbon emissions’. So, in a matter of fact, this is the same situation: GHG emission reduction up to zero recalculated into carbon dioxide equivalent.

“Race to zero” within the context of international negotiations and climate diplomacy

The slogan of “Race to zero” was commonly adopted probably because of its relation with the urgent and radical action. This slogan was a motto of the UN summits organized several times after 2015 by the Secretary General Antonio Guterres. 
Initiatives undertaken under this slogan are primarily:
UN Summits
He was personally involved in mobilizing of governments to ambitious climate actions and pursuit of zero emissions. There were also summits of the heads of states and prime ministers organized by France as the host of the COP21 when the Paris Agreement was adopted. 
Summits of Heads of State
The country also hosted further summits organized on the occasion of the second and the fifth anniversaries of the Paris Agreement adoption. 
Initiatives of the COP presidency
The following COP presidencies held by the host countries of next COPs also organized conferences.

Chile Presidency promoted the initiative which involved many countries into the Global Climate Alliance. Those countries declared their commitments of 2050 zero emissions before and during the COP25 in Madrid. Zero emissions declarations appeared in the context of the review of NDCs under the framework of the Paris Agreement notified in 2015 and 2016. This review is a consequence of the Paris Agreement and the Decision 1/CP.21 which obliges the Parties to review the NDCs before the implementation of the Paris Agreement on the 1 of January 2021. At the same time, COP decisions encourage the Parties to the Agreement to notify the UNFCCC Secretariat of their long-term low emissions development strategies and indicate their 2050 reduction goal.

COP21 appointed two global climate action champions who represent actual and future COP presidencies.  This was the result of understanding of importance of involvement of a possible broad spectrum of stakeholders into the climate action. The champions’ tasks are to mobilize and to support independent and additional actions undertaken by the governments, urban authorities and organizations, business, international organizations, NGOs, other partners who cooperate within the framework of the Marrakesh Partnership (formally initiated at the COP22 in Marrakesh in 2016). One of the champions’ global climate action initiatives is campaign “Race to zero” aimed at support and encouragement of partnership members to undertake public reduction commitments connected with their business activity and to implement measures leading to zero emissions.

The COP26 was postponed and because of that there was an online summit of leaders to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement, hosted by the President of France last year. 75 prime ministers and heads of states participated in the event. There were 45 new or reviewed NDCs presented, 24 commitments of zero emissions declared and 20 national adaptation plans notified. The UK as a host of the next COP announced its commitment to quit any financing of fossil fuels excavation projects abroad. The UK also plans to achieve 68% emission reduction by 2030 in comparison to 1990. This would lead to 2050 zero emissions goal which was declared in 2019. Apart from official declarations, 20 countries and the EU undertake actions targeted to 2050 zero emissions. Altogether, there are 120 states declaring 2050 zero emissions, many of the most impoverished countries included. Officially, Bhutan is the only country being actually zero emissions and it intends to stay so. Some states declared zero emissions in their NDCs notified to the UNFCCC Secretariat or in their long-term low emissions development strategies.

Long-term low emissions development strategies as tools to achieve the climate neutrality goals 

Long-term low emissions development strategies (LTS/LEDS) are aimed to help the countries to elaborate next NDCs, marking the emission reduction path towards zero emission or climate neutrality. The main reason of the Parties of the Agreement being encouraged to develop and notify the UNFCCC of their LTS/LEDS is the necessity of transparency safeguarding through declaration on actions to be undertaken and the long-term goals in relation to the zero emission issue in particular. The LTS/LEDS provide an opportunity to involve different stakeholder groups into transformation process. Those groups should be a target of informative campaigns explaining objectives and long-term goals of the state climate policy. A European strategic long-term vision “A Clean Planet for All” was published in the European Commission communication of 28th of November 2018.   The Strategy was a subject to broad public consultation among different stakeholders groups representative for European Member States’ societies and EU industrial sectors. The Strategy implies involvement of all Europeans and their active participation in the transformation process.

This vision, also known as The 2050 Strategy, presents European economy development perspectives and transformation towards a climate neutrality and modern, competitive and growing economy, too. The transformation necessary to achieve climate neutrality is perceived not only as a challenge, but also as a chance of a new opening for the Member States’ economies. The Strategy presents possible development paths which are the basis for the choices made in a context of the European Green Deal (EGD) implementation. The EDG is a programme publicly announced by the European Commission President, Ms Ursula von der Leyen. The Strategy is at the same time fully compatible with the European Member States’ commitment towards achievement of the long-term goal of the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement as well. 

Because of the adoption of the EU zero emissions goal by the Member States, the 2030 reduction target was raised from 40% to 55% in comparison to the 1990 baseline. The increase of ambition will require some deep changes within the EU regulations on the EU ETS, non-ETS, mainly transport and building sectors, and also the Energy Efficiency Directive, RES, changes of car emission standards and many other changes affecting agriculture, forestry, waste management, circular economy and so on. The need to intervene at the EU level  necessitates the European climate law which was presented as a project by the European Commission in March 2020. The EU Member States will present their own visions of climate neutrality pursued in their long-term development strategies. This refers also to those Member States who had developed their strategies before 2030 reduction goal increase. They may need to elaborate them again considering new, more ambitious targets. 

Apart from the 2050 EU Strategy, long-term low emission development strategies were notified to the UNFCCC Secretariat by some EU Member States: Austria, Belgium, Czechia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Latvia, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain and Sweden.

In mid-2021 the Commission will publish the package “Fit for 55” implementing the new target of emission reduction by 55% in comparison to 1990 emission level. The changes will affect the current EU regulations regarding EU ETS, non-ETS, energy efficiency, RES and they should propose more just and feasible economic transformation based upon effort sharing among the Member States. The transformation will require a life-style change of Europeans, promoting a resignation of fossil fuel cars, dissemination of electric cars, recycling, carbon footprint reduction and consumption patterns change.The package will be a key element of the Green Deal implementation. New technologies and necessary standards will help EU transformation of creating new jobs and stimulating the Member States’ economic growth. If the European Union realize its goals and carry out this green transformation successfully, the other countries and regions should follow the EU example. This process will require to face a low emission evolution of their own economies relying on fossil fuels mostly and to implement a sustainable development. 

Author: Marzena Chodor, CAKE/KOBiZE/LIFE VIIEW2050
Material from the Institute of Environmental Protection - National Research Institute, the organizer of the Klimada 2.0 project

This article is part of the project. „Assessment of the long-term influence of the European emissions trading system (EU ETS) on the zero-emissions economy  until 2050 r. (LIFE VIIEW 2050)” - LIFE 19GIC/PL/001205
[1]   In the second Kyoto commitment period (2013-2020) the EU replaced the „burden” with the „effort” which sounds more positively. The share of efforts between the 27 Member States has thus became effort-sharing.  
[3]  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, „Fourth Assessment Report Climate Change 2007, Working Group III: Mitigation of Climate Change”, Geneva, 2007 (IPCC 4AR)
[4]  European Council, Presidency Conclusions — Brussels 29/30 October 2009, Council of the European Union, 15265/1/09, 2009 
[5]  The assessment in UNEP 2020  Emissions Gap Report: Emissions Gap Report 2020 | UNEP - UN Environment Programme
[6]  The champion is nominated for two years.
[7] (COM2018) 773 final