More nations aim for net-zero emissions by 2050

Source: By Nathanial Gronewold, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, November 30, 2020

Are governments tripping over one another to set 2050 as a deadline to hit net-zero emissions because they fear being left behind in a new global clean-tech arms race?

Experts said they believe so, especially following the election victory of Joe Biden in the United States.

The latest example is Canada, which announced last Friday forthcoming legislation in its Parliament that would “legally bind the government to a process to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050,” according to a statement.

More than 100 countries have announced net-zero pledges of some form. Six countries have enshrined these goals into law while seven more and the European Union are mulling proposed legislation, according to the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, a think tank. Canada is the latest to propose a net-zero law, following a push to do so in Australia.

Analysts say economic nationalism, trade frictions and a rise of populism are all fueling this trend.

Frank Jotzo, a professor with the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, told reporters Monday that President-elect Biden’s plan for a net-zero pledge amounts to “a jobs and growth agenda in a zero-carbon economy.”

Jotzo added that U.S. competition with China is another motivating factor. China’s government says it will press for carbon neutrality by 2060.

“The competition or competitive situation with China is quite clear,” he argued. “Both countries will see this economically and strategically.”

John Murton, a climate envoy from the United Kingdom, said China’s “carbon neutral by 2060” move may be in response to talk at the European Union of imposing tariffs on imports from countries that do not have strong climate change mitigation measures in place.

He noted that Biden also has mused about imposing a border carbon adjustment price on imports from certain countries.

“If you start talking about border carbon adjustment mechanisms, it’s very, very contentious, because it goes straight to the heart of trade issues,” Murton said. “It’s possibly one of the reasons why China felt it was in its interests to set a net-zero target for China.”

Canada’s announcement shows that the United States and China are not the only governments jumping on the net-zero bandwagon in response to pressure to provide decent jobs.

Environment and Climate Change Canada said a net-zero law must be passed to ensure a “made in Canada” clean-tech future for its citizens. In their announcement, department officials made it clear they are getting behind the draft Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act in part because Canadians should be fearful of the consequences of not acting.

“Out biggest trading partners and economic competitors are already positioning themselves to attract these investments,” the ministry said.

Japan has yet to pass formal legislation on net zero by 2050, but in announcing his national net-zero aspirations, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga argued that his plan would underpin a strategy for revitalizing Japan’s economy after decades of stagnant growth.

Murton said the United Kingdom’s legally binding net-zero goal helps immensely with industrial and trade planning, and is superior to five- or 10-year goals, which could see governments greenlighting energy projects that could be rendered obsolete or even illegal well before their expiration dates.

“A net-zero target has helped us plan long-term and start thinking about what makes sense to get to zero rather than what makes sense to hit an intermediate target,” he said.

Jotzo said the race to zero is a sign that Australia made a huge mistake by banking a future on natural gas and coal exports. Longer-term and more stringent emissions reduction goals established earlier would have seen the Australian government avoid this pitfall, he argued.

His comments came just days after the ratings agency Moody’s Investor Service issued clients a warning on holdings in Asia’s coal energy producers. The region’s major coal markets — China, Japan and South Korea — all announced 30- to 40-year plans for steep emissions reductions. Those three countries are among the largest markets for Australian coal.

German officials also admit that their net-zero plans are partially driven by what other governments are doing.

Andreas Feicht, state secretary of Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, said his government’s net-zero policy documentation is in response to international developments. Germany is attempting to quickly establish itself as an export platform for clean hydrogen technologies.

Feicht said it is more difficult to convince the public of the need to pursue a net-zero goal when other major countries are avoiding it. But now that Biden will be the next U.S. president, Germany’s path to a net-zero law is clearer, he said.

“We have also to motivate our own citizens in Germany, in Europe, all the industries to go this path quite confidently,” he said Friday at a forum hosted by the European Council on Foreign Relations.

At an International Energy Agency press briefing, Sarah Ladislaw, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, urged caution. Even with global competition raging, there are enormous challenges to overcome for even the most organized national governments, she said.

“If you look at this, there’s a huge portion of the global economy that is going to have to shut down and transition, and we have to be honest with ourselves,” she said.

Ladislaw argued that setting a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions goal to keep up with international competitors is not the same as other global challenges. She said observers should dispense with the notion that steep emissions cuts can be achieved by top-down directives from government legislation.

That goes for the United States just as much as for any other country, she said.

“It is not the experience we are going to have,” Ladislaw said. “We have 50 states. We have a very divided country. We have a large societal challenge that we’re going to have to deal with.”