Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Affairs

The Net Zero Trap

| Sep. 30, 2021

Countries Need to Reduce Emissions Now, Not Just in the Distant Future

As more countries pledge to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to zero by midcentury, one could be forgiven for thinking that the world is finally making real progress on climate change. In total, 132 countries, representing about two-thirds of global emissions, have set net-zero targets. Many major emitters—including Japan, the United States, and Europe—have pledged to reach net zero by 2050, and China has promised to do so by 2060.

The current political fixation on pledges to reach net zero in the long term, however, is distracting from the immediate and tangible steps countries should be taking to reduce their emissions. Of the 132 countries with net-zero targets, only 12 have enshrined them in legislation, and just four others are considering doing so. For the remaining 116 countries, net-zero targets are mostly untethered from concrete domestic policies that would allow them to reach their goal. In some cases, the targets may even do more harm than good because they relieve political pressure on leaders for short-term action.

The upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, known as COP26, must focus on holding countries accountable for implementing policies that begin cutting emissions in the short term. To avoid intolerable climatic disruption—such as the massive wildfires and more powerful hurricanes the world experienced this year—global emissions must peak by 2025 and then bend downward on the path to net zero. That will be possible only if politicians take action now rather than hiding behind gauzy commitments to change in the distant future.


The past few years do not inspire confidence in the ability of the world's countries to reach a peak in global emissions by 2025. The global pandemic and severe economic depression produced only an extremely short-lived dip in emissions. After a sharp reduction at the beginning of 2020, emissions rebounded quickly and ended up two percent higher in December 2020 than they were in December 2019, before the pandemic began. Resulting atmospheric concentration also continued its inexorable rise: concentrations of carbon dioxide reached a record 416 parts per million this past July, a 12 percent increase over the past two decades.

Long-term net-zero goals, as well as short- and medium-term targets, are necessary because they provide a clear direction of travel for society. Emission-reduction targets alone, however, are not sufficient: they must be grounded in specific and enforceable policies that can be implemented in each country....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Gallagher, Kelly.“The Net Zero Trap.” Foreign Affairs, September 30, 2021.