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Rich countries will take more than 200 years to cut emissions to zero – study

Rich countries that have “decoupled” their economic growth from carbon emissions will take more than 200 years to reduce their emissions to net zero, a team of sustainability researchers estimates.

They calculated how long it would take 11 nations to reach net zero if they included consumption emissions – counting those emissions from goods and services where they are consumed, not produced.

At current trends, these countries would have to massively speed up their decarbonisation in order to help stop the average global temperature rising above the target set in the Paris Agreement.

International net zero strategies do not typically include these and the Paris Agreement advises that countries avoid double-counting emissions when submitting their nationally determined contributions.

The UK Government said its net zero policy does not include consumption emissions because they cannot influence production in foreign countries.

Although the researchers found the UK was found to be reducing its emissions faster than the other 10 nations identified in their study, they said it will need to do so five times faster by 2025 in order to help achieve the goal of preventing the Earth heating beyond 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

Publishing their work in the journal Lancet Planetary Health, the authors said countries such as the UK should pursue a policy of “post-growth”, such as scaling down energy-intensive forms of production, reducing consumption of the wealthy and shifting people away from private cars to public transit.

Professor Jason Hickel, of the Autonomous University of Barcelona and co-author of the study, said: “The pursuit of economic growth in high-income countries makes it virtually impossible to achieve the required emission reductions.”

The team identified 11 rich countries that achieved “absolute decoupling” – defined as decreasing emissions while increasing GDP – between 2013 and 2019.

For each country – the UK, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Sweden, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada and Denmark – the researchers compared future projections of current emission reduction rates with what would be needed to stay within the 1.5C boundary.

They found that none of these countries are reducing their emissions fast enough, with Belgium, Australia, Austria, Canada, and Germany needing to speed up their reduction rates by 30 times.

Emissions from agriculture, forestry, land use, international aviation and shipping were not included in the assessment, meaning countries would have to speed up their reductions even more after taking these into account.

A Department for Energy Security and Net Zero spokesperson said: “These figures are entirely misrepresentative. We are fully committed to our international commitments and legally-binding target of achieving net zero by 2050.

“In fact, between 1990 and 2021 we cut emissions by 48% while growing our economy by 65% – decarbonising faster than any other G7 country.

“Our determination to reach net zero – while we strengthen energy security and grow the economy – is unwavering and we will continue leading efforts at home and abroad on climate change.”

Lead author of the study, Jefim Vogel of the University of Leeds, said: “There is nothing green about economic growth in high-income countries.

Aeroplane
Reducing demand for air travel is one way the Government could speed up emissions reductions, the researchers said (Tim Goode/PA)

“It is a recipe for climate breakdown and further climate injustice. Calling such highly insufficient emission reductions green growth is misleading, it is essentially greenwashing.”

Developing countries such as Uruguay and Mexico are increasing their production and consumption without exceeding their share of the carbon budget, the researchers said.

Rich countries should instead prioritise ecological sustainability; scale down carbon-intensive industries such as air travel, industrial meat and dairy, fast fashion, cruises and private jets; reduce income inequality; insulate buildings; reduce food waste; shift people away from private cars and introduce laws to extend the lifespan of products, they added.

Mr Vogel said: “Moving away from economic growth towards post-growth is fundamentally different from a recession, it does not entail hardship or loss of livelihoods.

“Post-growth can secure and improve livelihoods and wellbeing without economic growth, through policies such as a public job guarantee, worktime reduction, living wages, a minimum income guarantee, and universal access to affordable housing and quality public services.”

The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero has been contacted for comment.