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Net-zero emissions

Countries’ long-term climate strategies fail to define residual emissions

Achieving net zero means balancing remaining emissions with carbon removal, and understanding the nature and scope of residual emissions is key to planning decarbonized energy and industrial systems. However, our analysis of long-term climate strategies shows that many governments lack clear projections for residual emissions at net zero.

Recommendations for policy

  • Current projections of residual emissions by 2050 by the countries that have quantified them indicate a need for high levels of removals, which risks compromising other sustainability goals.

  • Clear projections for the amount of residual emissions, sectoral and spatial distribution, and the types of greenhouse gas will help planning and investment for mid-century infrastructure.

  • Policymakers and researchers should develop standards for what can be reasonably deemed residual emissions, in order to avoid inflated expectations of emissions that cannot be compensated by removals.

  • Policymakers can support decarbonization planning by being explicit about whether residual emissions — and net zero as a goal — are a temporary stopgap towards decarbonization, or a state to maintain.

  • Both international and national policy action is needed to solve the problem of ensuring that removals are compensating for emissions from sectors and activities that are truly hard-to-abate.

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Fig. 1: Residual emissions versus 2019 emissions, Annex I countries.

Further reading

  • Fankhauser, S. et al. The meaning of net zero and how to get it right. Nat. Clim. Change 12, 15–21 (2022). This paper identifies the need for more clarity and transparency in the setting of net-zero targets.

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  • Grassi, G. et al. Carbon fluxes from land 2000–2020: bringing clarity on countries’ reporting. Earth Syst. Sci. Data 14, 4643–4666 (2022). The latest published comprehensive dataset of land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) fluxes on managed land.

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  • Luderer, G. et al. Residual fossil CO2 emissions in 1.5–2 °C pathways. Nat. Clim. Change 8, 626–633 (2018). An analysis of key residual emissions determinants in modelled mitigation pathways.

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  • Smith, H. B., Vaughan, N. E. & Forster, J. Long-term national climate strategies bet on forests and soils to reach net-zero. Commun. Earth Environ. 3, 305 (2022). A recent analysis of long-term strategies that examines projections for carbon removal.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Waisman, H. et al. A pathway design framework for national low greenhouse gas emission development strategies. Nat. Clim. Change 9, 261–268 (2019). A pathway design framework for national low greenhouse gas emission development strategies.

    Article  Google Scholar 

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This work was supported by the Swedish Research Council Formas, grant no. 2018-01686 (H.J.B. and W.C.) and grant no. 2019-01953 (all authors).

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Correspondence to Holly Jean Buck.

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Buck, H.J., Carton, W., Lund, J.F. et al. Countries’ long-term climate strategies fail to define residual emissions. Nat. Clim. Chang. 13, 317–319 (2023).

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