Human-induced global warming is arguably the most significant environmental concern in mankind's history. Caused largely by the burning of fossil fuels such as oil (and gasoline), coal, and natural gas, global warming can permanently reshape coastlines, transform both local and global weather patterns, and disrupt entire ecosystems. In an attempt to mitigate the impact of global warming, many of the world's countries have begun making efforts to minimize carbon emissions and become either carbon-neutral countries or carbon-negative countries.
Carbon-negative countries are those whose carbon-mitigation efforts have led to them removing, or sequestering, more carbon than they emit. Therefore, carbon-negative countries are actively helping to reverse global warming and climate change. Carbon negativity is particularly difficult to attain in developed and developing countries, where motor vehicles, industrial operations, and power plants tend to burn vast quantities of fossil fuels. This in turn, releases large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and creates a large carbon footprint.
Carbon-Neutral (Net-Zero) Countries:
Explained: The difference between carbon-neutral countries vs carbon-negative countries
Although the terms carbon-neutral and carbon-negative are related, they actually have two distinctly different meanings. Both carbon-neutral and carbon-negative countries still generate carbon emissions—which is arguably counter-intuitive. The difference between the two terms is the degree to which the countries offset those emissions.
Carbon-neutral countries offset their CO₂ emissions with carbon mitigation efforts (such as planting trees) that sequester an equal amount of carbon. Therefore, the country's net carbon emissions are zero, or neutral. By going carbon-neutral, also known as "net-zero", a country can ensure that it is no longer contributing to climate change. By comparison, carbon-negative countries take the mitigation process further and sequester more carbon than they emit. Excess carbon sequestration can arguably help slow or reverse the effects of climate change. Many carbon-neutral countries continue their mitigation efforts until they reach carbon-negative status.
Note that net zero is different from zero-carbon, which describes a device or location, such as a solar-powered home or electric vehicle, that produces no carbon emissions. Finally, countries which still emit more carbon than they sequester may at times be referred to as carbon-positive countries. Considering that the overwhelming majority of the world's countries fall into this category, carbon-positive is a notably more common—though significantly less desirable—label than carbon-neutral or carbon-negative.
Net Zero and the Paris Agreement
In an effort to address global warming and climate change at a global level, delegates from nearly every country and territory in the world met in Paris, France, in 2015 for the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Here, 196 countries signed a treaty known as the Paris Agreement, agreeing to work to limit total climate change to 2.0°C (3.6°F) above "pre-industrial" levels of the late 1800s, and preferably no more than 1.5°C (2.7°F). As of 2022, the Earth's average temperature had already risen by approximately 1.1°C (2.0°F).
According to the Paris Agreement, in order to cap global temperature rise at 1.5°C (2.7°F), global emissions need to be reduced by 45% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. This process is significantly behind schedule. Upon comparing the current plans and available data for 193 countries, the United Nations determined that instead of the needed 45% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, current efforts will result in a 10-11% increase in emissions by 2030.
While many countries are making an effort to reach net-zero or carbon neutrality, the process of reducing CO₂ emissions is notably easier for some countries than for others. A 2022 report from the United Nations Environment Programme determined that roughly 75% of all emissions come from a small group of only 20 emitters (19 countries and the collective European Union). Moreover, roughly 50% of all emissions come from a mere seven emitters: China, the United States, India, the European Union, Indonesia, Russia, and Brazil.
Profiles of carbon-negative countries
Sandwiched between two of the world's most populous countries (China and India), the tiny Asian nation of Bhutan was the first country in the world to become carbon-negative in the modern era. Bhutan's natural ecology lends itself well to carbon-mitigation efforts—dense forests cover more than 70% of the country's land area, absorbing CO₂ in vast amounts. Moreover, the country has moved to keep it that way, banning logging exports and amending its constitution to ensure that at least 60% of the country will always be covered in forest. Volunteers in Bhutan set a world record in 2015 by planting 49,672 trees in a single hour.
Bhutan has a small population (approximately 784,574 as of Jan. 2023) and is sparsely developed, which reduces the demand for electricity, food, and other resources whose production and distribution can generate carbon emissions. However, the country is also heavily invested in hydroelectricity, which it harvests from its many rivers and supplies both to its people, such as rural farmers who would otherwise burn wood for heat and cooking, and to other countries in the form of exports. The government is also investing in solar and biogas power, subsidizes the use of LED lights, and is making efforts to replace the country's gas-burning vehicles with electric vehicles.
The third carbon-negative country in the world also boasts an ecology rich with flora, with 65.4% of its territory covered by rainforests, swamps, and jungle. More than 33% of Panama's land is protected, and its government is working to reforest 50,000 hectares of land by the year 2050. Plans also exist to phase out heavy fuels and coal in 2023. Unlike Bhutan and Suriname, which support populations of fewer than a million residents, Panama is home to more than four million people (4,441,023 as of Jan. 2023).
The second carbon-negative country in the world, Suriname is not only the smallest (163.8 km²) and least-populous (620,000 as of Jan. 2023) sovereign nation in South America, it is also one of the poorest. Mining—particularly for bauxite (aluminum), gold, and oil—is the main tentpole or Suriname's economy. Yet despite the potentially damaging impact that mining activities can have on the surrounding environment, Suriname remains the most heavily forested country in the world, with estimates of its forest cover ranging from 90-97% of its surface area.
Profiles of carbon-neutral and soon-to-be-carbon-negative countries
In addition to the three carbon-negative countries above, which formed an alliance of carbon-negative countries at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), a handful of additional countries have claimed in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs)—a sort of emissions-focused self-assessment many countries undertake, which is then reviewed by the UN over several years—that they have become carbon sinks, which implies carbon negativity.
The tiny, but densely populated island country of Comoros lies just off the coast of Eastern Africa and estimates that it sequestered -1,714 kilotons of CO₂ in 2015, according to the country's first NDC. Despite the country's dense population, large portions of Comoros are still covered in forests—the country ranked 33rd out of 170 countries in a recent Forest Landscape Intergrity Index, which helps it to sequester carbon more effectively. Comoros is considered a Lower-Middle-Income economy by the World Bank
One of the most developed countries in Africa, Gabon lies along the equator and has a population of roughly 2,416,242 people as of 2023. Gabon is 88% covered by forest, most notably the Congo Rainforest, which spreads across six countries. Although Gabon's economy depends heavily upon oil exports, its output is much lower than that of many other oil-producing countries, and Gabon has declared its intention to remain carbon-neutral.
According to its first NDC, the South American country of Guyana has achieved net-zero status and even become a carbon sink. Guyana credits its 14.48 million hectares of largely old-growth rainforest, which covers 85% of the country's surface, for its ability to sequester up to 350 metric tons of carbon per hectare.
An island nation off the Eastern Coast of Africa (much like Comoros), Madagascar is famous for its unique ecosystem, which features exotic flora and fauna found nowhere else on Earth. Madagascar's 2016 NDC (which is still under review as of 2023) estimated that the country absorbed 24 megatons of CO₂ in 2020.
However, this is a significant reduction from the 203 megatonnes (203 billion kilograms) of CO₂ the country is estimated to have sequestered in 2020. Furthermore, the NDC admits, if the country fails to reduce its emissions, it will become a net emitter rather than a carbon sink, releasing an estimated 22 megatonnes of CO₂ per year by 2030.
This Pacific Island nation, technically a territory of New Zealand rather than an independent country, declared itself carbon neutral (if not better) in its first NDC report. According to the NDC, Niue is a net carbon sink thanks to its ample forests and minimal emissions (0.00001% of the global total) from its population of approximately 1,900 people.
While Niue has traditionally imported fossil fuels to meet its electricity generation needs, it has also embarked upon an ambitious (if also funding-dependent) plan to obtain at least 80% of its electricity from renewable sources by the year 2025. Should its plan succeed, Niue could well become one of the next confirmed carbon-negative countries of the world.
Other notable climate-friendly countries
One of a handful of countries expected to reach carbon negativity within the next several years, Kiribati averaged approximately 0.1 metric tons (Mt) of CO₂ emitted per year as of 2019. Kiribati is sparsely developed and consumes little in the way of fossil fuels. The country is also strongly motivated to protect its environment, as both its land and its major industry—tuna fishing— are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
This Caribbean UK territory reported one of the lowest levels of CO₂ emission in the world in 2019. Montserrat averages net-zero, or zero metric tons of CO₂ emitted per year. Like many net-zero nations, Montserrat is comparatively tiny—roughly 39 square miles (mi²), comparable in size to many of the world's smallest countries—and with a population of approximately 5,000 people. The country's long-dormant Soufrière Hills volcano became active again in 1995, and continues to impact the island's development.
Another of the world's smallest countries, Nauru has an area of 8.1 mi²/20 km², populated by some 12,780 residents. Nauru's natural ecosystem and landscape were subjected to significant degradation by unsustainable phosphate mining practices. Although phosphate is no longer mined on the island, one of many net-zero nations in Oceania, unemployment is now a major concern. Despite these challenges, Nauru has committed itself to reducing its carbon footprint and is one of the lowest emitters of CO₂ in the world.
Another Pacific Island nation on the verge of achieving net-zero emissions, Tonga's economy is centered around three main industries: agriculture, fishing, and tourism, and the government is taking steps to make all three more sustainable.
In 2019, the Pacific Island country Tuvalu achieved net-zero CO₂ emissions. Like other island nations (such as Niue), Tuvalu is in the process of switching from imported fossil fuels to wind and solar power for electricity generation. Tuvalu is an Upper-Middle Income country whose economy is still developing, which increases its potential to permanently achieve net-zero emissions levels. Unpredictable, rising water tides inspired the concern to improve air quality here.
This sub-tropical United Kingdom territory lowered its net CO₂ emissions to zero in 2019. Saint Helena has an area of 47.0 square miles (121.8 square kilometers) and a population of approximately 4,439 people. Much of the island's landscape is rugged and mountainous, with occasional plains and forests. Pillars of Saint Helena's economy include agriculture—especially flax, coffee, tuna and other fish, vegetables, and timber—as well as a growing tourism industry.
Wallis and Futuna Islands
A French territory located in the remote Pacific, the Wallis and Futuna islands achieved net-zero emissions in 2019. Wallis and Futuna's economy is highly self-contained and focused heavily upon agriculture (coconuts, yams, taro, bananas, livestock, and fishing). Exports of any kind are rare. The islands' geography is volcanic and mountains, with rare patches of arable land. While the islands' ecosystem once included significant forest regions, those forests have largely been razed for fuel wood. As such, only patches of forest remain and erosion has become a significant concern.