Denmark and Sweden lead in carbon emissions reduction, but are they truly net zero?

Many countries have taken pledges to achieve net zero emissions, but where do they stand and how close are we to achieving it?
Tejasri Gururaj
Stock photo: A power plant emitting smoke.
Stock photo: A power plant emitting smoke.


Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of the 21st century and requires a huge amount of global effort to mitigate its impact. Its cause is multi-faceted, ranging from burning fossil fuels to deforestation and agricultural practices, all of which contribute to the increase in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.

The impacts of climate change are all around us, from rising sea levels and more frequent severe weather events to shifts in agricultural productivity and the spread of diseases. These effects often first or most severely affect groups living in poverty or vulnerable regions.  

One of the primary goals that can help slow down climate change is to reduce carbon emissions and try to move to net zero. Achieving a balance between the amount of greenhouse gas emissions generated and the amount removed from the atmosphere is known as "net zero emissions." The objective is to minimize greenhouse gas emissions and employ strategies to remove any excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere that we cannot avoid emitting. 

Governments, businesses, and individuals all have a critical role to play in achieving net zero. This can include investing in renewable energy and clean technologies, developing new materials, promoting sustainable land use practices, and reducing waste and consumption. Additionally, it means supporting policies that encourage sustainable practices and behaviors and advocating for global cooperation and action to address this pressing issue.

Denmark and Sweden lead in carbon emissions reduction, but are they truly net zero?
Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report


On March 20, 2023, the United Nations (UN) released its comprehensive report titled "Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report," highlighting the need for action toward mitigating climate change. In this article, we will try to address the question, "What's the status quo of net zero in countries around the world?" So let's jump in.

The possibility of achieving net zero

We have briefly touched upon net zero emissions and what can be done by various entities to help achieve that. Many organizations at the forefront of climate change action, such as the United Nations and the International Energy Agency (IEA), have encouraged countries to push toward carbon neutrality. But are we any closer to achieving it?

According to sustainability professional Carmen Valache-Altinel, we are still a long way from reaching this goal. "I believe that the pledges made before and during COP27 will, at the very most, limit global warming to 2.4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. However, there are gaps between pledges and implementation, so I think unless action picks up in earnest, we will be quite far from net zero by mid-century," says Valache-Altinel.

Given the importance of achieving this goal, it is vital to recognize that climate change is happening now. Speaking of the actions to help achieve net zero, Valache-Altinel said, "Along with making efforts to reduce emissions, we should, in parallel, focus on boosting adaptation to climate change. The effects are already seen everywhere, especially in areas that are susceptible to existing socio-political crises."

Denmark and Sweden lead in carbon emissions reduction, but are they truly net zero?
Global temperature change over the past 50 years

Other experts believe that the quality of the path to net zero is just as important as achieving the goal. Ex-ACT Grants fellow and author of anticlimatic substack blog Sayesha Dogra thinks that the quality of the path to achieve net zero is just as important as the goal. "As of today, most companies outsource the actual work of reducing emissions by financing carbon offsets, which are largely unregulated, broken, and opaque. Achieving net zero will take some time and won’t happen without appropriate policy action," says Dogra.

It unfortunately looks like global net zero emissions is still a far-off dream. With human actions now acknowledged to be responsible for increase in carbon emissions over the last 200 years, we must take necessary actions to curb the causes of climate change. So what are the ways in which different entities can help in attaining this goal?

Countries closest to achieving net zero

Many countries have taken significant initiatives to reduce carbon emissions, including Denmark and Sweden. Denmark aims to reduce carbon emissions by 70% by 2030 and be carbon neutral by 2050. They have been successful in making reductions through investing in renewable energy, including wind power, and implementing policies such as carbon taxes and energy efficiency measures.

Similarly, Sweden has made significant strides towards net zero, aiming to become carbon neutral by 2045. They have implemented policies such as a carbon tax, investment in renewable energy, and the promotion of sustainable transport.

Denmark and Sweden lead in carbon emissions reduction, but are they truly net zero?
Countries such as Norway have taken great strides to achieving net zero emissions

However, some experts argue that these countries outsource a lot of their emissions to other countries by importing products manufactured elsewhere, including in Asian countries like China. Despite the concerns about their carbon footprint from imported products, these two countries have demonstrated their commitment to combating climate change. However, other countries such as Costa Rica, Morocco, Finland, Norway, and Portugal have also made positive changes to achieve their net zero goals, without putting the burden on other countries, especially developing countries. 

According to Valache-Altinel, the citizens of developing countries have the lowest carbon footprints. "Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, as well as small island developing states (SIDS), have among the lowest per capita emissions. However, as they improve energy access and standards of living, their emissions are likely to go up," says Valache-Altinel. Ironically, those contributing the least to climate change are also the most vulnerable to impacts, a fact that is made worse by the often poor access to resources in the countries where they live.  

The U.K. also reduced emissions by around 40% between 1990 and 2020. However, as Valache-Altinel notes, "This is considered to have been the low-hanging fruit resulting from the shift away from coal in the power grid." More ambitious action is necessary to completely shift the power grid to clean energy and to reform the production of food and other goods in order to decarbonize the economy.

These countries' efforts towards mitigating climate change are a ray of hope in our fight against climate change, despite the many challenges many countries are facing.

Companies' role in achieving net zero

Given that companies are responsible for a significant portion of global carbon emissions, they must take action to reduce their carbon footprint. To achieve this goal, companies can adopt a range of strategies, but they must be implemented effectively.

According to Dogra, the change is deeply rooted in mindset. "Sustainability should be adopted as a core principle for companies and move toward mindful capitalism. In the short term, this can be achieved by focusing on reducing Scope 1 and 2 emissions," says Dogra. Companies must also focus on making long-term changes that are harder to implement. 

"Corporate climate action often consists of low-hanging fruit, such as switching to renewable in their operations. However, most emissions in many industries come from companies' supply chains and are harder to tackle," says Valache-Altinel. Therefore, corporate action must focus on making large-scale meaningful changes to what and how they purchase to help reduce the majority of companies’ carbon footprint. 

The importance of policy to achieving net zero

Climate action requires collective action and long-term planning and implementation all over the world. Therefore, policy needs to underpin climate change action and the goal of achieving net zero. Policy plays a central role in reducing emissions as it creates a level-playing field by instituting rules that are the same for everyone, according to Valache-Altinel.

Denmark and Sweden lead in carbon emissions reduction, but are they truly net zero?
Policies drive climate actions

"The pace at which significant change needs to happen can only be backed by governments. In this regard, the European Union is probably a frontrunner in passing policies to reduce emissions across the bloc, even though the Brussels policymaking process is fraught with challenges and is imperfect," says Valache-Altinel.

Dogra agrees, adding that countries with large populations, like India, will hugely benefit from policies to address climate change. She further adds, "India has publicly committed to becoming net zero by 2070; this goal cannot be achieved without the right set of policies across the spectrum (land, air, water, waste) and a nationwide behavioral change in consumption practices which will also require a push from government schemes and initiatives."

Therefore, the role of politics in climate action is undeniable, and there is a need for international cooperation and collaboration to transition to a low-carbon future.

The individual's role in achieving net zero

With so much focus on governments and companies, is there any way an individual can contribute towards this global goal? The answer is yes. Although the changes may be small, the impacts can be significant. Dogra and Valache-Altinel agree that the starting point is to be mindful of consumption and not fall for consumerism.

Denmark and Sweden lead in carbon emissions reduction, but are they truly net zero?
Individuals should focus on using less and minimizing waste

"Buy less, upcycle more. Take accountability for the waste produced by you and your household daily - cut down that waste at the source instead of looking for ways to deal with that waste," suggests Dogra. 

Valache-Altinel agrees, adding that we should also focus on reducing animal-based products in diets and in resorting to public and active transportation more. Further, she thinks that the best way for an individual to make a difference is to be less of an individual. “Reach out to your communities and talk to them about the importance of collective climate action. Most importantly, use your wallets and voting power to demand climate-friendly alternatives and policies. Mobilization at such scale is the only solution we have to contain climate change within the boundaries of what our planet and people can withstand," concludes Valache-Altinel.


Climate change is an urgent and complex issue requiring a concerted effort from all parts of society. While the goal of achieving net zero emissions is still a long way off, many countries and organizations have made strides towards it.

It is important to remember that policies are central to this global issue. Companies responsible for a significant portion of global emissions must also take action to reduce their carbon footprint and adopt sustainable practices.

Denmark and Sweden lead in carbon emissions reduction, but are they truly net zero?
We need to work together to combat climate change

The solution and path to climate action is not an easy one and involves the combination of many different factors and entities. It is an ambitious but achievable goal, as long as we act fast!

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