Hot on the heels of the 28th session of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP28) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), the global climate conversation is buzzing with a mix of scepticism and cautious optimism. Last year’s UN climate talks, while criticised for certain shortcomings, brought into sharp focus the need for robust legal frameworks to transition away from fossil fuels. The UAE Consensus, while a leap forward, left many wondering: how do nations bridge the lofty ambitions of international agreements with real-world action?  

This was the question that prompted a study we wrote with eight other scholars from the Climate Social Science Network, an academic collaborative that investigates climate policy obstruction. Our study, which examined net-zero legislation and litigation in Brazil, China, Germany, and the United States, will become even more pertinent as nations grapple with implementing their commitments under the Paris Agreement from 2015 and the more recent consensus reached in Dubai. 

With its unique design, the Paris Agreement does not prescribe specific actions by countries but encourages them to develop their own tailored approaches to combat climate change. This flexibility is crucial, for it allows nations to tailor policies in their distinctive socioeconomic contexts and capabilities. It also encourages badly needed reforms inside and outside of government and will help create new political coalitions. 

Diverse legal pathways 

Our comparative analysis provides a window into the diverse ways in which countries are using legal mechanisms to interpret and act upon their Paris Agreement commitments. Our study offers a lens on how four key nations are using the law to navigate net zero, highlighting their varied approaches and the potential for legal strategies to accelerate progress. Below is an overview of the legal mechanisms they are using to reach net zero.  

Brazil: Brazil’s approach to net zero is in a state of evolution. The new administration is revising the country’s regulatory framework for climate action, initially established in its national climate law, to align it with its nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement. In any case, Brazil’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions and achieving climate neutrality by 2050 is conditional and depends on external funding. This scenario reflects a larger trend in developing countries, where the transition to net zero is often contingent on international support. 

China: China’s pathway to net zero is marked by integrating its climate goals into its national development plans, notably the 14th Five-Year Plan. This plan reaffirms commitments to reach peak emissions by 2030 and achieve net zero by 2060, although it lacks specific legislative codification of these targets. China’s approach also includes developing an environmental legal code and the world’s largest emissions trading scheme. These efforts are part of a broader strategy that combines regulatory mechanisms and market-based approaches to steer the country toward its net zero objectives. 

Germany: Germany stands out for its advanced, comprehensive legal approach toward achieving net zero emissions. The country’s framework is anchored in the Federal Climate Change Act, which sets ambitious targets for heat-trapping gas neutrality and integrates European Union mandates and domestic legal measures. This legislation is backed by proactive regulatory mechanisms and a judicial system that supports climate litigation, as documented by such significant cases as Neubauer et al. v. Germany, in which German youths argued the Federal Climate Change Act’s emissions-reduction goals do not go far enough. These government efforts highlight Germany’s commitment to not just setting climate goals but also ensuring their practical realisation through legal means.  

United States: The United States presents a complex picture of climate action, with a patchwork of state-level initiatives but no federal net zero legislation. The federal approach mainly relies on executive orders and participating in international agreements such as the Paris Agreement, which set non-binding targets. Meanwhile, states such as California have taken the lead in setting stringent climate goals, showcasing a decentralised but potent approach to climate action. The US experience underscores the role of subnational entities in driving significant environmental policy changes without comprehensive federal legislation. 

Legislation, regulation and the power of litigation 

The net zero legislation and regulation identified in our paper fall into two broad categories: those mandating net zero and those facilitating net zero. The first category includes climate framework laws that lay out legally binding requirements, including establishing net zero targets and reducing emissions. The second category consists of regulatory mechanisms, such as corporate disclosure requirements. In turn, litigation over net- zero targets addresses the establishment and sufficiency of net zero initiatives and disinformation regarding it. Litigation intersects with net zero legislation and regulation and can be another major lever to achieve climate goals with different applications across countries. 

The growing trend of net zero litigation, particularly in Germany, is even more relevant in the post-COP28 context. Legal challenges can be powerful tools to ensure compliance with net zero commitments and hold governments and corporations accountable. The implementation of the UAE Consensus will likely trigger an increase in climate-related litigation, reflecting civil society’s growing role in pushing for stronger climate action. In particular, the pledge to transition away from fossil fuels, even if voluntary, is likely to intensify calls for governments to regulate fossil fuels and enforce existing laws. 

From pledges to action 

The UAE Consensus may not have fully met the aspirations for a rapid fossil fuel phaseout, but it has undoubtedly served as a critical wake-up call. In a world increasingly attuned to the impacts of climate change, this moment underscores the urgency for nations to pivot from mere pledges to tangible action. As countries work to meet their updated nationally determined contributions and new climate finance commitments, the pathways of these four nations provide a foundational knowledge base for other countries to design effective legal mechanisms and ensure a sustainable future. 

Comparative studies are not just academic exercises. They are guideposts on the road to global cooperation and action and underscore the notion that, while the paths to net zero may differ, the same destination is shared by all. As the planet continues to grapple with the climate crisis, the lessons gleaned from legal mechanisms utilized in Brazil, China, Germany, and the United States can help move the rest of the world toward a global response in line with the spirit and objectives of the Paris Agreement. 

Dr Joana Setzer is an assistant professorial research fellow at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. Laura Peterson is the corporate analyst and advocate at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Delta Merner is the Lead Scientist for the Science Hub for Climate Litigation at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

This is a slightly edited version of an article first published by The Equation blog of the Union of Concerned Scientists on 10 January 2024.

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