The race to net zero: which countries will get there first?

The Eco Experts

There are already eight net-zero countries

Bhutan was the first nation on Earth to achieve the feat

27 countries have written net-zero pledges into law

The need for individual countries to reach net zero has never been greater – but with the cost of solar panels, wind energy, and hydropower dropping every year, it’s at least getting easier.

We need to decrease global greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030, compared to 2010, to keep global warming below 1.5°C – a target that could prevent senseless, widespread death and destruction.

We’re currently heading for a 10% increase by 2030, according to the UN.

Thankfully, at least 137 countries around the world want to achieve an ambitious carbon-neutral target by 2050. Here are the pioneers.

Punakha Dzong, an administrative centre, at the Mo Chhu river in Bhutan, in front of a river and set against mountains

Have any countries already achieved net zero?

Eight countries have already achieved net zero: Bhutan, the Comoros, Gabon, Guyana, Madagascar, Niue, Panama, and Suriname.

They’ve all taken steps to massively reduce their carbon emissions, and their CO2-absorbing wildlife takes care of the small amount of greenhouse gases they do emit.

They’re wildly varied in terms of location and population, showing there’s no geographical or size-based excuse that holds water.

Three of these countries are in the Americas, three are in Africa, one’s in Asia, and one’s in the South Pacific Ocean.

There’s a four-three split between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, plus Gabon which straddles the equator, and their populations range from just 1,620 to 29 million.

These nations have all self-reported reaching this milestone, but we have no other way of measuring emissions on a global scale.

The net-zero countries all clearly understand the important difference between carbon neutral and net zero. You can’t effectively fight climate change with offsetting, only by reducing emissions to reach net zero.

Which country will be next to reach net zero?

The Maldives is the current leader in the race to be the next country to reach net zero.

This widely scattered chain of islands in the Indian Ocean has pledged to achieve net zero by 2030, as long as it receives adequate international support.

Despite being home to more than half a million people, the Maldives is currently only responsible for 0.01% of global emissions.

But its low-lying nature makes it the 31st most vulnerable nation to climate change, according to the University of Notre Dame’s ongoing set of rankings.

The UN has worked with the Maldives to reduce its vulnerability, but the country needs more funding from abroad to make the final leap to net zero.

The countries closest to achieving net zero

84 countries have pledged to reach net zero by a specific year – but some targets are braver than others, and some nations are more proactive about reaching them.

Here are the most likely contenders to beat the Maldives to the achievement of being the next to reach net zero. They’re all European, so any of them getting to net zero would be a welcome first for a continent that produces 14% of the world’s emissions.

Many countries are closer numerically to net zero, but don’t have an ambitious enough plan or sufficient outside investment to reach that mark sooner than the ones below.


Finland intends to reach net zero by 2035, wiping out its 58 tonnes of annual greenhouse gas emissions – then become carbon negative by 2040.

It’s on track, too. The Nordic nation will rely heavily on wind energy to reach this goal, having increased its capacity by 75% in 2022 alone.

This will enable Finland to rapidly decarbonise its heat, electricity, and transport system.

The country will also aim to increase its buildings’ energy efficiency, and lower the amount of emissions released by construction work.


Austria has set a target of eradicating its 65 million tonnes of carbon emissions by 2040.

And that’s not all. The central European nation intends to switch to 100% renewable electricity by 2030, and it’s well on its way to achieving that goal.

Coal, oil, and gas generate less than 20% of the country’s electricity, with most of the remaining energy coming from hydropower.


Iceland is aiming to reach net zero by 2040, with an ambitious intermediate target of a 55% cut by 2030.

Its 370,000 inhabitants release a relatively small 3.3 million tonnes of greenhouse gases per year, but they’ve committed fully to reducing their emissions – as every country should.

Iceland’s government has set detailed goals for each sector, and aims to create new forests to bring about a six-fold increase in the amount of CO2 absorbed by trees on the island.

Carbon negative countries

Here are the countries that have already made it to net zero and beyond.

a landscape at sunset with the ocean, sky, and a mountain on Grand Comore island, in Comoros


This south Asian kingdom, which borders two of the biggest national emitters on the planet in China and India, has a long-held commitment to protecting the climate.

In the late 1970s, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck announced that his nation would value Gross National Happiness above Gross Domestic Product – and environmentalism was a major part of this plan.

The nation emits 1.5 million tonnes of greenhouse gases per year, but this is easily absorbed by the forests that cover an incredible 72% of its land. In fact, Bhutan’s forests take in around seven million tonnes per year.

The country has achieved this through careful governance, taking advantage of its natural gifts, and putting that forests must make up 60% of the nation in its constitution

The Comoros

The Comoros has been a carbon negative country since at least 2015 – and it’s not stopping there.

By 2030, this chain of three islands off the coast of east Africa wants to reduce its emissions by 23%, and increase the amount of CO2 its forests absorb by 47%.

This would further improve the country’s status as a climate pioneer, with Comoros already holding a national footprint of -1.7 tonnes of CO2 equivalent.

The country is particularly vulnerable to climate change, which is part of what’s spurred it to negate its impact on the climate.


Gabon releases 21 million tonnes of greenhouse gases per year – and absorbs 103 million tonnes.

Over the past decade, this nation on the west coast of central Africa has removed more than a billion tonnes from the atmosphere.

88% of Gabon is covered by tropical rainforests, but the country has managed to keep annual deforestation at less than 0.1% over the past 30 years.

And in recent years, it’s received an extra motivation to maintain its incredibly biodiverse forests. In 2021, Norway handed over $17 million (£13 million) after Gabon upheld its agreement to reduce deforestation and land degradation.

Gabon has committed to maintaining its level of absorption to 2050 and beyond – and if it continues to receive international support, there’s no reason it won’t achieve this goal.


The Amazon dominates this South American nation, covering 87% of its land.

By maintaining this sprawling rainforest, Guyana is able to be a massive carbon sink

However, Guyana allowed companies to start pumping its crude oil in 2019, threatening a net zero status it has promised to maintain.

Guyana’s government, which has earned $200 million (£157 million) from Norway for avoiding deforestation, has explained it needs oil money to fund climate change mitigation measures. Climate activists have rejected this assertion.


Madagascar has the biggest population among the net-zero nations – 29 million – and is also the largest by far, at 586,000 km².

The island off the south-east coast of Africa is aiming to reduce its emissions by 14% by 2030, while increasing its annual absorption rate by 61 million tonnes of greenhouse gases and growing its renewable energy use to 79%.

Madagascar must address the growing deforestation affecting its net-zero status, however. The country has lost 8.3% of its forests since 1992, which is a worrying trend.


This stunning South Pacific island is the smallest net-zero country, at just 261.5 km² – about six times smaller than London.

The country cancels out its 12,000 tonnes of annual greenhouse gas emissions by maintaining its forests, which cover around half the island, and intends to use 80% renewable electricity by 2025, up from just 2% in 2022.

But its people are relying on the rest of the world – otherwise their home may soon disappear beneath the waves.

Niue’s authorities have said as much, starting a document laying out the country’s new climate pledges by plainly stating: “Niue’s future is imperilled by the effects of climate change for which it bears absolutely no responsibility.

“Niue faces severe events and slow onset events from changes to the climate system caused by others.”


63% of Panama is covered by forests, which absorb around 26 million tonnes of greenhouse gases per year – well over the 21 million tonnes that the country emits.

The nation, which connects Central America to South America, has pledged to reforest 50,000 hectares by 2050, reversing a trend that’s seen its forests shrink by 5.2% since 1990.

The government has estimated this will result in another 2.6 million tonnes of emissions being absorbed every year.

Panama has also committed to cutting its energy sector’s emissions by 24% by 2050.


Suriname borders fellow net-zero nation Guyana, which is no coincidence: they’re both covered in forests that enable them to be carbon sinks.

Forest makes up 97.4% of this Dutch-speaking South American country, absorbing much more than the 14 million tonnes of greenhouse gases Suriname produces each year.

The country is nevertheless working to further burnish its carbon-negative reputation by decarbonising its electricity supply, which is already around 50% renewable.

Are any countries not trying to achieve net zero?

48 countries are not currently trying to achieve net zero – though some of these nations have at least created emission reduction targets.

Kenya, Paraguay, and the Philippines all fall into this latter category, as do Norway and the Netherlands, which have committed to decreasing their emissions by 95% by 2050.

On the other hand, you have Bolivia, the Cayman Islands, Libya, and Syria, which all have absolutely no emissions goal of any kind.

60 countries are in discussions over creating a net zero goal, while the remaining 90 have made pledges or already reached net zero.

When is the UK expected to achieve net zero?

The UK is legally compelled to reach net zero by 2050, after Prime Minister Theresa May passed the target into law in 2019.

However, it currently seems unlikely that the country will meet that goal, particularly as it’s set to miss its 2030 target of a 68% reduction in emissions, compared to 1990 levels.

The government has failed to invest enough, and has repeatedly prioritised pie-in-the-sky projects like hydrogen and carbon capture over initiatives that could make a massive difference, like removing the de facto ban on onshore wind and shutting coal mines.

Lawmakers should also focus on moving the UK towards nearly zero energy buildings (NZEBs), which require a small amount of power for their heating and electricity needs, with the eventual goal of creating zero-emission buildings across the country.

For more rankings, check which countries are the greenest in the world.


Some countries have made excellent use of their natural advantages to reach net zero.

Now the rest of the world needs to follow suit, with ambitious pledges and actions that rapidly decarbonise our biggest polluters and ensure the most vulnerable nations survive.

The future of humanity depends on our ability to work together for the common good, instead of shutting ourselves off from the rest of the world and desperately reaching for more profits.

Written by:
josh jackman
Josh has written about eco-friendly home improvements and climate change for the past four years. His work has been displayed on the front page of the Financial Times, he's been interviewed by BBC One's Rip-Off Britain, and he regularly features in The Telegraph and on BBC Radio.
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