- The Green Future Index shows China and the United States continue to lag behind Europe and other parts of the world in achieving decarbonization.
- Frank assessment highlights the slow progress major polluters are making in efforts to decouple their energy systems and economies from fossil fuels.
The world's biggest carbon-emitting nations are falling well short of peers in efforts to tackle a "global climate emergency," according to new research.
The Green Future Index, released late last month by MIT Technology Review, measures and ranks 76 nations and territories on their progress toward building a low carbon future. It showed China and the United States continue to lag behind Europe and other parts of the world in achieving decarbonization.
"Europe is really rapidly becoming a climate leader, with 15 of the top 20 countries in the index," Claire Beatty, editorial director at MIT Technology Review Insights, told CNBC.
The frank assessment highlights the slow progress major polluters are making in efforts to decouple their energy systems and economies from fossil fuels, despite fresh pledges to prioritize clean technology, industry and infrastructure in their post-pandemic recovery plans.
Topping the Green Future Index is Iceland, a nation with a strong track record in clean energy production and carbon capture technology. It's followed by Denmark (2nd), Norway (3rd), France (4th) and Ireland (5th).
The Index takes into account five pillars, including carbon emissions, renewable energy as a proportion of energy consumption, the green initiatives of a society, innovations in decarbonization and the effectiveness of national climate policies.
"Many of these countries, particularly in northern Europe, are very ambitiously decarbonizing and putting in green infrastructure into their energy and transportation industries," Beatty said.
But beyond the European bloc, the survey shows a far more troubling story in the global efforts to combat the global climate challenge.
Big country ranking
The world's largest carbon-emitting nations received poor results. India (21st) ranked well above both the United States (40th) and China (45th) for overall decarbonization efforts.
Despite a high rate of emissions growth, the report said India was "quickly adopting renewable energy and has built some of the world's largest solar plants." Even so, India is still heavily dependent on coal for cheap energy generation and jobs.
Researchers said the United States, which is responsible for 15% of global emissions, was "still struggling to move away from fossil fuels and carbon-intensive agriculture." It comes as the Joe Biden administration pledges to reverse the rollback of environmental rules and make the U.S. a 100% clean energy economy with net-zero emissions by 2050.
"The U.S. lack of political leadership on climate and energy for the past four years has been very problematic," Kurt Waltzer, managing director of the research organization Clean Air Task Force, told CNBC.
"The U.S. has seen significant growth in renewable energy, but that started from a very small base. To really shift to a decarbonized energy system, the U.S. will need to adopt clear requirements combined with energy innovation policies that drive all sectors to net zero emissions" Waltzer added.
China, which is responsible for 28% of global emissions, has pledged to achieve net carbon zero by 2060, but progress is slow. Coal still plays a key role in China's energy mix.
"National climate ambitions are currently too low — an issue that will be the major topic of COP26 later this year — but it's important that we do not treat all countries the same way," Waltzer said.
"Developed countries should lead with mandates and innovation policies that create decarbonized energy markets. Developing economies need to incorporate innovation with economic development and plan for longer term pathways to net zero," he added.
Middle East progress
The petro-economies of the Middle East also underperformed, even as wealthy Gulf states continue to advance their climate plans.
Morocco (26th) was the highest ranking country in the Middle East and North Africa region, with over 40% of the country's electricity now generated by renewables.
Israel (38th) ranked second in the region, with its pledge to produce 13% of its energy from renewables by 2025. The UAE (43rd) came in third place.
Petrostates like Saudi Arabia (61st), Russia (73rd) and Iran (74th) were classified as "climate abstainers" for "a lack of progress and commitment toward developing a modern, clean and innovative economy." Qatar ranked at the bottom of the index in 76th position.
The report said Covid-19 related pressure on oil revenue would likely delay national economic diversification programs, further stalling emission reduction efforts.