In 2021, fossil fuel combustion in the global energy sector emitted a massive 33,884 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. This figure was up 5.6% on 2020 – a year that saw much of the world’s economic activity grind to a halt in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic – and just shy of the record 34,095 million tonnes of carbon dioxide that were emitted in 2019.
But while these trends in emissions are certainly a cause for alarm, the good news is that not all of this carbon will automatically contribute to atmospheric warming. Some 45% of manmade emissions are absorbed by the world’s oceans and biosphere – including plants and trees – every year.
Massive rainforests like the Congo and Amazon, as well as the temperate forests that stretch across much of the Northern Hemisphere, absorb millions of tonnes of carbon each year. And some countries situated in such environments are already net carbon sinks, particularly if they are small, have limited industrial sectors, and their governments have historically prioritised ecological protection.
Based on research drawn from the think tank the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit, the World Population Review, as well as emissions targets submitted to the UN as part of countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the 2015 Paris Agreement, Energy Monitor takes you through the countries that say they are carbon negative below.
The tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has prioritised the protection of its forests since the 1970s, when King Jigme Singye Wangchuck pushed for an economy built on sustainable forest management, rather than deforestation. This ideology continues to this day, with an economy largely based on subsistence farming, sustainable forestry and tourism. Around 40% of the country’s landmass is protected, with national parks all linked by biological corridors to allow the free migration of animals.
Prioritising ecological concerns has not come at the cost of economic development: annual real GDP growth has averaged 7.5% since the 1980s, and the poverty rate among the country’s 800,000 citizens has fallen from 36% in 2007 to 12% in 2017, says the World Bank.
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The Amazon nation of Suriname, on the north coast of South America, is a “carbon sink of global significance”, according to the country’s second NDC submitted to the UN.
The country is among the most forested nations in the world, with 93% forest cover and low deforestation. Its 600,000 citizens are also spread thinly, with 2.9 inhabitants per square kilometre. The country’s latest NDC has committed it to maintaining its carbon sink, as well as reducing emissions that continue to be produced from the country’s electricity, agriculture and transport sectors.
The Atlantic rainforests of Panama cover 65% of its land, enabling this country of 4.5 million to be a net carbon sink. The country is home to more than 10,000 species of plants, and more than 33% of its landmass is protected. The country’s government has also committed to reforesting 50,000 hectares of land by the year 2050.
At COP26, Panama, Suriname and Bhutan formed a formal alliance of “carbon-negative countries”, to call for preferential trade and carbon pricing to support, as well as to encourage, countries to become carbon sinks.
Though only three countries joined the alliance of carbon-negative countries at COP26, several other countries say they are carbon negative in their NDCs.
One of these is Guyana, another Amazon nation on the northern coast of South America, which is also among countries with the largest rainforest cover in the world (85%). The country’s NDC says it is “one of only a handful of countries that are net carbon sinks”. The country’s 14.48 million hectares of forest is largely old-growth, and therefore has an unusually high density of carbon, at up to 350 tonnes per hectare.
Consisting of four volcanic islands located off the coasts of Tanzania, Mozambique and Madagascar, Comoros also says it is a net carbon sink in its NDC. The document states that in 2015 the country’s net emissions were -1,714 kt CO2eq.
The country has around 800,000 inhabitants, but unlike other carbon sinks, it is densely populated, with 400 inhabitants per square kilometre concentrated in its main coastal towns. Agriculture, fishing and livestock contribute to around 50% of the country’s economy, and it is ranked lower-middle income by the World Bank.
Located along the equator in Central Africa, Gabon is one of six countries situated in the Congo Rainforests. The Congo recorded the lowest levels of deforestation in the 21st century of all the major rainforest regions, and is believed to be the only major rainforest that remains a net sink, rather than emitter, of carbon.
Gabon has an estimated 2.3 million people, and is 88% forested. The country’s second NDC, published in July 2022, commits the country to remain a net carbon sink by maintaining a rate of absorption of at least 100MtCO2eq per year beyond 2050.
At the same time, crude oil exports are the mainstay of the country’s economy, contributing to around 40% of the country’s GDP.
Madagascar is another rainforest nation that says to be a net carbon sink in its NDC, estimating its net carbon absorption at 24MtCO2eq in 2020. This is, however, significantly below the 203MtCO2eq the document says the country absorbed in 2000. The NDC adds that the country will become a net emitter of 22MtCO2eq in 2030 if the current course is not changed.
The majority of Madagascans work in the agriculture and fishing sector, and the country remains under developed, with only 20% of households having access to electric lighting, says the NDC. Some 12% of the country is protected areas, but deforestation is rampant, with 25% of the country’s tree cover lost since the year 2000, according to Global Forest Watch.
The Pacific Island nation of Niue is made up of a single volcanic island situated between Tonga, Samoa and the Cook Islands. It is formed from a coral atoll, and is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The country’s capital, Alofi, was destroyed by a category 5 cyclone – a weather event set to become more frequent as the planet warms – in 2004.
Niue’s NDC states that its contribution to global emissions is less than 0.0001%, and that the country is a “net sink given the growth of our forests”.