Canada, Mexico and the United States came forward this week with their long-term strategies for tackling climate change, making good on their pledges under the Paris Agreement and the North American Leadership Summit to communicate “mid-century, long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies.” The United States and Canada aim to reduce their emissions 80 percent or more below 2005 levels by 2050, while Mexico will reduce its emissions 50 percent from 2000 levels.

Here’s a deeper look at the countries’ long-term plans, and what they mean for the global battle against climate change:

What’s new about these strategies?

The three countries have had 2050 mitigation goals in place for a number of years. In 2007, Canada advanced a 2050 emissions-reduction goal of 60-70 percent below 2006 levels by 2050. Two years later in 2009, Canada and the United States were both part of the G8 commitment to reduce aggregate emissions from developed countries by at least 80 percent by 2050, a trajectory that the United States reiterated in its pledge at Copenhagen the same year and in its 2015 climate plan, or “nationally determined contribution” (NDC). Mexico’s 2050 goal to reduce emissions by 50 percent relative to 2000 levels has been national law since 2012.

The innovation of this week’s strategies is to outline more detailed pathways for achieving these emissions reductions. These pathways begin to provide a much clearer picture of the range of necessary changes in investment and infrastructure. This is a critical step forward to inform decision-making by policymakers and the private sector.

Do the strategies align with the Paris Agreement goals to limit warming to well below 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F), and pursue efforts for 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F)?

To have a more than 50 percent chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C, research indicates that total global carbon dioxide emissions need to reach net-zero by 2045-2050; greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2060-2080. For a likely chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees C, the same milestones are met 15 to 20 years later. Every unit of greenhouse gases emitted after these milestone dates must be offset by carbon sinks or other emissions removals.

While Germany’s long-term emissions strategy, released earlier this week, indicates its intent to approach GHG neutrality by 2050, the North American plans do not explicitly identify when countries’ emissions would reach net zero. It’s possible they could reach net zero within the window consistent with limiting warming to 2 degrees C, but achieving the more ambitious pathway consistent with limiting warming to well below 2 degrees C, or 1.5 degrees C, will require additional efforts. All three plans leave the door open for increased action—the U.S. strategy, for example, highlights that innovation, rapid clean energy deployment and negative emissions would enable greater ambition over time. Ultimately, achieving the temperature goals will also depend on how quickly other countries decarbonize their economies.

How would the strategies transform high-emitting economic sectors?

The three strategies highlight a range of necessary transformations across key sectors:

  • Accelerating the clean energy transition: All three countries outline the need to generate electricity from non-emitting sources, to accelerate efficiency improvements, and to electrify long-lived infrastructure, including in the building and transport sectors.

  • Addressing non-CO2 emissions: This entails reducing emissions of potent GHGs like methane, N2O and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) from oil and gas production, landfills, agriculture and refrigerant use. Mexico, in particular, has prioritized short-lived climate pollutants, including black carbon, including through measures that can help reduce CO2 emissions at the same time.

  • Fostering sustainable land use: Mexico, for example, highlights the need to enhance sustainable agriculture and forestry practices, while the United States outlines strategies to maintain and enhance the forest carbon sink.

All three countries emphasize that the intent of the strategies is not to prescribe a particular set of policies, but to inform future decision-making by a range of actors across a range of scenarios.

What should Canada, Mexico and the US do next?

Decisions made today regarding investment, policies and infrastructure will constrain or enhance the feasibility of transitioning towards a net-zero-emissions economy. It is imperative, therefore, that the long-term thinking outlined in the new strategies immediately inform today’s policy and investment decisions, even as countries continue to iterate on these strategies over time.

In Mexico, the pathways toward reaching its 2050 goal rest on the achievement of its current NDC. New WRI analysis shows how Mexico can achieve its 2030 targets while delivering significant economic and health benefits. Mexico’s strategy would also benefit from much greater detail regarding sectoral pathways and milestones—developing these right away (not after 10 years, as indicated in the strategy) will enable them to inform implementation of the current NDC and avoid costly lock-in of emitting technologies.

Likewise, it is imperative that the United States meet its current NDC target in order to achieve the transformation described in its 2050 pathways. Failure to do so would compromise the economic and health benefits associated with its 2025 target to reduce emissions by 26-28 percent, and make it more costly to pursue the pathways identified in the new strategy. The incoming presidential administration should carefully consider these risks. State and local governments and the private sector will have an even greater role to play in following through on—and ideally strengthening—existing plans and targets, and more subnational actors will need to step up and get involved as well. California and the northeastern states should enhance their carbon pricing systems and expand on their current cross-border linkages. Major infrastructure investments should target modernizing the electricity grid and ensuring that the transportation system can support the next generation of clean energy-powered vehicles and offer a range of attractive mobility options.

While reducing emissions, all three countries should also partner with the private sector to increase investment in clean energy research, development and rapid deployment, and regularly update their strategies to account for technological progress, with a view towards the Paris goals.

Will the rest of the world follow suit?

Germany was the first to release its 2050 climate plan earlier this week, and it won’t be long before additional countries prepare mid-century, long-term strategies – China, France, India, Russia and the G7 countries have all indicated their intent to do so ahead of 2020. The trend isn’t limited to national governments—the 2050 Platform, launched Thursday at the COP22 climate negotiations in Marrakech, will support a coalition of countries, regions, states, cities and businesses to develop ambitious 2050 pathways. And 200 companies have already committed to set GHG reduction targets in line with limiting warming to well below 2 degrees C.

The countries that launched their strategies this week offer several good practices to follow, such as acting well before 2020, going beyond existing goals, establishing a process to increase ambition over time, being transparent about methodologies and soliciting input from multiple stakeholders.

While greater ambition is still needed, Canada, Mexico and the United States have now joined Germany in taking a promising step forward in support of the Paris Agreement. As the rest of the world moves ahead, they would do well to learn from these examples, keeping the urgency of the Paris Agreement goals in mind.

Juan Carlos Altamirano, Kristin Igusky, Kelly Levin and Katie Ross also contributed to this blog post.