The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states in no uncertain terms that global warming will lead to wild weather and other environmental hardships in the coming years.

"Things are worse than we had predicted" in 2007, said report co-author Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development at the Independent University in Bangladesh.

Climate change is largely driven by greenhouse gases, which are largely created through the burning of fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas and coal.

According to the IPCC, we can expect climate change to lead to rising temperatures, water and food shortages and increasingly violent weather.

“In an ideal world, this is a global problem — it’s a situation where you’d like global politicians to come together and come up with a co-ordinated solution,” says Anthony Heyes, a professor at the University of Ottawa and a Canada Research Chair in environmental economics.

“But we’ve been saying that for 15 years, since before [the] Kyoto [Protocol]. So you arrive at a point where responsible countries need to develop their own plans.”

With its focus on developing the oilsands and its decision in 2011 to abandon the Kyoto Protocol — the international treaty on reducing emissions — Canada has been widely condemned as a “fossil” when it comes to environmental responsibility.

Here’s a look at four nations that environmental researchers say are taking significant, measurable steps in mitigating greenhouse gases.

Germany

After the tsunami and the subsequent meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in 2011, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that her country would phase out nuclear energy by 2022. That pledge is just part of what has become known as the “Energiewende,” or energy turnaround, in Germany.

Under the auspices of the Renewable Energy Law, the government has undertaken an aggressive program to reduce fossil fuels and invest in alternative energy sources, especially solar and wind. Right now, Germany gets about 25 per cent of its power from green energy, and has set a target of 80 per cent by 2050.

“The long-term investment in Germany around renewable energy, particularly wind and solar, has driven down the prices of those [sources] such that they’re beginning to take on the fossil fuel industry on their own terms,” says Keith Stewart, a climate researcher for Greenpeace Canada.

The strategy hasn’t been without its critics. Some environmentalists point out that Germany still operates coal plants. A recent report by the country’s Commission for Research and Innovation found that the green-energy subsidy system is not cost-efficient and that it may be stifling innovation.

But the government seems unlikely to be swayed. The Economy Ministry recently released a statement saying, “The Renewable Energy Law is and remains a core instrument for German climate and energy policy.”

Denmark

Germany’s commitment to switching to green energy is surpassed by its northern neighbour, Denmark, which has set “highly ambitious targets,” says Katie Auth, a climate and energy research with the Worldwatch Institute.

The country is using government policy to be able to source 100 per cent of its total energy needs from renewables by 2050.

The key ingredient: wind. The country has been the per capita champion of wind generation for a few years, and it reached a new milestone in December when wind reached a level corresponding to more than half of the country's electricity consumption.

The country’s overall green energy plan is largely made possible by the Public Service Obligation tariff, which every Dane pays as part of their electricity bill.   

Brazil

Typically, when developing countries industrialize and produce more goods, they tend to release more greenhouse gases. But this has not been the case with Brazil, the burgeoning economic behemoth.

The country’s 2012 emissions dropped five per cent from a year earlier and were the lowest in 20 years, according to a group of NGOs that studied Brazil’s greenhouse gas production.

Part of that is owing to a concerted shift toward green energy, says Greenpeace’s Stewart. Brazil already exploits its abundant waterways for hydro power, and the country is investing heavily in wind power — by 2021, it hopes to rely on wind turbines for up to 10 per cent of its generating capacity.

“Brazil has been a real leader amongst developing countries in making that shift towards renewable energy, and also supporting other countries in the global south to make that transition,” says Stewart.

What has also tempered this emerging country’s environmental footprint is a concerted effort to reverse deforestation, particularly in the Amazon region. Trees are known for their ability to suck up carbon dioxide, and Stewart says state and federal campaigns to protect forests and punish loggers have had a significant effect in mitigating the country’s carbon footprint.  

China

In its huge industrial push of the last few decades, the world’s most populous nation has also earned the title of world’s worst polluter, generating about 6,000 million tonnes of greenhouse gases every year. But that reputation is misleading, says Anthony Heyes of the University of Ottawa.

For one thing, China generates less pollution per person than most other industrialized nations. What’s more, the country has made a colossal investment in green energy.

“China is rapidly becoming the largest producer of renewable energy technology,” says Matthew Hoffmann, a professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in global environmental governance.

The country has the highest installed wind-energy capacity and is among the leading producers of solar panels.

In February, the government established a $1.65 billion fund to reduce fossil-fuel use in its most polluted cities, while seven Chinese cities have launched an emissions trading system in preparation for a possible national system.

Stewart says there are lessons here for Canada, which has looked toward China as a potentially lucrative market for Alberta oil.

Given China’s aggressive alternative energy policies, “We might be betting on the wrong horse, thinking that they’re going to buy fossil fuels forever.”

Corrections

  • This story originally reported that Denmark's Horns Rev 2 was the world's largest wind farm. While it is a major installation, it is not the largest.
    Apr 02, 2014 9:18 AM ET