The world is still falling short of meeting its climate goals

As countries prepare to reveal new targets to reduce carbon emissions, a climate report card shows who’s already flunking.

On the cusp of an international meeting beginning Sunday that could well determine whether the world can bring climate change under control, it can be revealing to assess how the largest emitters of global emissions are doing at curtailing them.

Many countries are expected to announce new targets, the first time since the Paris Agreement of 2015 tried to put the world on a path to sustainable carbon emissions. But many of these countries already are falling short at meeting their current targets, including the world's five biggest carbon polluters: China, United States, India, Russia, and Japan, which account for almost six-tenths of all emissions.

According to the annual UN Emissions Gap Report, the G20, a group of industrialized countries, is not on track to meet its existing pledges—a “significant reason the world remains on a path toward worsening climate catastrophes,” the report says.

But the scientific consensus has also shifted, with a recognition that aiming to keep temperature rise to a 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) increase—the goal set in 2015 with the Paris Agreement—is insufficient to limit the worst damage and that 1.5°C (2.7°F) has to be the minimum target.

“The goalposts have significantly moved,” Todd Stern, the Obama administration’s chief negotiator on the Paris Agreement, told CBS News recently. "Two was already super difficult. 1.5 is exceedingly difficult.”

From October 31 through November 12, leaders from the countries that signed the Paris Agreement will meet in Glasgow, Scotland, for a conference known as COP26. They are expected to reveal updated targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, as well as dates at which they will peak, goals that have not been changed in six years.

In the lead-up to the meeting, we’re taking a look at how the largest emitters of global emissions are doing in their efforts, the percentage of emissions they’re responsible for, and the likelihood that their actions, if matched by others, would keep the world to 1.5°C (2.7°F) of warming. Our summary is based on comprehensive reports by the Climate Action Tracker, a consortium that quantifies and evaluates climate change mitigation targets, policies, and action.

The Top 5 

Combined Percentage of Global Emissions: 58 

1. China

Percentage of global emissions: 28

Climate Action Tracker Rating: Highly Insufficient

China turned heads with an announcement in September 2020 that it was committed to reaching “carbon neutrality before 2060.” The Climate Action Tracker observes that, if it fulfilled this promise, “it would lower global warming projections by around 0.2 to 0.3°C.”

However, the promise is short on specifics, and the World Resources Institute notes that, while significant, “it is 16 years later than the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] recommends to fulfill the 1.5°C goal.” Three months later, China also revealed its intention to submit a new set of targets that would include, among other goals, reaching peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030. These targets have not yet been officially submitted to the UNFCCC, and it is not known if they will be formally announced before or during the Glasgow meeting.

Additionally, in September 2021 China announced it would no longer finance the construction of coal-fired power stations abroad. U.S. Envoy for Climate John Kerry professed himself “absolutely delighted” at the news, although the BBC’s Shanghai correspondent called it “the low-hanging fruit in terms of China's addiction to coal,” noting that half the coal burned in the world is burned in China and that the country is still building coal power plants at home.

Indeed, China added 38.4 GW of new coal plants domestically in 2020, representing 76 percent of all the new plants commissioned worldwide. In April, President Xi Jinping committed his country to achieving peak coal use in 2025, after which it would decline. It remains to be seen if he will formalize this commitment during the COP.

2. United States of America

Percentage of Global Emissions: 15

Climate Action Tracker Rating: Insufficient

The Biden administration's policies and approach to climate change stand in stark contrast to those of its predecessor, not least in the fact that the United States will attend the COP as a renewed signatory to the Paris Agreement. One of President Joe Biden’s first executive orders reaffirmed the goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and incorporated climate initiatives throughout the federal government's departments.

The administration has subsequently suspended oil and natural gas drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (while allowing other Arctic drilling projects to proceed) and revoked the permits for the Keystone XL pipeline. CAT rates the U.S.’s domestic target of reducing emissions by roughly 50 percent of 2005 levels by 2030 as “almost sufficient” to limit the world to 1.5°C of warming, although the key policy proposal to achieve that goal—a program that would financially reward utilities that switch to renewable energy and punish those that don’t – has been stalled because of opposition from West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.

However, CAT also argues that the U.S. should aim to cut emissions by 57 to 63 percent by 2030, and needs to move much farther and faster on reducing emissions in the transport and building sectors. Where the U.S. really falls short, says CAT, is in its financial support to help other countries reduce their emissions, although the administration has committed to improving on that front. 

3. India

Percentage of Global Emissions: 7

Climate Action Tracker Rating: Highly Insufficient

India is on track to exceed comfortably its official Paris targets. It has reduced emissions intensity by 21 percent, in line with its target of 33-35 percent reduction by 2030; and it is already just 2 percent short of its 2030 target of generating 40 percent of its electricity with sources other than fossil fuels. But, according to CAT, this is less a reason for celebration than a sign of the weakness of the targets.

Despite missing an October 12 deadline to submit revised targets prior to the COP, the government may announce such revisions at the meeting, including a pledge to increase the share of non-fossil fuel sources in its energy generation capacity to at least 60 percent, with the possibility of raising it to 65 percent, by 2030. India provides generous subsidies for renewable energies, and a 2021 post-COVID stimulus package includes approximately $3 billion for development of batteries and solar photovoltaics.

India, however, provides substantially more funding for coal than for renewables. India has the second largest number of coal plants under development and is one of the few countries where the number is still rising. Under current plans, the country’s approximately 200 GW of coal capacity would increase to 266 GW by 2029-30. This continued commitment to coal, along with the failure to set higher and more meaningful targets, is largely responsible for its low rating from CAT.

4. Russian Federation

Percentage of Global Emissions: 5

Climate Action Tracker Rating: Critically Insufficient

Russia has seemingly placed its chips on being among the last major fossil fuel producers standing, seeing economic opportunity in a melting North in the form of increased shipping and drilling for more fossil fuels.

President Vladimir Putin has flirted with climate change denial and has openly mocked alternative energy sources, in particular wind turbines. Russia did not ratify the Paris Agreement until September 2019 and only passed its first domestic climate legislation in April. Although it has expressed its intent to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent from 1990 levels by 2030, emissions would actually rise slightly over the next decade and then begin declining; by 2050, levels would still be higher than in 2017.

Russia’s most recent strategy calls for increased fossil-fuel consumption domestically and more production for exports. Efforts to increase fuel efficiency in such sectors as industry and transport are minimal. The country has made no significant contribution to international climate finance.

CAT concludes that if other countries adopted a similar approach to Russia’s, the world could see as much as 4°C (7.2°F) of warming by century’s end.

5. Japan

Percentage of Global Emissions: 3

Climate Action Tracker Rating: Insufficient

There is much to like about Japan’s recent policies and pledges. In April 2021, the government announced a new target of reducing emissions 46 percent below 2013 levels by 2030, with the possibility of additional measures to lower that to 50 percent. Japan has further expressed a goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. That is a significant upgrade to its previous pledge of a 26 percent reduction by 2030, but CAT estimates that Japan’s actual policies will cause it to fall short of its new target.

One problem is the target’s reliance on nuclear power. The plan calls for 60 percent of energy production to be from non-fossil fuel sources; that includes 38 percent renewables and 22 percent nuclear power. But the nuclear figure would require the great majority of the country’s 33 plants to resume production, even though only 10 have come back online since the 2011 Fukushima disaster, and fierce local opposition is likely to severely curtail future plans. Additionally, the blueprint still requires 19 percent of the country’s energy to be generated by coal.

CAT argues that, to meet the reductions required to be in line with Paris targets, Japan will need to almost completely eliminate coal power by 2030.

The Next Fifteen 

Combined Percentage of Global Emissions: 21

(Germany, Iran, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Canada each are responsible for 2 percent; Mexico, South Africa, Brazil, Turkey, Australia, United Kingdom, Poland, Italy, France for one percent each.)

At one end of the spectrum are the likes of Australia, the world’s fifth largest coal producer, which has not updated its 2030 targets and on a federal level appears to be actively antagonistic to any kind of response to climate change that involves renewables, choosing instead to invest in a “gas-fired recovery.” In CAT’s words, that means “replacing fossil fuels with fossil fuels.”

Brazil’s target of net neutrality by 2060 has been excoriated for “lacking credibility;” increased deforestation and agriculture are contributing to emissions that are set to rise at least until 2030.

Saudi Arabia’s plans are notably low on detail; the desert kingdom has previously stated explicitly that its present targets are preconditioned on being able to continue high levels of oil exports. If the government perceived a threat to the country’s economy from reduced oil exports, it likely would weaken its climate commitment.

At the other end is Germany, whose target of reducing emissions by 65 percent from 1990 levels by 2030, and 88 percent by 2040, is enshrined in law and commits the country to achieving net neutrality by 2045. The country has increased the share of renewables in its energy mix to 40 percent from 10 percent and lowered carbon emissions by 20 percent in the period from 1990 to 2010, and by another 20 percent in the 10 years since.

In advance of hosting the COP, the United Kingdom has increased its climate commitments and established ambitious 2030 and 2035 emissions reductions targets of 68 percent and 78 percent, respectively. CAT rates the U.K.’s targets and policies as “almost sufficient” to contribute to a 1.5°C world, although it notes that there remains a large gap between its ambitions and the steps it is taking to achieve them.  

Rest of the World

Combined Percentage of Global Emissions: 21

The remaining 172 parties to the Paris Agreement run the gamut in terms of their commitment to climate action. Among the countries meriting special attention for their efforts is Costa Rica, whose policies and action are considered in line with limiting warming to 1.5°C and which, if it followed all the steps outlined in its National Decarbonization Plan, would be on course to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

Morocco aims to expand the share of its energy generated by renewables to 42 percent by 2020 and 52 percent by 2030. The Gambia is the only one of the 39 nations monitored by the Climate Action Tracker whose targets, policies, and actions are considered to be fully compatible with a 1.5°C target.

Additionally, the 27 members of the European Union cumulatively account for approximately 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, a decrease from 15 percent in 1990. (Germany, Poland, Italy, and France are all in the top 20 individual emitters and account for approximately 5 percent between them.)

As is to be expected from a bloc that contains countries with such different sizes, economies, and political cultures, the implementation of policies varies within the EU. Whereas some members have a timetable to phase out coal, for example, others do not. However, although CAT rates the EU’s overall efforts as “Insufficient,” it does note that the EU has “taken major steps in climate mitigation over the past year.”

Those include the adoption in July of a European Climate Law, which mandates that Europe’s society and economy become carbon neutral by 2050 and sets a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030, relative to 1990 levels.

Read This Next

Which cities will still be livable in a world altered by climate change?
The true story of the Osage murders
Can this controversial approach save the northern white rhino?

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet