2021 and the Sustainable Development Goals: Is the World Meeting its Climate Goals?

By: Emily Lieberman and Evelyn Zhang

In 2019, carbon dioxide levels and greenhouse gases rose to unprecedented levels, a concerning development as climate change has already affected industries, economies and weather patterns worldwide. Although greenhouse gas emissions were projected to drop by about six percent in 2020 due to COVID-19 shutdowns and slows in economic growth, this alone will not solve the climate crisis.

However, the international community has already started to make progress on climate change. In 2015, the United Nations developed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a universal call to action to protect the planet by enacting 17 initiatives by the year 2030. The same year, parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) reached an agreement, called the Paris Agreement, to rapidly increase action and investment into a global response to the climate crisis. For the first time in history, this agreement effort brought hundreds of nations together under a common cause for climate change initiatives to mediate the effects of global temperature increases. The Paris Agreement established a binding commitment for countries around the world to uphold and maintain their nationally determined contribution to limit global temperature increases to below 2 degrees Celsius, with a primary goal of fewer than 1.5 degrees celsius. 

Sustainable Development Goal 17, Climate Action, hopes to strengthen countries’ ability to deal with the impacts of climate change through enhanced global measures and a capacity-building framework. As 2020 comes to a close, five years following the Paris Climate Agreement, what have various countries achieved in their climate goals, and have they done enough to combat the growing global climate crisis? 

This article will analyze five countries’ responses to climate change and whether their efforts are realistic in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by the end of 2030. 


Russia is the world’s fourth-largest greenhouse gas emitter. Russia’s intended nationally determined contribution in the Paris Agreement is to limit “anthropogenic greenhouse gases in Russia to 70-75% of 1990 levels by the year 2030.” Additionally, Russian boreal forests have a massive global significance for mitigating climate change. Through conserving biodiversity and accounting for 25% of the world’s forest resources, forests have become a central element of Russian environmental policy. These forests consume about 500 million tons of CO2 per year, which is essential in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing emissions by 25-30% from the 1990 base level by 2030 will allow the Rusian Federation to achieve its contribution to the long-term objective of lowering the global temperature. 

Currently, Russia is on course to meet its Paris target, but its commitment only impacts the output of carbon emissions. Moreover, internal data is mostly out-of-date or scarce, making it difficult to confirm Russia’s progress in meeting its Paris commitments. As one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters, it is essential that Russia maintains on track to decrease global temperature. As of 2017, global carbon emissions worldwide increased by 1.7% in two years and rose a further 2.7% by 2018. However, with action, there is potential to reduce carbon emissions within 12 years and prevent temperature increases from surpassing 2 degrees celsius. 

United States

In 2015, the United States agreed to “achieve an economy-wide target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% below its 2055 level in 2025.” However, in 2019, the United States pulled out of the Paris Agreement. Currently, the United States has backed out of numerous domestic policies, pulled out of global climate initiatives, and moved in the opposite direction of achieving its climate goals. Being the only nation to exit the agreement voluntarily, the United States has exponentially hindered global efforts to tackle climate change. In 2018, the United States was the second-highest producer of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Despite recent gains in energy efficiency and emissions reductions, these small steps are menial for the United States’ larger impact on global warming. 

President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to rejoin the Paris Agreement and plans to increase the ambitious domestic U.S. climate targets. Under this new presidency, there is potential for the United States to begin progressing on its intended nationally determined contribution to the Paris Agreement. As the second-largest greenhouse gas emitter, upon rejoining, the U.S. will likely be expected to update its climate target and create a concrete plan focused on reducing domestic emissions. Furthermore, the United States will need to rebuild trust with other nations and meet the bold global climate initiatives other countries have presented. China has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2060, with the EU presenting even more ambitious goals of becoming carbon neutral by 2050. Biden plans to invest $2 trillion to initiate a transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. He also plans to cut carbon emissions from eclectic power to zero and reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Although the United States has fallen far behind its emissions goals, it has the potential to secure its position again as a leader in climate change mitigation.


India is among the few countries in the world that has reached its goal of reducing carbon emissions and limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. India is also spearheading remarkable growth in renewable energy, including energy sources like wind and solar power. This growth has been possible through government support, which has spurred confidence in investors of the renewable energy sector. In India’s National Electricity Plan, they outlined the growth of renewable energy to be the fastest-growing energy sector, aiming to achieve 225 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2022, exceeding its target of only 175 GW in the Paris Agreement. By 2030, their goal rises further to 500 GW. In their plan, they also address a timeline for decreasing coal power plants to reduce pollution. 

As of 2018, 65% of the country’s electricity was still generated from coal, a notorious contributor to carbon emissions. India has historically dominated the coal industry, where they consumed more coal than both the United States and Japan combined. Therefore, few ever expected India to exceed key commitments to the Paris Agreement. India is on track to reduce emissions by as much as 45% by 2030, 10% more than it had initially planned. This “green revolution” in India has only been possible through a combination of political, economic, and technological support. In contrast to the United States, where clean energy is a matter of heated political debate, India passed taxes on coal production with nearly unanimous approval from all 36 political parties in the parliament. They have made a staunch commitment to making clean energy cheap and accessible, where technological breakthroughs dropped the price of solar power to become cheaper than coal. India has surpassed all expectations of its progress towards zero emissions, setting a prime example for other countries to follow to collectively achieve and perhaps even surpass the zero-emissions goal.

Saudi Arabia

Despite ratifying the Paris Agreement in 2016, Saudi Arabia has taken minimal tangible action towards its goals, falling into the “critically insufficient” category on the Climate Action Tracker scale. On its current path, the country is on track to increase temperatures by more than 4 degrees Celsius. In the Paris Climate Agreement, they targeted to reduce up to 130 MtCo2e below the baseline, yet have failed to even provide a baseline emissions level to make their targets measurable. Their pledge within the Paris Agreement also contained a fatal “get-out” clause, allowing Saudi Arabia to adjust its target if it deems that the Paris Agreement creates an “abnormal burden” on its economy. 

Commitments made by Saudi Arabia to transitioning to clean energy has been volatile. In the government’s 2016 “Vision 2030” plan, they strategized that Saudi Arabia would phase out fossil fuel subsidies, but pulled out of this goal in December 2017 in order to “enhance the economy”. Then, in 2018, Saudi Arabia canceled its biggest solar project shortly after SoftBank and the Saudi Public Investment Fund announced plans to build a $200 billion 200GW solar plant. Over time, the Saudi government has set a precedent for backing out on renewable energy commitments, creating pushback in the Saudi solar market as investors gamble with the government’s volatility. As of now, there is an extreme “gap between promises and reality,” said Benjamin Attia, a global solar analyst with Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables. Until the Saudi government can formally commit, the country has had minimal contributions to the Paris Agreement. However, as one of the biggest fossil-fuel producers in the world, Saudi Arabia’s shift towards clean energy is essential to the global climate change effort. 

Costa Rica

Thus far, Costa Rica has shown promise in taking action against climate change, receiving a “2º C Compatible” rating from Climate Action Tracker. This indicates that its current trajectory is just shy of the Paris Agreement goal of limiting temperature increase to 1.5º celsius. Regardless, Costa Rica has set lofty goals for electricity production to be 100% renewable by 2021, and it has shown resolve in accomplishing this. As of 2018, 98% of its electricity was generated from renewable energy sources for the fourth consecutive year. They have even enacted the National Decarbonisation Plan in 2019, aiming to become a “decarbonized economy with net-zero emissions” by 2050

President Carlos Alvarado Quesada has repeatedly stated that “decarbonization is the great task of our generation and Costa Rica must be among the first countries to achieve it, if not the first,” asserting a long term vision for Costa Rica to spearhead the transition to zero-net emissions. Though COVID-19 has negatively impacted Costa Rica’s original trajectory, it continues to work towards drastically reducing its carbon footprint and has potential to be a strong role model for other countries. 

Looking Forward

Climate change has not only begun to have detrimental effects on the environment at large, but individual countries around the world are already feeling the impact. Almost every major industry, like human health, agriculture, transportation and energy, has been impacted by climate change. It has raised concerns for health risks associated with wildfires, pollution, and the spread of tropical diseases like the Dengue and Zika viruses to name a few. Changing seasonal patterns also threaten to destabilize food security by hampering the annual crop yield and distribution systems across the world. Climate change’s cascading effects have ultimately spread to nearly all sectors, demanding reform of the energy industry to move away from fossil fuels, and pushing for greener modes of transportation. Even so, major greenhouse gas contributors are working to mitigate climate change but are seeing longer timelines for reducing their impact.

Studies have found that over 75% of carbon emissions pledges for 2030 under the Paris Agreement are not nearly enough to reach the 2 degrees Celsius target. Scholars warn that failure to do so will cost the world “a minimum of $2 billion per day in economic losses from weather events made worse by human-induced climate change.” 

Though the outlook on progress has been relatively bleak, especially considering the insufficient efforts of major countries like China and the US, recent commitments may provide new promise. China has recently revised goals to hit net-zero before 2060, and many experts are encouraging countries to invest their COVID-19 recovery funds into greener technology for “a green pandemic recovery.”

Ultimately, there has been a large variance among countries in terms of reaching their emissions goals. However, it has become clear that the most successful countries have found ideological cohesion between the government, the economy and the technology sector to move forward together. The compliance of each sector is imperative to each country’s ability to succeed in reaching these goals. However, there is still a chance to get back on track. According to Sir Robert Watson, former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “We have the technology and knowledge to make those emissions cuts, but what’s missing are strong enough policies and regulations to make it happen.” 

Even with setbacks in the transition to green energy due to the pandemic, it is now more important than ever to clamp down on climate change and save large parts of the planet from being uninhabitable.