Global Climate Leaders and Laggards

By Ciara Shannon

This year there has been an escalation in climate chaos – right now bushfires in Australia burn in five different states and 5+ million of hectares have been razed. Tens of thousands of fires across the Amazon destroyed more than 4.6 million acres of irreplaceable rain forest and many indigenous communities lost their land and livelihoods. Hurricane Dorian utterly devastated the Bahamas leaving 80,000 people homeless; drought spread through Africa, and vital farmland in Bangladesh was lost to sea level rise. Climate change is happening now and requires immediate and ambitious climate action.

85% of New Extraction will Come from North America

The Global Gas and Oil Network’s report says that over the next five years, oil and gas companies intend to invest US$ 1.4 trillion in fossil fuel extraction, locking in the release of 148 Gt of CO2. 85% of this new extraction will come from North America – the United States (much of it from the Permian Basin) and Canada. The other countries are Argentina, China, Norway, Australia, Mexico, UK, Brazil and Nigeria. Just 25 companies are responsible for nearly half of the production and these include European oil majors such as Shell, BP, Total and Equinor.

Yet, if we are to have any chance of keeping global average temperature increase to 1.5°C, we must leave the majority (up to 80%) of fossil fuels in the ground. (Source: Climate Tracker Initiative. Unburnable Carbon (2011). We can’t afford to dig or drill up oil and gas from new fields if we’re to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Source: Fires in Australia, December 2019. Photograph: BBC, Dean Lewins/EPA

Country Climate Leaders and Laggards

Based on some research I did, after discounting about 55 countries (which had limited comparable climate data) from the world’s 195 countries, we looked at climate data for 140 countries and identified top emitting and fossil fuel producing countries by looking at per capita and absolute emissions, oil, coal and gas production and consumption, their reserves, as well as countries with high deforestation rates.

We also considered which countries had signficant carbon sinks and which countries were the most vulnerable to climate change and how ‘ready’ they were. On top of this, we looked at countries international and national climate policy and we then ranked all of this data into various lists of ‘top 20’ and identified which countries came up multiple times as key ‘climate offending’ countries. (see below).

RankC02 per CapitaAbsolute Coal ProductionOil ProductionNatural gas ProductionOil ReservesCoal ReservesNatural gas ReservesDeforestationCarbon Sink
2KuwaitUSAMongoliaRussiaNorwaySaudi ArabiaRussiaIranBrazilColombia
4AustraliaRussiaKazakhstanBrazilEquatorial GuineaIranChinaUSAIndonesiaChina
5USAJapanSouth AfricaMexicoRussiaIraqIndiaSaudi ArabiaDRCZambia
7OmanSouth KoreaPolandNigeriaKuwaitUAEGermanyUAEMadagascarMexico
8PalauIranRussiaQatarNetherlandsRussiaUkraineVenezuelaIvory CoastBolivia
9EstoniaCanadaCzech RepublicNorwayAustraliaLibyaPolandNigeriaAustraliaTanzania
10KazakhstanSaudi ArabiaChinaAngolaUSAUSAKazakhstanChinaAngolaUSA
12South KoreaMexicoIndonesiaColombiaBoliviaKazakhstanSouth AfricaIraqLaosAustralia
14Czech RepublicSouth AfricaMontenegroIndonesiaNew ZealandQatarNew ZealandMozambiqueMozambiquePhilippines
15GermanyUKNew ZealandOmanKazakhstanBrazilBrazilKazakhstanGuineaSouth Africa

We looked at various climate data sources to get a clearer picture, but a challenge was getting recent data and comparable metrics for so many countries. As there are different ways to compare countries’ emissions, we looked at both absolute emissions and on a per capita basis. We did not look at historical emissions, or the carbon footprint of consumption, including imported goods. “Absolute emissions” are carbon dioxide emissions from the combustion of coal, natural gas, oil and other fuels, including industrial waste and non-renewable municipal waste. Over time, the absolute amount is what affects atmospheric concentrations of GHGs and the global carbon budget.  

The top four GHG emitters, China (27.2%), the United States (14.6%), India (6.8%) and Russia (4.7%) contribute more than half of total global emissions (53.3%), while the bottom 100 countries only account for about 3.5 %. The US is the world’s top producer of oil and has the largest coal reserves, Canada has the third largest oil reserves and third largest deforestation rates. Australia is the top producer of coal, has the third largest coal reserves and Qatar is the top natural gas producer and has the largest C02 per capita. Venezuela has the largest oil reserves and Russia the largest natural gas reserves and largest deforestation rates, followed by Brazil. China has the world’s largest absolute emissions and is the third largest oil producer with the fourth largest coal reserves.

Deforestation, land use change and carbon sinks

Deforestation and land use change is one of the main contributors to climate change producing about 24% of GHGs. Deforestation comes in many forms: wildfire, agricultural land clearance, livestock ranching, and logging for timber etc.

Globally, forests act as carbon sinks and store large amounts of carbon sequestered from the atmosphere, but primary forests, rather than secondary forests (forests regrown after clear-felling of trees) are the best carbon sinks and must be protected against deforestation.

Australia’s annual emissions budget in 2018-19 was 532 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, however the bushfires, which have burnt through more than 5+ million hectares across the country, are estimated to have released two-thirds of this amount – or about 350 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere so far. This is a low estimate as the bushfires are still spreading. (Source: NASA’s Global Fire Emissions Database). Experts warn the forests in Australia may take more than 100 years to absorb what’s been released so far this season.

Before the fires in the Amazon, a study published in the journal Ecology showed that regrowth in the Amazon rainforest is happening slower than previously thought. Even after 60 years of regrowth secondary forests hold just 40% of the carbon held in primary forests left undisturbed by humans.

Avoiding deforestation and improving land and forest management can reduce emissions significantly, but contradictory subsidies, poor land management and vested corporate interests prevent this from happening. To consider which countries have the highest deforestation rates, the only available data for so many countries was for 2014. Recent devastating fires and deforestation in Australia, Amazon and Indonesia are not considered.

RankTop ‘Offending’ Countries Multiple Issues in Top 20 (in bracket the number of)
1CanadaC02 per capita, absolute emissions, oil, coal and natural gas production, oil, coal and natural gas reserves and deforestation (9)
1RussiaC02 per capita, absolute emissions, oil, coal and natural gas production, oil, coal and natural gas reserves and deforestation (9)
2USAC02 per capita, absolute emissions, oil, coal and natural gas production, oil, coal and natural gas reserves (8)
2ChinaC02 per capita, absolute emissions, coal and oil production oil, coal and natural gas reserves and deforestation (8)
3AustraliaC02 per capita, absolute emissions, coal production, natural gas production, coal and natural gas reserves and deforestation (7)
4IndonesiaAbsolute emissions, oil and coalproduction, coal and natural gas reserves and deforestation (6)
4Kazakhstan Coal, natural gas and oil production, oil, coal and natural gas reserves (6)
5QatarC02 per capita, natural gas and oil production, oil and natural gas reserves (5)
5KuwaitC02 per capita, oil and natural gas production, oil and natural gas reserves (5)
6IndiaAbsolute emissions, coal and oil production and coal reserves (4)
6BrazilC02 per capita, oil and coal reserves and deforestation (4)
7VenezuelaNatural gas production, oil and natural gas reserves (3)
7GermanyAbsolute emissions, coal production and coal reserves (3)
7IranAbsolute emissions, oil and natural gas reserves (3)
7South AfricaAbsolute emissions, coal production and coal reserves (3)
7ColombiaOil production, coal production and coal reserves (3)
7ArgentinaOil production, natural gas production and deforestation (3)
7MexicoAbsolute emissions, oil reserves and deforestation (3)
7PolandC02 per capita, coal production and coal reserves (3)
7UKAbsolute emissions, oil and natural gas production (3)
7NigeriaNatural gas and oil reserves and deforestation (3)
7EgyptNatural gas and oil production and natural gas reserves (3)
8AngolaOil reserves and deforestation (2)
8MozambiqueNatural gas reserves and deforestation (2)
8South KoreaC02 per capita and absolute emissions (2)
8OmanNatural gas and oil production (2)
8UAEOil and natural gas reserves (2)
8EcuadorOil production and oil reserves (2)
8NorwayOil and natural gas production (2)

We then looked at which countries appeared in the ‘top 20’ for multiple issues (as above). Given many countries have multiple climate ‘offences’ that all pack a punch, ordering them in the above way is useful when looking at which issues to focus advocacy on for each country. (noting there is detailed data behind every country ranking).

Russia and Canada share the top spot for being ‘worst offenders’ for multiple issues. Russia holds the world’s largest natural gas reserves and the eighth largest crude oil reserves, most of Russia’s production and reserves are found in the Western Siberia basin. Russia is also the biggest exporter in the world of natural gas, contributing more than 40 % of the overall world’s gas export. Plus. Russia has the largest area of forests in the world, with around 12 million km2 of boreal forest, larger than the Amazon rainforest. It is estimated that 20,000 km2 are deforested each year.

In Canada, about 60% of its industrial emissions come from the oil and gas sector and Canadian proven oil reserves are estimated at 171.0 billion barrels. Alberta is Canada’s largest oil and natural gas producer and is home to vast deposits of both resources. According to Canada’s Energy Future report, Canadian oil output will grow by nearly 50% to around seven million barrels per day by 2040, while gas increases by over 30%. This growth is for their export market, as energy use per person is expected to increase by less than 5% by 2040, while the population grows by 20%. Canada’s deforestation rates are high as their forests have been subject to large insect infestations and forest fires.

In SummaryCountries
High Emitters and ProducersArgentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Ecuador, Egypt, Germany, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kuwait, Mexico, Nigeria, Norway, Oman, Poland, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, UAE, UK, USA and Venezuela
High Deforestation CountriesAngola, Australia, Brazil, Canada, DRC, Ivory Coast Madagascar, Mexico, Mozambique, Paraguay and Russia
Need to Protect Their Carbon SinksArgentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, Philippines, PNG, Tanzania, USA and Zambia
These Countries Need More Support on Vulnerability and ReadinessBurkina Faso, Burundi, Chad, Congo, Central African Republic, DRC, Haiti, Madagascar, Mali, Sudan and Zimbabwe
Laggards in Climate Policy (this will change once countries update their NDCs).Australia, Austria, Hungary, Ireland, Malta, Slovenia, Ukraine and USA
Leaders in Climate Policy (this will change once countries update their NDCs).Argentina, Finland, France, Germany, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Mexico, Portugal, Switzerland and UK
RankMost Vulnerable and Least Ready Countries ( Source: 6 & 7)
4Central African Republic
8Haiti (SIDS)
10Guinea-Bissau (SIDS)
11Burkina Faso
14Madagascar (SIDS)

The list above comes from the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative – ND-Gain Country Index which uses a common set of indicators to measure countries vulnerability to climate change and their readiness. Most African countries are highly vulnerable to climate change and the least ready for its impacts. Asia is also very vulnerable to climate change and is home to a large majority of the global poor. Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change such as sea-level rise and an increase in intensity of cyclones etc.


  1. C02 Per Capita – Per capita is useful as individual countries vary vastly in size and population. Source:
  2. Absolute Emissions: Source:
  3. Oil reserves: Source:
  4. Coal reserves: Source:
  5. Natural gas reserves: Source:, coal and natural gas reserves.
  6. Vulnerability to the effects of climate change. Source:
  7. Climate Readiness – measures a country’s ability to leverage investments and convert them to adaptation actions. Source:
  8. Deforestation (Gross loss tree cover) Global Forest Watch. Source: www.
  9. Carbon Sink: Source:
  10. Leadership on Climate Change Policy Source: