Adding up INDCs: what country commitments could mean for climate change

If you exist outside the group of negotiators and committed lobbyists tracking the United Nations climate negotiations from year to year, you probably haven’t heard of INDCs. But you should have – because they’re going to mean a lot for the future of the global climate.

INDC stands for Intended Nationally Determined Contributions – climatese for individual national climate action plans for reducing emissions after 2020. Switzerland has just submitted the first INDC to the UN; the European Union (EU) has released a draft version, and other countries are likely to follow suit over the next few months. They are intended to set the stage for the negotiation of a new climate deal in Paris, at the end of this year.

INDCs represent a departure from the ‘traditional’ model of a UN climate deal. For a decade and a half, negotiators worked on the basis that a central target would be set for tackling emissions at a global level, and the commitments to taking action would then be divvied up amongst different countries. The talks famously collapsed in 2009, however, prompting a rethink.

Under the new system, nations submit their individual plans for reducing emissions, at the same time as collectively agreeing to limit temperature rise to two degrees above pre-industrial levels. This approach encourages countries to commit to emissions reductions at the national level, and to be transparent about what they’re prepared to do.

But there’s a flaw. What if all the plans don’t add up to a two degrees temperature rise, but to far more significant impacts? Who’s checking, and what are we going to do then?

What is a good INDC?

INDCs were hatched at the 2013 Warsaw climate summit, just over a year ago. Negotiators seeking to break deadlock in the talks alighted on the idea that, rather than take on ‘commitments’ to cutting emissions, countries should bring forward self-determined ‘contributions’ for emissions cutting after 2020.

The talks in Lima in December last year were tasked with deciding what constitutes a good INDC – but in the end, negotiators were unable to reach agreement, and the rules stayed fairly loose.

The Lima accord calls for each party’s INDC to “represent a progression beyond the current undertaking of that party”. The plans don’t necessarily have to include an economy-wide target for reducing emissions. They could also include details of policies, targets for reducing emissions from specific sectors, and plans for adapting to climate change.

Should countries’ INDCs be assessed? And if so, how? This has been a controversial issue

If we’re worried about what this all means for temperature rise, we need to be able to assess how effective they are, and what they’re likely to mean in terms of emissions. But the question of whether – and how – countries’ INDCs will be assessed has been a controversial issue.

China and India objected to the idea of formal scrutiny of the INDCs, partly on the basis that it would be a violation of sovereignty. Poorer countries pointed out the imbalance in their mitigation plans being scrutinised, when richer country commitments on financial support and technology transfer are still far from clear.

As a result, there is currently no formal review process for individual INDCs, but there will be some assessment of what they will all mean when added together. Plans submitted before the 1st October will be included in a UN report on the “aggregate effect” of the plans, to be published on the 1st November. The report will probably give an idea of what the proposals mean in terms of future temperature rise. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) will also produce its latest analysis of future temperature rise in November.

Civil society has also stepped in to give a fuller picture. The NGO research consortium Climate Action Tracker is collaborating with the World Resources Institute (WRI) in assessing the impact of the INDCs. The WRI is also involved in an initiative to lay out criteria for what good INDCs look like, and engage countries in the process.

Crucially, the NGOs argue that INDCs need to be as transparent as possible – as well as fair and ambitious given that country’s history and capabilities. Historical responsibility for climate change, mitigation potential, and issues around justice and development are all relevant.

There’s hope that INDCs could kickstart an upward spiral of climate ambition – but no certainty

From one perspective, we don’t need a formal assessment process – because it’s already pretty clear that INDC’s submitted this year will fail to limit temperature rise to two degrees.

China, the USA and EU – together comprising 53 per cent of global emissions – have already made their post-2020 plans clear. When their pledges to reduce emissions are factored in, temperatures were still projected to rise about three degrees.

Pledges from the rest of the world seem unlikely to bring this down significantly. So are INDCs really worth the effort? For many involved in the climate negotiations, they are important not just for the numbers but because they encourage countries to buy into the international process in the future. Hanna Fekete of Climate Action Tracker and NGO the New Climate Institute, says:

“You can have a process that’s narrow and deep, with just a few countries promising deep cuts, or broad and shallow. This is so far an example of a process that’s broad and rather shallow…My optimistic hope is that once we’ve got everyone on board, we can make the shallow deeper and deeper.”

The WRI argues that INDCs could kickstart an “upward spiral of ambition” – INDCs are not a destiny, but a journey.

If that’s going to happen, the UN will need a ‘ratcheting up’ mechanism – a process by which countries can increase the ambition of their pledges in the future, without having to renegotiate the whole deal. This would also require a regular review of the targets, where parties reassess their promises and progress against the changing risks of climate change. Many countries, including the EU, argue that these reviews would need to happen every five years .

David Waskow from WRI tells Road to Paris he would like to see a “feedback loop” develop between national and international action, with the international process catalysing national action, and national promises pushing the negotiations.

All of these options currently remain on the table – but it will be up to the Paris negotiations to decide whether they happen or not.  Waskow says there’s a “rapidly emerging consensus”on the need to create feedback cycles. But he also says it’s an open question how robust the Paris agreement will be – it’s all to play for, and the negotiations haven’t set anything in stone. Further discussions in Geneva last month were constructive, but ended with an 88-page list of possible options, rather than narrowing them down.

Whether, or how, these processes are created will help determine whether the Paris deal is a seen as a success, or not – and whether the world remains on track for dangerous climate change, or not.

  1. cindy baxter

    Hi, Climate Action Tracker is not an NGO. It’s an analysis by four research organisations. Thanks.

  2. Robin Webster
    Robin Webster

    Thanks Cindy, I’ve changed that

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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  4. […] Paris at the end of this year. In the jargon of climate diplomacy, this outline is Europe’s “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution” or INDC that the wealthier countries are expected to put on the table by the end of this […]

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