INDCs, REDD+, And The Alphabet Soup Of COP 20

Steve Zwick

Year-end climate talks begin today in Lima, and last year’s map won’t help you understand them. That’s because the aim is no longer to create a one-size-fits-all global agreement, but to come up with a set of ground rules that lets countries attack the problem in their own way, within reason. It’s a path full of pitfalls and promise, and here’s how to navigate it.

1 December 2014 | LIMA | Peru If you haven’t heard of INDCs, you’re not alone. Try finding them on Google News, and you’ll end up learning more about what’s happening “in DC” (the US Capitol) than about the “Intended Nationally-Determined Contributions” that have re-framed global climate negotiations that begin here today.

Hatched in the closing hours of last year’s talks in Warsaw, INDCs turn the negotiating process on its head. In place of the quixotic quest for a top-down, one-size-fits-all solution, negotiators are now aiming to build a bottom-up framework that lets individual countries attack the most vexing challenge of our day  and each in its own way.

In simple terms, INDCs are the concrete, specific proposals that individual countries will begin submitting to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in the first quarter of next year. Done right, their emergence could be the biggest diplomatic breakthrough in climate negotiations since the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Done wrong, however, INDCs could be the biggest can-kicking since the Bali Action Plan a misnomer that split the talks into two parallel (yet supposedly convergent) streams in 2007.

Why “Nationally Determined”?

Like the “Action Plan”, INDCs were created to end a stalemate between developed countries and powerhouse developing countries like China and Brazil. Unlike the Action Plan, however, the Warsaw Roadmap that created INDCs inherently recognizes the fact that, by definition, parallel lines don’t converge.

They must, however, be on the same plane and point in the same direction, and the Lima talks are where that orientation will happen or not.

If negotiators get INDCs right in Lima, we’ll have a race to the top like the one the United States and China embarked on last month, when the US unveiled part of its emerging INDC. If negotiators get it wrong, however, we’ll have more of the screwball tragedy that’s left us in limbo for decades.

In our effort to keep up to speed on the process, we’ve pored through all the research we could find and then distilled this short list of the very best work exploring INDCs and the land-use issues that we focus on. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list, but rather a fundamental one that gives you what you need to know to understand the events as they unfold in Lima.

We’ve arranged them in order from the simplest and most general to the more complex and specialized.

The Big Picture: a Tale of Two Time Frames

We’ll circle back to INDCs later, but first some context.

The Lima talks are a precursor to the big finale next year in Paris, and the Paris talks will yield a plan of attack for two time frames: 2015-2020 and then post-2020. INDCs apply to what happens after 2020, and the most interesting stuff in the 2015-2020 period might not come from within the UNFCCC, but from businesses, donors, and subnational initiatives.

Jennifer Morgan and David Waskow of the World Resources Institute (WRI) provided a fairly clear frame when they laid out five objectives for Lima: first, agree on what constitutes an INDC; second, establish a process to assess country plans for action; third, narrow down the negotiating text and ensure the agreement has staying power; fourth, come up with a realistic financing plan; and fifth, get the 2015-2020 stuff up and running. WRI also held an enlightening press conference that fleshes these ideas out further.

Technically speaking, the talks are happening in the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, which is usually called the “ADP” and is chaired by Kishan Kumarsingh of Trinidad and Tobago and Artur Runge-Metzger of the European Union.

The ADP has two work-streams: the 2015-2020 stream, which is “Work-stream 1” and the post-2020 stream, which is called “Work-stream 2”.

Big-Picture Reading

By far the simplest, most accessible introduction to the talks is the Guide to the Negotiations, which the Institute of la Francophonie for Sustainable Development (IFDD) publishes every year, along with an even simpler Summary for Policymakers.

The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) also posts an incredibly clear curtain raiser at the start of every COP. It offers a detailed history of the talks from day one They also publish the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, which covers every twist and turn of the talks, but won’t make sense if you don’t already know the players and the game.

If you want to go deeper, the Climate Change Expert Group (CCXG), has two papers that will take you into the weeds. The first, “Taking Stock of the UNFCCC Process and its Inter-linkages” is by Gregory Briner, Takayoshi Kato, Susanne Konrad and Christina Hood. It offers an encyclopaedic dive into the tangled mess of institutions that have emerged as the UNFCCC has progressed.

The second, The Role of the 2015 Agreement in Mobilising Climate Finance, is by Takayoshi Kato, Jane Ellis and Christa Clapp. It offers a somewhat wonky but handy overview of the ways carbon finance can flow into sustainable land-use between 2015 and 2020.

For real-time tracking, visit the Forest Trends’ REDD Expenditures Tracking Project (REDDX), which keeps tabs on donor commitments and deliveries for REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) in the here and now. At last check, it shows that donors have committed a massive $4.5 billion to scale up REDD+, but they’ve delivered less than $600 million of that, and almost all of what they have delivered has gone into “REDD Readiness”.

For a more general take on the overall discussions, the Climate Action Network (CAN) provides daily coverage culled from more than 700 NGOs in 95 countries.

Back to INDCs

After Lima, Countries will then spend about three months uploading their INDCs to the UNFCCC web site, ramping up an iterative process designed to blend the bottom-up INDCs with top-down reality checks, culminating, we hope, with a global agreement at the Paris Climate Summit (COP 21) at the end of 2015.

At that point, contributions become commitments again, but they’ll be commitments to specific actions that suit each country’s reality, rather than to a one-size-fits all agreement that, in reality, never quite fit anyone right.

It’s a process that began in Warsaw and reached a fever pitch in Bonn, Germany, after more than two dozen countries submitted their ideas. In July, Kumarsingh and Runge-Metzger distilled those proposals into a draft negotiating text on INDCs. This draft text is essentially a laundry list of activities, and you can expect it to expand and contract quite a lot in Lima.

INDCs and Comparability: a Reading List

To work, INDCs have to be transparent and comparable across countries. If most countries feel the INDCs are fair, the theory goes, they’ll play the game to win, rather than simply not to lose.

Niklas Hí¶hne, Hanna Fekete, and Markus Hagemann recently summarized the challenge on the New Climate blog.

“INDCs of countries with similar circumstances will have to be judged by others to be equally ambitious,” they wrote. “But how can you judge whether a country’s contribution is fair and ambitious in comparison to others, when all 194 countries are very different in development, industrial structure, capabilities and responsibilities and these aspects even change over time?”

It’s a short and quite readable piece that offers five potential indicators and links to several enlightening examples, but for a more philosophical dive, you can turn to “Comparability of Effort in International Climate Policy Architecture“, a discussion paper published at the very beginning of the year by Joseph Aldy of Harvard and William Pizer of Duke in January.

The paper begins by proposing four attributes of a good metric (comprehensive, observable, replicable, and broadly applicable), but its real value is the solid, nuts-and-bolts comparison of ideas that have been in the air for years, and that some countries love and some hate. They look at different ways of measuring emission levels, different ways of thinking about a carbon price, and different ways of using taxes and trade to enforce bilateral agreements to make sure countries don’t inadvertently export their emissions.

Similar ideas surfaced in a less formal context at the University of Chicago last month, in a debate over what Milton Friedman might do to combat climate change.

If comparability seems overwhelming, check out WRI’s CAIT Equity Explorer. It’s a nifty tool that lets countries make comparisons based on their levels of development, their emissions, and how vulnerable they are to climate change.

For some insight into the INDCs we may see from developing countries, check out “A Mitigation Analysis of CDKN Priority Countries“, which the Climate & Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) published In July. Published by Helen Picot, Kiran Sura and Christopher Webb, it takes stock of efforts already underway in several developing countries including India that together account for 9% of global greenhouse gas emissions.


Negotiators finalized the REDD+ Rulebook last year in Warsaw, so there’s plenty of guidance on carbon accounting and finance as it will evolve under the UNFCCC which is different from how it’s evolved in regional and private programs. For an understanding of how is playing out in practice, our annual State of the Forest Carbon Markets offers a comprehensive overview of the trends in forest carbon distilled from more than 400 projects over the past decade.

Under the UNFCCC, there are still some technical issues to be worked out: specifically, how to develop Safeguard Information Systems (SIS), and then whether Bolivia’s proposal for non-market REDD will get a hearing. The ADP has passed these two issues to The Subsidiary Body for Science and Technologic Advice (SBSTA).

“We do not expect significant new guidance to be agreed upon, as many REDD+ countries are just beginning to create or design these systems and will be skeptical of more explicit guidance that may not be relevant to their country context,” wrote Chris Meyer of EDF in his blog.

Still, safeguards are always a contentious issue, and CIFOR published a guide that’s more readable than its title: “Multi-Level Policy Dialogues, Processes, and Actions: Challenges and Opportunities for National REDD+ Safeguards Measurement, Reporting, and Verification (MRV)“.


Everyone seems to know what REDD is these days, but how about LULUCF?

It stands for “Land Use, Land-Use-Change, and Forestry”, and it basically means that developed countries have to keep track of their emissions from forests, farms, and fields and they have to report those emissions over time as forests become farms and fields become forests.

LULUCF pre-dates REDD, and negotiators harvested the LULUCF accounting rules to make REDD. Then came the Bali Action Plan, with its two separate negotiating tracks, and LULUCF was in the Kyoto negotiating track, while REDD was in the other track. What’s more, because REDD was going to be a voluntary activity involving massive payments, its accounting mechanisms evolved, while LULUCF’s didn’t. On top of that, LULUCF has a ton of loopholes, not the least of which is that countries can choose which activities they report and which they don’t rendering it, in the views of some, meaningless.

In Lima, negotiators will be wrestling with this discrepancy, and fortunately there’s an explainer called “Understanding Land Use in the UNFCCC“. Co-written by Marcelo Rocha and Peter Iversen, who co-chair the contact group focused on LULUCF, and Donna Lee, who used to head the US negotiations on REDD+, it offers a detailed history of this evolution going back to the early reporting requirements of the 1990s and moving into the present. Its weakness is that it’s a bit uneven: it spoon-feeds some information, but then sends others flying at you in a torrent. Some parts are impossible to understand without some guidance which Rocha and Iversen do offer in a series of four webinars that you can watch here.

The CCXG has another paper in the section one we could have included further up, but are putting here because, despite its title, it’s pretty heavily focused on land-use: “Planting the Foundations of a post-2020 Accounting Framework“, by Gregory Briner and Susanne Konrad, picks up where Rocha, Iversen, and Lee left off and looks at how land-use issues can evolve in both the long and short term.

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