Industrialized Countries To Start Unveiling Climate-Change Strategies In March

Steve Zwick

On Wednesday, the European Union will unveil its post-2020 climate-change strategy, presaging a month when most industrialized nations are expected to upload their strategies to the United Nations web site. By the end of June, every country in the world should have offered its own Intended Nationally-Determined Contribution to the climate challenge, and by October we’ll know how they all fit together.

24 February 2015 | If you search for “INDC” on Google News, you’ll end up learning more about what’s happening “in DC” (the US Capitol) than you will about the “Intended Nationally-Determined Contributions” that are the linchpin of a new approach to fixing the global climate mess and that’s a shame, because transparency is a major selling point of INDCs, which are the concrete, specific proposals that developed countries are submitting to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) through the end of March, with developing countries being given until June. Although most INDCs aren’t expected until the end of the month, the European Union is expected to publish a preview of its INDC this week.*

INDCs emerged in the closing hours of the 2013 talks in Warsaw, and they were designed to end the futile 20-year quest for a top-down global climate-change treaty that’s designed to be one-size-fits all but almost always ended up suiting no one. In place of that Quixotic quest, we now have a combination of bottom-up and top-down initiatives: INDCs are the bottom-up part, and the treaty currently working its way through the UN process is the top-down part. The two are evolving in an iterative process where developments in one inform the other, and visa-versa. This, however, means that even as countries begin posting their proposed INDCs, it’s not really clear what activities will be recognized under the treaty.

More clarity should come in June, when negotiators will meet in Bonn, Germany, to finalize the draft text that will be put through one last wringer at year-end talks in Paris. The June text should provide enough clarity for all the world’s INDCs to be tweaked and for the UN Climate Change Secretariat to fold them together into a synthesis report by October 1.

At that point, we’ll add up all the activities and hope they keep the earth from warming more than 2°C.

Then, come December, INDCs and the draft text will converge in Paris the culmination of a massive undertaking that’s designed to let individual countries do what they can, but in a way that makes it possible for other countries to compare efforts and that sparks a race to the top as countries vie for positions as climate leaders.

And it begins in earnest on Wednesday, when the European Union unveils its INDC.

What’s in an INDC?

The Lima talks in December  set the minimum requirements for an INDC: they must, at the very least, provide verifiable, quantifiable information on the reference point that countries will take as their base years and target years a step most major emitters have already taken. Indeed, the United States explicitly referenced INDCs when it unveiled its proposed deal with China last year and announced it would reduce its emissions by 26-28 percent, with 2005 as a base year and 2025 as a target year. At the same time, China says it’s emissions will continue to drift upwards, but will peak by 2030 or sooner. The EU says it will reduce its emission by 40 percent, with 1990 as a base year and 2030 as a target.

In addition to base and target years, INDCs must outline the scope and coverage of country activities, their planning processes, and the basic assumptions underlying their reasoning.

Earlier this month, negotiators met in Geneva to produce something akin to a laundry list of activities that will be recognized as an INDC, but they ended up producing an 86-page wish list that included every idea for an INDC that’s kicking around the UNFCCC including six separate options for land-use alone but from here through the June talks, it’s whittle, whittle, whittle, at least in theory.

In a blog post earlier this week, Kelly Levin and David Rich of the World Resources Institute (WRI) identified three questions that they felt the global community should ask when assessing INDCs:

        1. What are the country’s future emissions if its INDC is achieved? Because INDCs are “nationally determined,” each country decides its own appropriate contribution to reduce emissions and keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. Because INDCs will come in a variety of forms, it is necessary for the global community to know what each country’s emissions are expected to be in 2025 or 2030 if its INDC is implemented in order to determine if the total effect of all INDCs is sufficient to keep the world within its global carbon budget. It will also be essential to look at the long-term prospects for transformation of emitting sectors to enable a longer-term phase out of emissions.


      1. How fair and ambitious is the country’s INDC? Countries are expected to explain how their INDC is a fair and ambitious contribution to the UNFCCC’s objective: avoiding the most dangerous impacts of climate change. Countries may explain fairness through multiple criteria, such as emissions responsibility (such as historical, current, or projected future emissions per capita or total emissions), economic capacity and development indicators (such as GDP per capita), or relative costs and benefits of action. Countries may also explain their ambition in terms of how much INDCs deviate below current “business-as-usual” emissions, or how quickly their economy is decarbonizing. WRI’s Open Climate Network (OCN) is working with eight focus countries to evaluate emissions trends and abatement potential to help inform initial INDCs.
      2. Which planning processes and policies are available for achieving the INDC? In order for international negotiators and civil society to have confidence the INDC will be achieved, each country should define what domestic policies and planning processes exist or will be put in place to achieve the INDC. This information will also be critical for understanding to what extent a country is putting in place policies that will drive transformative change over the longer term.

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.

In the lead-up to the Lima talks, Niklas Hí¶hne, Hanna Fekete, and Markus Hagemann 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 last 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 late last year,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.

*CORRECTION: The initial wording of this sentence implied that INDCs would be emerging regularly throughout March. In actual fact, most aren’t expected until the final two weeks of the month. Hat-tip to WRI for pointing out the error.

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