UN Report Reviews National Climate Pledges Ahead of Key Paris Meet

5 November 2015

The collective ambition of the national climate action plans outlined by over 140 countries has been evaluated by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat as governments gear up for a fortnight of pivotal negotiations on a new, universal emissions-cutting deal due to be held this December in Paris, France.

The much-anticipated 66-page synthesis report released on 30 October concludes that if the national greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions cuts outlined in the domestic pledges are fulfilled, global emissions growth will slow through 2030.

According to the document, this does not imply an absolute reduction by that time. Aggregate emissions would remain 11-22 percent higher in 2030 compared to 2010 levels, although the relative growth in emissions in the 2010-2030 period is expected to be 10-57 percent lower than over the period 1990-2010.

While the report was welcomed by several climate groups and stakeholders as evidence of mitigation progress, some lamented apparent continued shortcomings. Still other analysts suggested that the UNFCCC’s press release was poorly framed and could be misread as giving a signal on what these action plans – known as intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) – might achieve in the long term, given that many of these only indicate domestic efforts through to 2030.

These INDCs will form the building blocks of a post-2020 climate regime to be agreed upon by parties to the UNFCCC in Paris, France at the end of this year.

Certain paragraphs of the synthesis report do attempt to address this challenge. The report cautions that meeting an internationally agreed goal of keeping the planet below a two degree Celsius rise from pre-industrial levels will depend on long-term changes in key economic drivers induced both by the implementation of the current INDCs and parties’ determination to scale these up over time.

The majority of the science community has agreed that the two degree threshold will be important in order to stave off the worst consequences of climate change, which could include floods, droughts, and heat waves, among other impacts.

“Temperature levels by the end of the century strongly depend on assumptions on socioeconomic drivers, technology development, and action undertaken by parties beyond the time frames stated in their INDCs (e.g. beyond 2025 and 2030),” the document reads, which also includes a section on information in the INDCs that might indicate the possibility of enhanced action in the future.

However, the report also implies that the level of ambition in the current pledges will require substantially higher annual emissions reduction rates after 2025 and 2030 in order to keep within the two degree threshold, and these will likely come at a much higher cost.

Engagement in the process

The report analyses the aggregate effect of 119 national climate pledges – with the 28 member states of the EU represented as one – submitted to the UN on or before an informal deadline of 1 October. This includes all industrialised countries and three-quarters of developing countries covering 86 percent of global emissions. (See BioRes, 16 October 2015)

Christiana Figueres, UNFCCC Executive Secretary, said last week that the sheer number of INDCs signalled broad participation in the multilateral process. The assessed INDCs cover 79.8 percent of emissions at 2010 levels, 86.6 percent of the world’s population, and 94 percent of GDP in the same year, according to the report.

A handful of INDCs, including the first submissions from the Gulf States, trickled in past the informal October deadline and are not included in the synthesis report.

However, countries have yet to finalise the precise shape of the supportive regime that will underpin the national pledges, with key details on issues relating to compliance, transparency, and review cycles to be hammered out during the Paris meet from 30 November-11 December. (See BioRes, 28 October 2015)

Emissions reductions

The report does not go into each INDC in detail, but instead captures the overall impact of countries’ mitigation efforts by harmonising the types of emissions reductions, baselines, and sectors covered.  While each plan contains at least a mitigation goal based on the mandate provided at last year’s annual UNFCCC meet, the report also found that a total of 100 parties, or 84 percent of the INDCs, included an adaptation component.

Out of the 146 mitigation targets assessed, 127 offered quantified goals to reduce emissions. Nearly 60 countries, the majority being developing countries, adopted targets based on business as usual (BAU) emissions, while approximately 31 nations set absolute emissions reduction goals. An additional eight countries, including India, pledged to reduce emissions intensity, and a few parties including China offered peak emissions years. Beijing also offered an emissions intensity reduction target alongside its trajectory indication.

These current plans would result in emissions rising to an average of 56.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) by 2030, with a range of 53.1 to 58.6 billion tonnes, finds the report. This represents some four billion tonnes less than total emissions increases without the pledges.

In order to implement their INDCs, at least half of the parties outline renewable energy, energy efficiency improvements, and low-carbon transport as key priorities to obtain emissions reductions, according to the UNFCCC’s synthesis report. 

Over half of all of the INDCs also include a long-term perspective on transitioning towards economic growth based on “low-emission, high resilience development,” a welcome sign for many observers looking for assurances of climate action beyond 2030.

Two-degree goal gap

While the report does not include global temperature increase scenarios, the UNFCCC press release refers to previous analysis completed by several independent organisations. For example, the International Energy Administration (IEA) conducted a similar aggregate analysis of the INDCs and found that current pledges would allow global temperatures to rise by 2.7 degrees Celsius by 2100.

“The INDCs have the capability of limiting the forecast temperature rise to around 2.7°C by 2100, by no means enough, but a lot lower than the estimated four, five, or more degrees of warming projected by many prior to the INDCs,” said Figueres, commenting on the apparent “emissions gap.”

Increasing ambition, implementation

Countries’ willingness to increase climate action ambition over time within the context of the Paris deal is a key area of concern for some players and observers alike given the emissions shortfall.

Many experts have also stressed the need to include a review mechanism in the multilateral climate regime in order to systematically and transparently raise the level of domestic emissions cuts. Parties are considering, among other things, five-year review cycles and establishing a compliance mechanism.

“For the INDCs to succeed they must be adjusted before 2020 and reviewed in five year cycles from 2020 to ensure national actions quickly and rapidly progress, or we all face a grim and uncertain future,” said Giza Gaspar-Martins, the Angolan diplomat who chairs the Least Developed Country (LDC) group, one of the coalitions in the climate talks.

In a related development on Monday, China and France issued a joint statement on climate change, which includes support for a review of the INDCs every five years in order to assess progress made towards reaching long-term goals. The two nations also suggested convening a dialogue in 2017/18 to take stock of progress made in accelerating climate action before the end of the decade and eventually exploring further efforts. 

Outside of the formal UN process, some members of the private sector have also supported a systematic increase of emissions reductions over time in order to better align low-carbon investments with national policies.

“Strong national plans provide the kind of vital market signals required from policy makers if investors are to curb the risk of stranded assets in the fossil fuel sector and to make the huge investments in low-carbon technologies,” said Stephanie Pfeifer, chief executive of the International Investors Group on Climate Change.

Financial risks

Consensus is building, meanwhile, among a range of experts that delaying action in the present and ignoring the risks of climate change will result in large financial losses in the coming decades.

For example, a report released by the Bank of England in September warns that there could be significant shocks to the financial system if relevant players do not evaluate climate risks in their decision making processes.

In addition, officials from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) last week reportedly indicated that the organisation plans on integrating climate risk into its macroeconomic models, starting next year. The Fund has not yet confirmed whether this is indeed its plan, according to Climate Home, which first reported the news.

However, should this change be made, it means that the organisation’s semi-annual “World Economic Outlook” could shed light on how actions to tackle climate change affect economic growth in high-emitting or fossil fuel exporting countries. 

ICTSD reporting; “World’s climate pledges not yet enough to avoid dangerous warming-UN,” THE GUARDIAN, 30 October 2015, “UN Report: Climate pledges fall short of cheapest route to 2C limit,” CARBON BRIEF, 30 October 2015; “UN says countries must do more to combat climate change,” FINANCIAL TIMES, 30 October 2015, “IMF to factor climate risk into world economic forecasts,” CLIMATE HOME, 27 October 2015; “Misleading U.N. Report Confuses Media on Paris Climate Talks,” CLIMATE PROGRESS, 3 November 2015.

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