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What Do Top Emitters' Greenhouse Gas Targets Mean for Emissions? It’s Not Always Clear

The adage “you can’t manage what you don’t measure” is particularly relevant this week as the latest round of UN climate change negotiations gets underway in Paris. Over the last several months, 184 countries have submitted post-2020 climate action plans for managing emissions and improving climate change resilience—a huge step forward in international climate action. Approximately 80 percent of these plans, also known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), set a target for mitigating national greenhouse gas emissions—an important first step in emissions measurement. But to really understand what each country’s target means for national emissions—and to trust that they’re on track to meet it—you need clear and complete information. You need transparency.

A WRI working paper released today, Interpreting INDCs, takes a close look at the greenhouse gas emissions targets of eight top emitters—Brazil, China, the European Union, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico and the United States—which collectively account for approximately two-thirds of annual global emissions. While some of the information in these INDCs is clear, all eight countries could go further in creating transparent plans.

Country INDCs: Comparing Apples to Oranges

INDCs are, by definition, determined by each nation according to their own priorities and capabilities. As such, countries have chosen to present their greenhouse gas emissions targets in different ways. For example, Brazil, the EU member states, Japan and the United States put forward absolute reduction targets from a base year; Indonesia and Mexico have targets that are relative to a baseline or “business-as-usual” scenario; and China and India have targets to reduce emissions relative to GDP.

So how clear are these eight targets?

Major Emitters Have Generally Followed Basic International Guidelines

All eight economies have made efforts to adhere to the guidelines agreed to at last year’s UN negotiating session. For example, all eight emissions targets specify a target type and a year (2025 or 2030) by which the emissions goal is to be achieved. Most also specify what greenhouse gases will be considered in their emissions target, and what economic sectors their target will cover. These are some of the most essential elements to include when setting a greenhouse gas emissions target. Notably, our analysis also finds that the overall clarity and comprehensiveness of INDC emissions targets submitted this year has improved compared to the targets put forward during the negotiating sessions in Copenhagen and Cancun in 2010/2011.

More Clarity Needed

All eight emissions targets assessed, however, could include more specifics that would allow for a greater understanding of anticipated future emissions pathways and how they’ll affect the planet. China, for example, has stated its intention to peak carbon dioxide emissions around 2030, but not the level at which they’ll peak. The EU, as part of its target to reduce emissions by at least 40 percent relative to 1990 levels by 2030, could outline the methodology it will use to account for land sector emissions. And nearly all of the INDCs assessed could provide additional clarity regarding if and how credits from market mechanisms like emissions-trading programs will be used to achieve national emissions targets.

The effect of these and other uncertainties in countries’ descriptions of their emissions targets can be significant in the final calculation of emissions in 2025 or 2030. Failure to include more specifics can also inhibit tracking of progress along the way, ultimately affecting countries’ accountability for meeting their targets.

The Post-Paris Outlook

The Paris negotiations will be an important milestone for climate action and a launch pad for implementation of countries’ INDCs. Countries can help bolster trust and accountability in these plans by:

  • Using WRI’s Open Book framework to ensure that emissions targets are presented in a clear and comprehensive way;
  • Providing more information on estimates of future emissions;
  • Reframing more complex emissions targets (such as baseline scenario or base-year intensity target) to a target that is more straightforward (such as a base-year or fixed-level target), but no less ambitious.

Significant capacity-building may also be required in certain countries to ensure their targets are transparent enough for guiding progress toward meeting them.

With so much at stake, there’s little time for debating uncertainties in the technical details of countries’ climate action plans. Although they cannot predict the future, countries could make sure that the international community has a clear understanding of their intentions to address climate change. After all, better measurement will mean better management—and countries’ successful management of emissions is something current and future generations are counting on.

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