As the world marches toward December’s United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP21) Paris climate summit, governments are determining what effort they will make to reduce emissions and address climate change. Countries are in the midst of implementing commitments through 2020, and they are now turning their attention to preparing what they will commit to for the post-2020 period. These post-2020 pledges are known as intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs).

Post-2020 INDCs, which will be released this year, are foundational to an international agreement to meet the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) goal of limiting global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures. Here’s an in-depth look at what INDCs are, and why they’re so important for curbing global climate change:

Why are INDCs important?

INDCs are the key vehicle for governments to communicate internationally how they will cut emissions for the post-2020 period. They also help countries demonstrate leadership on addressing climate change. While climate change is a global challenge, each country faces unique circumstances, with a different emissions profile and emissions-reduction opportunities. INDCs allow contributions to be tailored to national priorities, capabilities and responsibilities. These individual measures can be the basis for collective action, and, if they are ambitious enough, set a path toward a low-carbon, climate-resilient future.

Beyond the global good, each country can also create significant non-climate domestic benefits through INDC development and implementation. Demonstrating political commitments to address climate change helps governments build a new climate economy where emissions reductions, sustainable economic development and poverty reduction go hand-in-hand.

When will we see them?

Countries have committed to publicly communicate their INDCs in the first quarter of 2015 for those able to do so. Accordingly, it is likely that developed countries and some leading countries in the developing world will communicate their INDCs by the end of March 2015, with many others by the June UNFCCC session.

The UN Climate Change Secretariat will compile a synthesis report on the aggregate effect of all INDCs communicated by October 1st. This creates a constructive feedback loop between national and international negotiators, and enables potential adjustments ahead of COP21.

What are the broad options for an INDC?

INDCs can be framed as either a means or an end to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. A country could commit to implementing specific emissions-reduction actions, such as policies or mitigation actions like advancing a feed-in tariff for renewable energy technologies, phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, or converting to no-tillage agricultural practices. Alternatively, a country could commit to a certain outcome or result — for example, reducing emissions to a specific level (a greenhouse gas outcome) or generating a certain percentage of renewable energy or increasing energy efficiency to a certain level (both non-greenhouse gas outcomes).

The variety of domestic situations each country faces in reducing emissions will drive a wide diversity of INDCs, ranging from emissions targets to energy targets to actions in particular sectors. For example, there have been a number of public announcements in previous months that are likely to inform what countries will submit, for example:

  • The European Union has proposed a 40 percent reduction of emissions below 1990 levels by 2030;

  • The United States has proposed a 26-28 percent reduction of emissions below 2005 levels by 2025;

  • Chile has put forward a draft INDC which includes a reduction in the emissions intensity of its economy (25-30 percent or 30-35 percent reduction in intensity by 2025, and 35-40 percent or 40-45 percent by 2030 relative to 2007 levels) as its primary INDC, while also pursuing separate forestry sector action as a second INDC element; and

  • China committed to peak its carbon dioxide emissions around 2030, while striving to peak earlier, and generate 20 percent of its total energy supply from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030. Other details may also emerge on its future plans.

Also, the decision at COP 20 in Lima also invited Parties to consider communicating undertakings in adaptation or consider including an adaptation component in their INDCs. Many developing countries have noted their intention to include adaptation in their INDCs.

Furthermore, developing countries may choose to highlight needs and priorities to assist in the INDC’s implementation—including with regard to finance, technology, and capacity building—and may articulate the additional ambition that could be realized with greater support.

What should the global community be looking for in INDCs?

Regardless of their form, INDCs should clearly show that a country is doing its part to reduce emissions and limit future climate risks. When assessing INDCs, the global community should ask three questions:

  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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

To be able to answer these questions, it is essential for countries to be transparent when communicating their INDC. WRI’s Open Book project has developed a comprehensive list of information for countries to provide when submitting INDCs.

Even if all countries follow through on current emissions-reduction pledges, global emissions projections are far from a pathway that limits global average temperature rise to 2°C above pre-industrial levels. In the absence of additional mitigation, global mean surface warming would be 3.7-4.8°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100.1 This level of warming would bring disastrous impacts.

INDC submissions are not a destination—rather; they’re the beginning of a longer journey toward continuous commitments to address climate change. The 2015 Agreement can kick-start an upward spiral of ambition, where the world combats climate change more and more aggressively, leading to a phase out of GHG emissions.

1. With a full range of 2.5-7.8°C when uncertainty is taken into account.">↑