South Africa’s newly released climate plan pledges to peak national emissions that cause climate change by 2025 and goes further than other countries on adaptation by quantifying what it will cost to adapt to climate change in light of several possible emissions scenarios.

National greenhouse gas emissions will peak between 2020 and 2025, plateau for approximately a decade, and decline in absolute terms thereafter under South Africa’s plan, known as an Intended National Determined Contribution or INDC. More than 130 countries have submitted INDCs in preparation for a global climate agreement to be agreed at the United Nations COP21 climate talks in Paris in December.

South Africa’s previous international pledge, made in 2009, was a 34 percent reduction below business-as-usual (BAU) emissions by 2020 and 42 percent below BAU by 2025. The 2025 target in the INDC corresponds to the same 2025 emissions target from the previous pledge. However, the 2009 pledge did not specify the BAU emissions scenario, making the pledge opaque in terms of where national emissions were heading.

The new target provides more clarity by specifying an intended emissions range through 2030, including when emissions will peak. South Africa joins China and Mexico in stating intended peaking years for emissions. Other developing countries should likewise send clear signals of when they intend to peak their emissions so that global emissions decline dramatically by midcentury.

Less clear, however, is that South Africa’s targets are stated as a wide range of emissions, rather than specific targets. Under the INDC, national emissions in 2025 and 2030 will be limited to between 398 and 614 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (whereas emissions in 2010 were 563 million tonnes). This wide emissions range hinders accountability and creates uncertainty on the country’s future emissions path. This in turn makes it more difficult to understand how close the world is to limiting warming to 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) above pre-industrial levels and how much more must be done.

A New Approach to Adaptation in INDCs

South Africa’s INDC treats adaptation with the same importance and level of detail as mitigation. The INDC outlines several national adaptation goals, including development of a national adaptation plan, integration of climate risk reduction into key economic sectors, and strengthening of key institutions.

Unlike most other countries’ INDCs, South Africa goes beyond outlining goals to estimate how much they will cost to achieve. For example, South Africa estimates that over 2020-2050, adaptation costs under a low mitigation scenario would range from $200 million to $53.1 billion; in a high mitigation scenario, costs would range from $200 million to $50 billion. However, a lack of data sources and methodology to determine these costs raises questions about the effectiveness of the approach. The estimates are likely derived from modeled damage estimates such as those used by the World Bank, rather than by aggregating specific activities. Still, this is the first time an INDC has linked adaptation needs and priorities to mitigation scenarios.

Some may interpret this costing exercise as an attempt to claim access to international climate finance. However, the INDC clearly expresses South Africa’s willingness to share in global responsibility for adaptation, and interest in international recognition of its domestic investments. South Africa likely will use the analysis in Paris to make a case for a global adaptation goal based on quantification of adaptation costs.

Equity as a Key Element

South Africa is the first country to apply a carbon budget approach to determine whether its INDC represents a fair share of global emission reductions. In the absence of internationally agreed equity guidance, multiple approaches were used to calculate South Africa’s fair share. Not all of these approaches conclude that the target represents an equitable contribution. Greater clarity on the methodology and results of this analysis would strengthen South Africa’s conclusions as to the fairness of its contribution.

South Africa’s Signal on Global Responsibility

Through the INDC, South Africa is signaling that adaptation is a global responsibility with quantifiable costs, and that all countries bear a responsibility to respond with adequate planning, implementation and financial resources. We expect South Africa’s INDC to galvanize important conversations about a global adaptation goal, the connections between mitigation and adaptation, and the challenges of costing adaptation action.

South Africa has also set an example for other developing countries by defining a pathway for when national emissions will peak. As developing countries move toward limiting and eventually reducing their emissions, defining such pathways is a necessary step to ensure that global emissions decline in line with IPCC recommendations. To further set an example, South Africa should exceed the bare minimum required to meet the targets and limit emissions to the low end of the 2025 and 2030 target emissions ranges. Doing so would represent a fairer share of global emission reductions, ensure the country takes full advantage of its mitigation potential, and increase the chance of limiting warming to below 2 degrees C, to help avoid the most extreme climate change impacts.