Making Sense of Countries’ Paris Agreement Climate Pledges
When the Paris Agreement was adopted in 2015, countries agreed to return in five years to make a new round of climate commitments, known as nationally determined contributions, or NDCs. Countries whose initial commitments extended through 2025 would make new commitments, while countries whose commitments extended through 2030 would communicate or update them.
Delayed a year by the coronavirus pandemic, the United Nations established October 12 as the deadline for these communications to be included in the synthesis they will present at COP26 in Glasgow. (Countries also have the option to submit NDCs after that date.) With the deadline past and COP26 days away, now is a good time to take stock of the countries’ commitments.
How Many NDCs Have Been Submitted?
By October 12, 140 countries — or nearly 70% of Paris Agreement signatories, accounting for 57% of global emissions — had submitted a new or updated NDC. While that number continues to grow, the following analysis refers to NDCs submitted through October 12.
Which Countries Have Submitted NDCs?
Countries from all regions of the world have submitted NDCs. Early on in the process, small and vulnerable countries took the lead. Recognizing that climate change poses an existential threat and that climate action goes hand-in-hand with economic development, countries like Ethiopia have engaged their entire governments to strengthen their NDCs.
Larger countries eventually joined in: eighty percent of the G20 – the world’s largest economies, accounting for around three-quarters of global emissions – have submitted new or updated NDCs. On a regional basis, Europe has submitted at the highest rate. A few countries — including South Korea — have submitted but still plan to make further updates during this NDC cycle.
While most of the major economies have submitted an updated NDC, two of the world’s largest emitters — China and India, responsible for 24% and 7% of global emissions, respectively — have not.
How Much Will the Current NDCs Reduce Emissions?
All countries have mitigation commitments. All new and updated NDCs include elements to reduce or limit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Most countries (88% of those submitting to date) adopt a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as encouraged by the Paris Agreement.
A few countries (10%) present non-GHG targets, such as targets to increase renewable energy or reduce deforestation. To date, only South Sudan has presented no targets, offering a list of policies and actions instead.
These commitments make a modest dent in the “emissions gap.” Before the Paris Agreement, global greenhouse gas emissions were on track to reach nearly 60 gigatons CO2-equivalent by 2030 — more than double what they ought to be to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C.
The first round of NDCs shaved around 10% off that gap, and preliminary estimates indicate that the current round is on track to deliver another 10%. To state the obvious, this is too little — progress will need to accelerate dramatically to keep the Agreement’s objective of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C within reach.
But — importantly — the 2030 numbers don’t tell the whole story. Besides NDCs, 65 countries have pledged to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century. Taking into account both the NDCs (as well as additional 2030 pledges from China and South Korea) and the net-zero targets, warming could be limited to 2.1 degrees C (3.8 degrees F).
While this still exceeds the Paris Agreement’s objectives, it represents real progress from 2015, when warming was on track to reach well over 3 degrees C (5.4 degrees F). To lock in this progress, however, mid-century net-zero targets need to be backed up by 2030 targets that put countries on a credible path to zero out emissions by mid-century.
Who’s Doing More and Who’s Doing Less to Reduce Emissions?
The global numbers shown above mask a wide degree of variation in individual country contributions. Of the countries submitting NDCs through October 12, around 58% increased their ambition. Fourteen percent either made no change or decreased their ambition. For the remaining 28% — which account for less than 10% of global emissions — it is not possible to compare the level of ambition in their new and updated NDCs to their prior NDCs, typically due to a lack of data in the prior NDCs.
The pledges from countries committing to further reducing their emissions add up to a total reduction of 3.6 gigatons CO2-equivalent by 2030 — more than India’s total annual emissions. But Brazil and a few other countries submitted pledges that are weaker than their first NDCs, counteracting some of this gain and bringing the total net reduction to 3.1 gigatons.
Relative to their prior NDCs, countries have proposed varying degrees of emissions reductions — from none whatsoever, to 90%. The figure below shows which countries are pledging the deepest 2030 emissions reductions relative to their previous NDCs, with Mauritania, Burundi, and Togo in the lead.
Of course, countries’ initial NDCs were not all equally ambitious. It is easier to make deeper reductions relative to a less ambitious starting point. The figures below compare 2030 emissions under the new and updated NDCs to historic emissions in different base years: 1990, 2005, and 2018 (the most recent year available), for Annex I and Non-Annex I G20 countries.
With the exception of Russia, developed countries reduce emissions relative to all of the base years, but to varying degrees, ranging from 18% (Japan) to 68% (United Kingdom) relative to 1990, and 15% (Australia) to 44% (U.K. and United States) relative to 2018.
Developing countries, in contrast, will generally have 2030 emissions higher than in 1990. This is unsurprising, since their historic emissions are lower than those of developed countries, especially in the earlier base years, and they were not obligated to reduce emissions from 1990 levels under the Kyoto Protocol.
Relative to later base years, though, there is more variation, with Argentina, South Africa, and South Korea reducing emissions relative to 2005 and even 2018 by 2030, but Indonesia and Mexico continuing to grow, implying that their emissions will not yet have peaked by 2030.
Developed countries are still responsible for the most cumulative emissions. Future warming depends in large part on cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide. As such, cumulative emissions are also a critical lens through which to view the mitigation contributions in NDCs.
What Else is in the NDCs?
The Paris Agreement does not require that NDCs address climate adaptation, but 88% of the updated or new NDCs did. The vast majority of these are developing countries; less than half of developed countries include adaptation.
NDCs also address a wide range of sectoral targets or policies, and other issues, including specific implementation measures and finance required to support implementation.
What Trends Can We See in the New and Updated NDCs, Compared to Commitments Made in 2015?
More NDCs contain GHG targets. While the Paris Agreement allows countries to define their own mitigation commitments, it stipulates that developed countries should take the lead by adopting “economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets” and encourages developing countries to “move over time” to economy-wide emission targets.
In the first round of NDCs, nearly a quarter of NDCs lacked a GHG target: 13% were based on non-GHG targets, such as increasing clean energy or reducing deforestation), while 10% contained neither GHG nor non-GHG targets. Among the new or updated NDCs, 90% contain GHG targets.
More NDCs contain absolute, base year targets. The Paris Agreement states that developed countries should adopt GHG targets framed as absolute emissions reductions relative to a historic base year, and all have done so. In the new or updated NDCs, a growing number of developing countries have done so as well. The share of base year targets is now 27%, up from 19% in the previous round of NDCs.
Of those countries adopting a GHG target for the first time, most adopt baseline scenario targets, making this the most common target type. Baseline scenario targets set an emissions reduction goal relative to a future “business-as-usual” (or baseline) scenario — for example, pledging to reduce 2030 emissions by 30% relative to business-as-usual. Because defining a hypothetical “business-as-usual trajectory is inherently nebulous, these targets are generally considered to be less robust than absolute targets.
More NDCs cover all sectors and greenhouse gases. As noted above, the Paris Agreement requires or encourages economy-wide targets — that is, targets that cover all sectors of the economy (energy, waste, industrial processes and product use, agriculture, and land use) and all relevant greenhouse gases. This is important because it helps ensure that countries will examine all opportunities to reduce emissions, rather than omit some important sources.
But this does not result in a dramatically larger share of total emissions being covered. Most of the countries increasing their coverage are those with relatively low emissions. When we look at the share of greenhouse gas emissions covered by comprehensive NDCs, the change is less impressive than when we do the same comparison by number of NDCs.
Fewer NDCs are completely conditional. Developing countries often commit to mitigation contributions that are conditional on factors such as provision of international climate finance, in addition to or in lieu of a contribution that they intend to achieve regardless of such conditions. The new and updated NDCs reflect a move away from completely conditional NDCs; we see a greater share of countries making commitments that are at least partly unconditional. Notably, among the new and updated NDCs to date, the share that is completely conditional on international support has declined from 30 to 18%.
More NDCs are open to the use of international market mechanisms. Article 6 of the Paris Climate Agreement establishes that Parties may elect to cooperate with other countries to achieve mitigation goals by trading emissions credits or offsets. NDCs typically specify whether they intend to use such mechanisms to achieve their contributions, and relative to the last round of NDCs, a larger share (83%, versus 67% previously) now say they may do so.
The rules governing Article 6, however, are still under development, and must be addressed at COP26 for such mechanisms to become operational.
Additional NDCs may arrive as we approach COP26. Critically, China has said that it will submit its NDC before the meeting, and India is likely to do so as well. Ambitious pledges by both countries could make a meaningful contribution towards narrowing the gap between pledged emissions reductions and the reductions necessary to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C.
Nevertheless, it is clear at this stage that COP26 will conclude with a large gap still in place. Leaders at COP26 must address this gap with urgency. The Agreement stipulates that countries make a new round of commitments in 2025, but earlier progress is needed — especially by governments of high-emitting countries that have not yet stepped up their commitments.
Countries at COP26 should agree that such countries will take steps to bring their targets into line with 1.5-degree C pathways no later than 2023, when they will undertake a Global Stocktake to assess their collective progress. The rate of progress must increase, quickly, to keep the goals of the Paris Agreement within reach.