When countries adopted the 2015 Paris Agreement, they designed it to steer the world onto a pathway that would limit temperature rise to well below 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) by 2100, while striving for the 1.5-degree C (2.7 degrees F) goal. To ensure that countries take on greater climate action over time, the agreement requires each country to prepare and communicate Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) every five years.

These cycles begin in 2020, five years after countries submitted their first NDCs in 2015. The current set of NDCs falls short of aligning with the temperature thresholds in the Paris Agreement. Countries now need to deliver a measurable step up in ambition to start closing the gap between current emissions and where they need to be.

With 2020 just over the horizon, WRI’s 2020 NDC tracker reveals that 68 countries have indicated they will enhance the ambition or action of their NDCs next year -- but they represent only 8% of global emissions. This includes 59 countries that were part of the Climate Ambition Alliance announced by Chile, the COP25 Presidency, during the recent UN Climate Action Summit (UNCAS). One country -- the Republic of the Marshall Islands -- has already submitted an enhanced NDC. An additional 41 countries (including the European Union, representing its member states) have said they will update their NDCs in 2020, though this might only mean providing more information or clarifying actions to implement their initial NDCs.

The early indication that a number of countries are ready to enhance their NDCs is encouraging, but those are mainly small- and medium-size countries, many of them quite vulnerable to climate change impacts. Meanwhile, most major emitters have not yet announced whether they will submit new NDCs in 2020.

So what changes will 2020 bring for national climate commitments? Will the countries that have said they will do more do enough?  Here is the current state of play based on 2020 NDC tracker.   

The Enhancers

A total of 33 Small Island Developing States (SIDS), where climate change poses an existential threat, have signalled their intent to enhance climate ambition. These countries understand the threat posed if countries do not take strengthened action and want to lead the way. For example, the SIDS aspire to shift to 100% renewable energy and map the way to carbon neutrality.  Some of these countries may be ready to submit their NDCs in early 2020. 

Twenty African countries -- including South Africa, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Morocco – have indicated that they will enhance their NDCs in 2020 (four of these African countries are also SIDS). As with many of the SIDS, many African countries already face significant impacts from climate change and aim to build stronger clean energy and climate-resilient economies. South Africa, where coal is a dominant energy source, was an encouraging surprise among those that indicated their intent to enhance, which President Cyril Ramaphosa announced in a written statement during UNCAS. The government recently approved an electricity infrastructure development plan but there are unclear signals in it about the climate path South Africa may choose to take.

Norway was a welcome addition to the enhancers in the 2020 NDC Tracker. It aims to become a low-carbon society by 2050, requiring 80%–90% emissions reductions below 1990 levels, though oil and gas remain the country’s most important commodities. The country’s intention to enhance its 2020 NDC is a positive signal that might inspire the EU to do the same.

Some Latin American countries may also be a source of leadership, as the COP25 co-presidents, Chile and Costa Rica, have both moved toward adoption of net-zero emissions targets for 2050 and have indicated that they plan to enhance their NDCs in line with those targets.

The Updaters 

As one of the blocs that has now indicated it will at least update its NDC, the European Union shows signs of promise. In September, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, instructed her executive vice president to lead work on the European Green Deal and efforts to strengthen the EU’s NDC, by strengthening the current emissions reduction target to 50% or 55% by 2030. In October, the EU Council stated that it would update its NDC by 2020 but noted that this would focus on  increasing transparency. The EU’s adoption of its 2050 carbon neutrality target at its next council meeting in December would be a positive signal for NDC enhancement, and the EU-China Summit planned for September 2020 could provide an important moment for the EU to demonstrate the leadership on climate that it often has provided.

Other important countries such as South Korea, the world’s 13th largest emitter and a member of both the G20 and the OECD, and New Zealand have also indicated they intend to update their NDCs and should be watched for their readiness to make their NDCs more ambitious. Encouragingly, New Zealand just passed a Zero-Carbon Bill aiming for net-zero emissions by 2050. It now needs to align its near-term efforts to achieve that longer-term goal.

The No-Signallers

A number of major emitters have so far failed to indicate that they plan to enhance their NDC.

There are significant uncertainties regarding China’s plans for its NDC next year. It is concerning that China is planning significant additions of coal capacity. But there are some clear ways for China to enhance its targets. In addition to an earlier peaking date for emissions and a stronger carbon intensity target, China could add non-greenhouse gases to the targets in its NDC, given that these substantial sources of emissions are not included in the top-line commitments in its current NDC. Chinese climate plans could be affected by the process of developing the country’s next Five Year Plan. China may also submit its long-term mid-century climate strategy this coming year, and there are opportunities to green the vast Belt and Road Initiative, but those steps should not replace NDC enhancement.

Just before UNCAS, the Indian government stated that it may only elaborate on its climate actions already pledged in the current NDC. However, energy transitions are in full swing in India, and if well-managed, could support India’s national priorities of energy security and access. The severe air pollution in most Indian cities offers another motivation to phase out coal. At UNCAS, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said India would raise its renewable energy target to 450 gigawatts (GW)  from the 74 GW of renewable energy installed capacity as of March 2019 – a promising sign that India could build on in its 2020 NDC.

In Indonesia, there are clear opportunities to takes steps on increasing ambition, building on the Low Carbon Development Initiative report (LCDI) released by Bappenas, the Indonesian Ministry of Planning. The report identifies low-carbon growth paths that would deliver stronger economic growth than BAU, as well as net employment and poverty reduction, and the government is working to integrate these strategies into its next five-year economic plan. It will be crucial to bring all ministries on board in order to align the 2020 NDC with this high ambition scenario.

Other countries to watch include Japan and Canada. Following Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s re-election, the country now could substantially build on progress made in the last four years.

Brazil and the United States both have difficult political landscapes. Brazil has shown no signs of readiness to enhance its NDC, given President Jair Bolsonaro’s climate skepticism. The U.S. also presents a major challenge, having officially started the process to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and with the presidential election scheduled right before next year’s climate summit, COP26. However, important opportunities to enhance climate ambition do exist through U.S. business, state, city and other actors who remain committed to the Paris Agreement and represent 70% of U.S. GDP and 65% of the population. A U.S. subnational delegation will attend COP25 to demonstrate American climate leadership.

How can we ensure the new NDCs raise confidence that we are on track to a 1.5 degree C world? While all countries have a role to play, much hinges on the major emitters. The stakes are high, because where we land in 2020 will either put us on track or undermine efforts to achieve the main international mechanism we have to fight climate change: the Paris Agreement.