In Paris this December, all States will aim to agree on a new climate deal to ‘come into effect and be implemented’ from 2020. Before they do that, though, every country will submit its own mitigation goals for the period after 2020, referred to as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs.

Earlier this month, we reported in on New Zealand’s recently submitted – and widely criticized – INDC. However, without examining the global context, it can be hard to see why a low INDC is so concerning. This post will therefore endeavour to explain where the idea for these contributions comes from, why they matter, what they should contain, and when we can expect to see them. And of course, it will look into what role they will play – if any – in December’s Paris deal.

Where did these INDCs come from?

In Copenhagen in 2009, the world’s governments met to agree on a new climate change treaty that would take effect after 2012 to supplement or complement the Kyoto Protcol. However, deep, long-standing divisions – particularly between developed and developing States – reasserted themselves. The ‘first mover problem’ further chilled negotiations; no one wanted to put their cards on the table until anyone else had, concerned that whoever went first could have ended up committing much more (or less) than others, so costing their economies disproportionately.

When negotiations began in Copenhagen’s Bella Centre, delegates arrived with a 200-page draft agreement with square brackets at the start and end, indicating not even a single word was agreed. Worse, the so-called ‘circle of commitment’,including the UK, US and Denmark, prepared an alternative treaty text: the ‘Danish text’. Unsurprisingly, someone leaked the Danish text, developing States’ negotiators reacted with fury, and negotiations broke down.

While the Kyoto Protocol was top-down, imposing centrally agreed and legally binding emission reduction targets for Annex 1 (developed) parties, Copenhagen ushered in an era of bottom-up pledge and review, where each country voluntarily fronted up with its own targets on its own schedule.

Two years after Copenhagen, in Durban, our climate negotiators together agreed to metaphorically hit the reset button. They effectively turned negotiatons off, then back on again. Instead of negotiating a deal to sit beside Copenhagen’s agreement, they agreed both to extend the Kyoto Protocol for a second period (for those countries that were willing) and to create a new ad hoc working group to negotiate “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties” by 2015, to enter force in 2020.

The national climate action plans, or INDCs, are an attempt at answering the first mover problem. They represent a path to greater transparency in the negotiations. In the 2013 Warsaw talks, countries agreed:

“To invite all Parties to initiate or intensify domestic preparations for their intended nationally determined contributions, without prejudice to the legal nature of the contributions…”

 Last year’s Lima Call for Climate Action reiterated this request, as well as providing murch more detail on the plans’ timing and content. Importantly, the world’s governments agreed that all national contributions have to be ‘a progression beyond the current undertaking’ of each country. Everyone has to step it up a notch, though no other guidance on ambition or differentiation has been agreed so far.

Why do they matter?

INDCs are the key vehicle for governments to communicate internationally how they will cut emissions for the post-2020 period” (World Resources Institute)

The submission of INDCs represents the first time that all countries have been asked to front up with pledges to take climate action and set plans to get there. That itself is historic. But, even more importantly, the preparation of INDCs presents governments with a choice.

Collectively, INDCs represent a chance for governments to prepare robust plans to embrace the dawning renewable energy era, shift onto low-emission development pathways that help build resilient communities free from poverty, and kickstart unprecedented global action by planning achievable local milestones. That is, they’re a chance to secure both global and domestic benefits.

Some countries have already seen the writing on the wall. They have already prepared their national action plans and, in some cases, already revealed them, realising that – as the Stern Report said acting now is cheaper than delaying. They seek to reap the benefits of timely climate action for their people.

Other countries are wavering, hoping to avoid the transition to a low-carbon economy as much as possible for as long as possible. Even so, the INDC process requires them to plan some steps – and open those plans up for public scrutiny.

Ultimately, the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report – itself endorsed by the world’s governments – makes a clear case that our economies can only prosper if we both mitigate by phasing out fossil fuels and adapt to unavoidable changes. Phasing out fossil fuels and the subsidies propping them up is how we’ll get there. These national action plans, therefore, are a chance to set our countries onto a path to 100% renewable energy and zero carbon pollution by 2050.

What goes into them?

That’s up to each country. Every country must file some sort of mitigation contribution. Almost all developed states will choose to file a numerical target for how much their emissions will fall by either 2025 or 2030. Some developing states will set a target year for when their emissions will begin to peak. Many countries will include a real plan for how to make this happen. Some won’t – and New Zealand hasn’t.

At the Lima talks, parties clashed, over and over, about what should go into INDCs. The Lima Call for Climate Action stitched together a compromise at the eleventh hour. As COP president Manuel Pulgar Vidal met one-on-one with representatives from each negotiating bloc in quick succession, a day after negotiations were due to end, many of us on the ground in the marquees around the Pentagonito began talking about whether the Lima talks would extend into another day of overtime – perhaps breaking Durban’s record – or end without consensus, forcing a ‘COP-bis’ sometime this year. The compromise he brokered, therefore, includes great flexibility, allowing countries to tailor their commitments and plans to their own individual circumstances.

In addition to a numerical target or peak year, the Lima Call for Climate Action invites Parties to include:

  • quantifiable information on the reference point (such as setting a base year if the contribution is a reduction below past emissions);
  • time frames and/or periods for implementation (what year or period the target is set to be achieved);
  • scope and coverage (which sectors and gases are covered and which aren’t);
  • planning processes (how the commitment was formulated);
  • assumptions and methodological approaches including those for estimating and accounting for anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and, as appropriate, removals;
  • how the Party considers that its contribution is fair and ambitious, in light of its national circumstances; and
  • how it contributes towards achieving the international goal of limiting warming to below 2ºC or 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels .

Rather than filing a contribution or plan, Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States can file information about “strategies, plans and actions for low greenhouse gas emission development reflecting their special circumstances”.

Although the contributions primarily focus on mitigation (that is, emissions reductions), some parties might choose to also include adaptation plans.

When will we see them?

The Lima Call for Climate Action urged countries to submit their plans in the first quarter of 2015. Only seven countries did so (Gabon, Latvia on behalf of the European Union, Mexico, Norway, Russia, Switzerland, and the United States) – though others have since followed suit.

With so few States being proactive in submitting their targets, trust gaps within the negotiations are no doubt deepening. New Zealand negotiators initially suggested aiming to file our contribution before the Bonn negotiations in June, but with public consultations not announced until 8 May (and continuing through to 3 June), it was soon clear this deadline would not be met. Before the announcement in early July many were speculating it would come as late as August.

The next deadline is 1 October 2015. The UNFCCC Secretariat will include all contributions filed before then in a synthesis report due for release on 1 November 2015, which will evaluate their collective impact on emissions.

Ultimately, though, the final deadline is the start of the Paris talks itself: 30 November 2015.

How does New Zealand’s INDC fare?

New Zealand’s INDC has been widely – and harshly – criticised, with both international and domestic commentary slamming the Government for a lack of ambition. Climate Action Tracker conducted a thorough analysis, determining New Zealand’s INDC was “inadequate” and “far from doing its ‘fair share’”; Australia’s Climate Institute warned it would result in “an increasing competitive disadvantage”, leaving New Zealand “with the most polluting economy of the advanced economies”. Closer to home, Oxfam New Zealand went as far as to label the target “irresponsible”, and journalist Toby Manhire suggested it constituted a threat to New Zealand’s clean, green brand.

It is also worth noting that while Parties are invited to include additional information in their INDCs, New Zealand has elected not to include a climate action plan or methodology. At the Auckland consultation, MFAT staff suggested that New Zealanders may be consulted on a plan for achieving New Zealand’s target later this year, though any such (yet to be announced) consultation will now clearly not feed into our INDC.

How does this all fit into the Paris deal?

Negotiations throughout 2012 and 2013 determined that the 2015 agreement will probably involve both top-down and bottom-up elements, in what New Zealand’s negotiators have called ‘bounded flexibility’.

The national action plans filed with the UN as INDCs will probably become the core bottom-up component of the agreement.

Importantly, the contributions and plans filed are “without prejudice to the legal nature and content of” both the contributions themselves and the Paris agreement. That is, Parties may or may not make their contributions legally binding, and they still might or might not be part of the Paris deal, which itself may be binding, partially binding, or non-binding. This uncertainty stems from countries’ unwillingness to take on targets without knowing what rules they will be measured against – and unwillingness to agree on rules without knowing how other countries will use them. That means it is still possible that the INDCs submitted before the Paris talks might be thrown out the window during the two weeks of negotiations.

However, this is very unlikely. Though at this stage what top down elements (if any, aside from accounting standards and reporting rules) will be agreed remains unclear, the contributions filed before Paris will probably be ‘foundational’ for the agreement, both in helping countries agree by putting everyone’s cards on the table before the talks, and in setting targets to be either incorporated into the agreement, appended to it in a schedule, or recorded alongside it in a COP decision. INDC submissions like New Zealand’s are problematic because they condone and enable a low baseline of ambition – ensuring that (especially in the absence of top down assessments like an ex ante review of contributions) global contributions will be insufficient to achieve the 2ºC target. This is particularly true of a country that infamously prides itself in ‘punching above its weight’; New Zealand has disproportionately high global influence in spite of its size – especially on environmental issues where our ever-decaying ‘clean, green’ brand still somehow carries clout.

Paris matters for both national and international climate policy. At this point, though, we know that no one national action plan and no one conference will set the world on a path to complete decarbonisation and a future below 1.5ºC or 2ºC – but plans like New Zealand’s help to steer us away from, rather than toward it.

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