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Jan Lee headshot

National Carbon Commitments: Good, But Good Enough?

By Jan Lee
city air pollution

It may not seem like much of an improvement, but the world is on track to lower global warming by 0.40 degrees Celsius.

That's according to data released last week by the Climate Action Tracker (CAT), a consortium of organizations that measure the world's progress in meeting governments' 2 degrees Celsius goal. On Oct. 1 CAT released data that showed that, if all of the countries that have pledged carbon reductions were to meet their goals, they would reduce 2015 global warming projections from 3.1 degrees to 2.7 degrees Celsius for year 2100.

"This is the first time since 2009, when the CAT began calculating temperature estimates from climate action pledges, that projected warming has dipped below 3 degrees Celsius," the Oct.1  Climate Tracker report reads.

More than 140 countries have submitted their Intended Nationally Determined Contribution statements (INDCs) to date in preparation for the 21st United Nations Climate Change meeting, which is scheduled to take place in Paris, Nov. 30 through Dec. 11 this year. INDCs received by Oct. 1 were published on the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) website, although the UNFCCC expects to receive further submissions as the conference approaches.

"[So] far over 75 percent of all member countries ... have responded," the UNFCCC stated in a press release last week. "This includes all developed countries under the Convention and 104 developing countries, or almost 70 percent of UNFCCC developing member states." According to the UNFCCC, the INDCs received to date represent "87 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions" and 80 percent of the statements include objectives and methodology for adapting to climate change.

But is it enough?

While this is the first year in which projections have dropped below 3 degrees Celsius, they are still far above the 1.5- to 2-degree goal set by the participants of the UNFCCC. According to the  recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, restricting the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius or less is essential to minimize the catastrophic effects of climate change.

CAT's analysis of 20 of the biggest emitters suggested that there's still a lot of room for improvement.

“The INDC process has clearly led to progress, but it is clear that in Paris governments must consider formally acknowledging that their first round of climate plans for 2025 and 2030 will not hold warming below [2 degrees]," said Bill Hare of Climate Analytics, a member of CAT. He called on nations to continue to revise their commitments from 2025 onward.

According to CAT, only three countries made sufficient contributions: Morocco, Ethiopia and Costa Rica. Several, including Japan, Russia and Canada, were judged to have submitted inadequate contributions.

It's not the first time that Canada, with its robust local clean-energy programs, has been criticized for its INDCs, which call for a 30 percent reduction from 2005 emission levels.

“Unfortunately, Canada’s level of mitigation would put it -- the world’s ninth largest emitter -- noticeably behind its peers in terms of how fast it aims to decarbonize in the post-2020 period,” wrote the World Resources Institute in May. The criticism that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cabinet received did little to change Canada's submission this month.

"Canada would need to use a large quantity of international credits to meet its target," wrote Ecofys, a sustainable energy company and member of CAT. Its albatross, say analysts, are the tar sands projects -- which have increased since 2005 and generate almost 10 percent of the country's emissions. By 2020, those emissions are expected to balloon to 14 percent.

The U.S., as well, falls short of potential, said Ecofys, noting that its commitment of 26 to 28 percent reduction below its designated 2005 threshold puts it in the "medium" category. Its 2009 Copenhagen commitment, which was submitted before the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan was introduced, would have put the country's target even lower, at 17 percent, and only 3 to 8 percent below 1990 emission levels (with land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) activities excluded). The Clean Power Plan helps boost its reductions, but it isn't enough, said CAT in its analysis of the INDC.

"The U.S. will have to implement additional policies on top of the currently planned policies to reach its 2025 pledge, which requires a faster reduction rate than the rate before 2020."

INDCs: Individual commitments, global outcomes

One of the challenges that the UNFCCC faces is reaching a consensus about what should define an INDC statement; in particular, what time frame should be adopted, and whether participation should be mandatory according to set criteria.

The 2014 U.N. Climate Change conference in Lima helped forge some consensus, with loosely defined boundaries that allowed participating states to declare the date on which they based their commitments. The U.S., for example, bases its projections on a start date of 2005, when the Kyoto Protocol was ratified in Montreal, while the European Union cites 1990, the year in which the IPCC officially called for an international treaty on climate change. Since carbon emissions increased in many industrialized countries between 1990 and 2005, some argue that a 2005 start-date could, in some cases, result in a lower commitment to emissions reductions compared to countries that recognize 1990 as a baseline.

The member nations also have varying opinions about whether there should be assessment and review (A&R) of INDC progress, and how it should be executed. The U.S. has stated it should be every two years, while the EU specifies five years and Japan has suggested it should vary according to each party (page 61). There has also been objection by some nations to any type of official third-party review process prior to the 2015 submissions.

Authors of a study that looked at the benefits of third-party reviews of climate change commitments and progress pointed out that assessment and reviews of emission reduction commitments can ultimately  help increase dialogue and transparency.

"Publicly available reviews can disclose valuable information for other Parties and observers on Parties’ emission levels and actions undertaken," notes Harro van Asselt, Håkon Sælen and Pieter Pauw, in their report, Assessment and Review under a 2015 Climate Change Agreement. A tactfully applied A&R process also helps reviewers determine what has been successful, and what has the potential for improvement when it comes to addressing emission levels.

Global warming: Paris and beyond

Those countries whose commitments are not judged to be "sufficient" (and at this point, that is all but three) face the prospect of "ratcheting-up" their contributions. Fortunately, many nations have already committed to doing so, recognizing that to avoid the irreversible effects of global warming, greater consensus and effort will be needed to slash the projected global temperature for the next century.

The Paris conference, said U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, must not only clarify and set in stone the objective of a global temperature of below 2 degrees Celsius, but also "keep open the  option  of  limiting the  temperature  increase  to  1.5 degrees" through collective action that includes remedies such as decarbonization of the economy and the increasing reliance on clean energy.

But whatever steps are chosen, reducing the potential impacts of climate change won't be easy -- or cheap.

"For targets to become a reality, masses of investment is needed over the coming decades, in projects ranging from windfarms to flood defences," notes Megan Darby. "In the long run, mainstream finance will need to take a low carbon, climate-ready turn."

While industrialized countries such as France have said they will contribute funding to help developing nations make such transitions, many small nations, will be waiting to see whether funding is in fact a reality before "signing on the dotted line," Darby says.

The INDCs are a big step toward climate change mitigation, but they are only the latest hurdle to addressing the planet's climate challenges. The next few months, and the outcome of what is generally expected to be positive and productive results in Paris, will have a large say in how, when and if we meet our essential environmental targets.

Image credit: Climate and Ecosystems Change Adaptation Research University Network/Flickr

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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