The Paris climate agreement’s main goal is clear — keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees or 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. But the pathway to achieving that is constantly in flux.
That’s because the agreement isn’t legally binding. If it were, then scientific assessments could determine how much each country needed to cut its emissions and then compel leaders to implement the necessary policies.
Instead, the framework relies on voluntary ambitions known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). In theory, each country is supposed to operate in good faith when choosing its own emissions reductions levels. In practice, countries have followed a wait-and-see approach that experts and activists say safeguards the status quo and advances climate action at a glacial pace.
Even as the impacts of the climate crisis worsen and the United Nations warns that emissions need to be reduced by 43% globally by the end of the decade, recent reports published ahead of COP27, this year’s UN Climate Conference, show the ongoing procrastination of countries as they fail to meet the urgency of the moment.
“As agreed at COP26 in Glasgow, countries are expected to continue strengthening their NDCs this year. But in the lead-up to COP27, progress appears to have reached a plateau,” the World Resources Institute (WRI) wrote in a recent NDC analysis.
“As countries develop new plans in advance of 2025, it will be important to deliver not just incrementally more ambition, but an entirely different scale of ambition and a clear sense of the transformations countries will pursue,” WRI added.
The Current State of NDCs
WRI tracks every country’s NDCs, factoring in 200 variables as it calculates each nation's emissions reduction potential. In its latest State of NDCs report, the climate advocacy group found that countries need to increase their emissions targets six-fold in order to stay on track to achieve the Paris climate agreement’s goals.
Right now, NDCs, which are meant to be updated in five-year intervals, will reduce current emissions by 7% by 2030. While this is an improvement on past NDCs, it’s far lower than the UN’s 43% target. The report describes how the majority of countries continue to take a piecemeal approach to emissions reductions that tinkers around the edges of economic sectors. Preventing catastrophic temperature rise will require countries to overhaul nearly every economic sector, from food production to electrification to transportation to manufacturing.
This disconnect is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that just eight countries outline how they will reduce fossil fuel consumption, the main driver of emissions worldwide, and only 15 of the 119 signatories to the Global Methane Pledge have included specific methane targets in their NDCs.
The State of NDCs report shows that countries increasingly recognize the need to finance loss and damage at an international level, which will be a primary focus of COP27, but overall levels of climate finance remain negligible.
In fact, 53 developing countries estimated in their NDCs that they’ll need $4.3 trillion in funding to mitigate emissions in line with the Paris agreement and adapt to current environmental disruptions. Wealthy countries have yet to even reach their commitment of $100 billion in climate financing, most of which has come in the form of loans.
COP27 Is an Opportunity for Bolder Action
COP27 presents an opportunity to make progress on this and other fronts, but a sense of urgency needs to enter into negotiations and discussions.
“While new targets that came in from countries like Australia and Indonesia offer some momentum, on the whole national climate targets put the world on track to warm 2.4 to 2.6 degrees Celsius, which is dangerously high,” Taryn Fransen, a senior fellow at WRI, said in a statement.
“To come to grips with the climate crisis, we must seize on major opportunities that are still on the table,” she said.
In particular, she notes, the European Union, Chile, Mexico, Turkey, and Vietnam have said they will strengthen their NDCs by the end of the year and, depending on how ambitious they go, they can inspire other countries to take action. China has an opportunity to accelerate action on methane — a potent greenhouse gas — by setting a concrete target. And the US needs to do more to achieve its climate goals, as well as mobilize more finance for mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage.
Climate action is a collective undertaking and the more countries recognize strength in unity, the faster a just transition away from fossil fuels will occur.