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The COVID-19 pandemic has caused world leaders to reschedule this year’s conference in support of the Paris climate agreement — known as COP26, and hailed as the most important gathering of world leaders against climate since the Paris agreement was signed in 2015  — to next November. 

But that doesn’t mean that climate action itself has been suspended. Countries are now in the process of submitting their updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris climate agreement. 

These NDCs detail a country’s greenhouse gas reduction targets — when they will reach “peak emissions” and when they will reach “net zero” carbon emissions, and what that trajectory looks like. 

At first glance, this may seem wonky and abstract, removed from the lived reality of people suffering from climate change. But as Taryn Fransen, a senior climate change fellow at the World Resources Institute, points out, the NDCs are all about societal transformation. 

“NDCs are about our plan on climate change and climate change touches everything,” she said. “It’s about how we get our energy, how we get our food, what we do with our land, the kind of housing we live in, and the kind of transportation that we use, and how well it works, and how clean and efficient it is, and each of those things touches our lives in very direct ways even if we don’t realize it.” 

“So this is really about how we are able to live in a clean environment, whether we are able to have sustainable jobs, and it’s about whether we will manage our land in such a way that we can produce healthy food that people can afford and access, while also having room for nature and biodiversity and natural spaces,” she said. “It’s about whether we will be sitting in traffic sucking in pollution or whether we have clean, efficient transportation that can take us where we need to be.”

NDCs ideally map out this better world — one in which global temperatures don’t rise more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Right now, however, these plans are mostly bare minimum, half-hearted documents that reflect the current status quo of political foot-dragging on climate action.  

“The current NDCs are not sufficient to achieve the goals laid out in the Paris agreement,”  Fransen said. “They put the world on track for warming of roughly 3 degrees Celsius, whereas the Paris agreement calls for well-below 2 degrees.”

“We are looking for countries to update their ambitions significantly in this round so we can start chipping away at that gap and bring countries' ambitions more in line with what they collectively agreed upon,” she said.  

Why 2020 Is So Important for NDCs

NDCs are works in progress. They have to be updated every five years because the scientific understanding of climate change improves with each passing year. More ambitious actions can be crafted as time passes and political support grows. 

That’s why 2020 is such a pivotal year — it marks the first round of NDC updates, as it’s now been five years since the Paris agreement was signed. Countries are now in the process of devising and releasing their updated plans. 

The Climate Action Tracker reports that the most recent climate commitments have brought the world “within striking distance” of the Paris climate agreement goal. The organization estimates that current emissions targets could keep temperatures from rising more than 2.1 degrees Celsius, whereas current policies would likely lead to 3 degrees Celsius or more of warming.

NDCs are meant to show how this gap will be closed and then go even further to put countries in a position to stay within the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal.

For this to happen, the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change says that countries must zero out carbon emissions by 2044 and then all other emissions — such as methane, nitrous oxide, fluorinated gases — by 2066. 

In recent months, various countries including South Korea and Canada have committed to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, bringing the total number of countries with this goal to more than 115. Not every country has articulated through their NDCs and policies how they will get this done, however. 

In fact, only 16 countries have released their updated NDCs so far and the results have been mixed.

While Japan committed to the 2050 net zero goal, its updated NDC fails to improve upon its earlier version submitted five years ago. As one of the world’s leading greenhouse gas emitters, this sets a bad example, and earns the country a “highly insufficient” rating from the Climate Action Tracker. 

Other countries such as Australia, Mexico, and Indonesia have signalled that they won’t be making significant updates to their NDCs, Fransen said. 

Some countries have significantly updated their NDCs. The United Kingdom, for example, initially planned to cut its emissions by 53% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. The country recently announced that it would increase this reduction to 68%, which brings it more in line with recommended levels. 

The European Union has also signalled it will accelerate climate action plans as well. The 28-country bloc has said its COVID-19 recovery plan will prioritize emissions reductions

Various countries may also fold their green economic recovery plans into their NDCs, according to the United Nations. If this happens, then the goal of keeping temperatures from rising beyond 1.5 degrees celsius compared to pre-industrial levels would become more feasible. 

Only two countries in the world currently have plans compatible with the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal — Morocco and The Gambia, two countries that have minimal carbon footprints. 

The Key Players

The Paris climate agreement is voluntary in nature, meaning no legal power binds countries to what they commit. As a result, the 5-year NDC renewal process can help to build momentum and hold countries accountable to one another.

When the US withdrew from the global pact in 2017, this whole arrangement was threatened. If the biggest cumulative emitter in world history wasn’t going to make climate commitments, then why should other countries?

President-Elect Joe Biden has said he will rejoin the agreement right away and present an updated NDC plan that brings the US back in line with Paris climate agreement goals.

“What the Biden administration will need to do under the Paris agreement is not only limited to the target that Obama put forward, but they will need to put forward a target for 2030, which is now required,” Fransen said. 

“We are looking for the Biden administration to set a range between 45% to 50% reduction in emissions by then,” she said. “It’s an ambitious target given the time we lost under the Trump administration, but it is achievable if the administration and states and subnationals pull out all the stops on climate action.”

She added: “Our modeling shows that this is feasible. I think it will be important for the administration to come in with a plan that is bold and pushes the envelope just to establish US credibility, but they also have to make it feasible because they have to follow through.”

China is also key to the success of the Paris climate agreement. The country released a plan to reach peak emissions by 2030 and then phase out emissions by 2060. 

Fransen said that this plan, which will be further detailed in the months ahead, could establish China as a global leader on climate action. She said that if the pledge covers all greenhouse gases, as opposed to just carbon dioxide, then it would put China within the Paris climate agreement’s framework for staying within 1.5 degrees. But if the plan pertains to just carbon emissions, then it wouldn’t. 

“China’s plan is one of the most exciting developments, if not the most exciting development, since the Paris agreement was put into place,” she said.

The Next Chapter

It’s become a cliche that the next decade is an existential crossroads for humanity. Either political will is mustered for climate action or it’s not. The difference in paths chosen is nothing less than a habitable planet.

The NDCs that countries put forward between now and COP26 will shape what’s to come. The plans yet to be released could significantly accelerate emissions reduction targets, putting the world on a path toward achieving the Paris climate agreement.

But even then, these plans have to be met with ambitious policies at the domestic and international level for everything ranging from agriculture to energy development to transportation to urban planning.

Society has to be transformed to avert climate catastrophe and COP26 next November gives climate activists like Greta Thunberg, world leaders like Ban Ki-moon, and everyday citizens a chance to push for this transformation.

If all goes well — if green economic recoveries get funded and fossil fuels get phased out —  then the next round of NDC updates will look a lot different.

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