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Sophie Yeo

31.03.2015 | 12:32pm
COP21 ParisExplainer: What are ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’?
COP21 PARIS | March 31. 2015. 12:32
Explainer: What are ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’?

The UN is a world of many acronyms, but there is one in particular that is likely to dominate climate policy over the next eight months: INDC.

It stands for “intended nationally determined contribution”. This is the phrase that countries are using to describe the climate pledges that they will make ahead of the UN negotiations in Paris later this year.

The success of the UN’s new climate agreement will, to a significant degree, depend on the ambition of these pledges, which will determine the rate of action to tackle climate change after 2020.

Carbon Brief takes a look at what makes an INDC, what happens between now and Paris, and why it matters.

Paris climate pledge tracker

Who has pledged an INDC so far, and what percentage of the world’s emissions are covered. Credit: Rosamund Pearce, Carbon Brief, based on EU data


Countries first signed on to the notion of INDCs at the UN’s 2013 climate negotiations in Warsaw, otherwise known as COP19.

The final text invited all governments, who were “ready to do so”, to set out their intended contribution to the Paris deal by the “first quarter of 2015”. This has been widely interpreted to mean by 31 March.

It was hoped that this would be enough to convince everyone that the ball was rolling in the right direction towards Paris – but the way in which this unusual INDC concept was introduced immediately started causing controversy.

The vague wording left countries at odds over whether INDCs were just meant to reference future emission reduction targets, or whether they should also include additional goals. In particular, there was controversy over whether they should include plans on how to adapt for the impacts of climate change and further financial donations from rich nations to the poor.

One side, led by developed countries, argued that they should contain mitigation targets alone, and that domestic political circumstances meant it was impossible to provide detailed information on financing commitments well into the future.

Many poorer nations, however, were concerned that this would lead to a flimsy deal in Paris, as well as hindering their own ability to put forward ambitious proposals, since these would often depend on the level of international support that they received.

The next round of major UN talks in Lima in 2014 (COP20) was dominated by frustrated parties seeking a solution to this problem.

What should an INDC contain?

After two weeks of heated negotiations in Lima, countries agreed that INDCs must include information on emissions reductions. It also invited countries to consider including an adaptation component in their submission.

The decision makes specific provisions for the least developed countries and small island developing states, which contribute little to global emissions, and are expected to feel some of the worst impacts of climate change.

These groups, which include vulnerable nations such as Bangladesh and Vanuatu, only need provide information on their plans to develop in a low-carbon fashion.

For everyone else, there is a set of guidelines on the information that countries “may include” in their INDC. These rules were established to make country pledges comparable to some degree.

This information includes:

  • A reference point (for instance, the base year from which emissions will be reduced)

  • Time frame

  • Scope and coverage

  • Methodological approach towards calculating emissions

  • How the contribution is fair and ambitious

  • How it contributes towards achieving the objective of the UN’s climate convention

Not all countries will submit absolute economy-wide emissions reductions targets. Mitigation pledges could also come in the form of intensity targets relative to GDP, peaking years, and departures from a business-as-usual scenario.

Compared to earlier drafts of the Lima decision, the information requirements are relatively sparse, allowing countries to adopt their own approach.

For instance, Mexico – the first developing country to come forward – includes a section on adaptation, while the EU is silent on the topic. Switzerland’s pledge of a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions looks high compared to the EU’s “at least 40%”, until you realise they plan to use international carbon credits where the EU will make all reductions on home soil.

The New Climate Institute is tracking countries’ progress on the preparation of their INDCs.


In Lima, countries agreed that all those “ready to do so” would submit their INDC to the UN by 31 March 2015. It appeared, however, that very few governments were ready to do so, with only the EU, Switzerland, Norway, Mexico – and maybe the US – meeting this deadline.

Other countries are likely to come forward sporadically throughout the rest of the year. For example, India said in December it would finalise and submit its INDC “only by June”. The Lima decision told parties to ensure they do this “well in advance” of the UN’s climate talks in Paris, where the deal will be signed. This takes place from 30 November to 11 December.

On 1 November, the UN has agreed to publish a synthesis report, adding up the total emissions reductions contained in all INDCs submitted before 1 October. It is still unclear who will carry this out. Other organisations – NGOs, academic institutes, thinktanks, etc – are expected to produce a range of “informal” reviews, too, ahead of the official review.

This will be an important moment as it will summarize how far they are in total from hitting the internationally agreed goal of limiting global warming to below two degrees.

If the INDCs fall short – as they are widely expected to do – there is no official mechanism in place to ratchet them up before Paris. This is where they will be incorporated into the agreement, and likely take on some element of legal force.

Are the INDCs enough?

Even the central architects of the forthcoming UN climate deal admit that whatever countries sign up to on 11 December (or thereabouts – these meetings tend to go into overtime) will not be enough to limit global temperature rise to below 2C.

UN climate chief Christiana Figueres has said that the deal signed in Paris will “not get us onto the two degrees pathway”, while Miguel Arias Cañete, the EU’s lead on climate policy, has said that “if we have an ongoing process, you cannot say it is a failure if the mitigation commitments do not reach two degrees”.

That is why negotiators and observers of the process are increasingly stressing the need for a flexible deal, where pledges can be ramped up – often referred to as the “ratchet mechanism” – without needing to change the agreement itself.

The INDCs are an integral part of that, though their future remains cloudy. In Paris, countries are expected to decide on how and when they will revisit their pledges in order to hit their overall global warming target.

A negotiating text agreed in February in Geneva contains a soup of options for how this will be done – and provides some hints of the old INDC debates that are likely to flare up in Paris.

A key issue will be how often the INDCs are updated. There are currently 12 options on the table, range from the simple, “Every five years for all Parties”, to more nuanced suggestions, which include different cycles for rich and poor countries, and potential indicative targets on top of absolute goals.

It also raises the issue again of whether adaptation and financial commitments should be included in future contributions.

Why it matters

The INDCs will be crucial to the success of the UN’s climate deal, both in 2015 and in the future.

It is the first time that all countries, whether rich or poor, have been obliged to come forward with pledges to manage their greenhouse gas emissions. The promises made between now and December will, therefore, act as a barometer of where the world stands on tackling climate change.

The format of the INDCs hovers between bottom-up and top-down: countries have proposed their own targets, while the UN has committed to track whether they are enough.

This delicate balance means that most targets are likely to echo domestic efforts, while providing an international impetus to make them as ambitious as possible, in order to ensure a “fair” deal. Since they have decided themselves what to submit, governments are less likely to backtrack in the future.

Setting binding goals in this way will also help to send strong signals to investors and businesses across the world, giving them confidence about the speed and direction of the transition towards a cleaner planet.

The UNFCCC’s online “portal” for INDC submissions is expected to fill steadily as the Paris deadline approaches. Pledges are likely to be varied in both format and ambition. They will be subject to exhaustive scrutiny by campaigners, think-tanks, the media and the governments themselves. But one thing is already clear: Paris will not be the end of the story.

Image: Christiana Figueres and Manuel Pulgar-Vidal at the Lima climate conference.

Carbon Brief is tracking the process of the INDC submissions here

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