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Are country climate commitments fair and ambitious enough?

It's unclear how transparent countries have been about these essential ingredients of their plans for the United Nations.

So far, 56 countries (including 28 member states of the European Union) have submitted their intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Reflecting the nationally determined nature of these climate contributions, they vary significantly in form, scope and coverage. Yet a key question for all of them is: Have they provided information about whether they are fair and ambitious?

The Lima Call to Climate Action (PDF), the COP decision adopted last year, suggested a list of information that countries can include in INDCs to ensure transparency and understanding, including “how the Party considers that its intended nationally determined contribution is fair and ambitious, in light of its national circumstances, and how it contributes towards achieving the objective of the Convention as set out in its Article 2.”

Undertaking fair and ambitious climate action is essential to setting the foundation for a transformation to a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy. Transparency about the fairness and ambition of climate contributions can help create an open dialogue and build the necessary trust between all countries to ensure an effective and binding outcome at COP21 in Paris later this year.

All countries could benefit from including more data to explain their intended contribution.

Transparency about the criteria used to inform a contribution also can help in setting benchmarks to clarify how key principles — such as equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities — will be put into operation in the new agreement.

So how are countries approaching this task? What factors relevant to fairness and ambition are they considering, and what are they missing? Let’s take a look.

What has been communicated so far about fairness and ambition?

Some common threads are emerging, and some seeds for future consideration are beginning to appear, including around issues such as:

Aggregate and per capita emissions
A country’s responsibility for emissions is key to formulating a fair contribution. Common threads emerging across a number of INDCs include a country’s current emissions (as a percentage of global emissions) and its per capita emissions.

Mexico, Morocco, Ethiopia, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Andorra, Republic of Korea, New Zealand, Singapore, Japan, the Marshall Islands, Kenya, Trinidad and Tobago and the Dominican Republic all identified at least one of these metrics to describe the fairness and ambition of their contribution. Ethiopia, Morocco and Liechtenstein also quantified their projected emissions per capita based on implementation of their contribution. Countries also should be encouraged to identify their cumulative historical emissions as a percentage of global emissions, as Switzerland has done.

Annual GHG and emissions intensity reduction rates 
One method for comparing ambition between mitigation targets is to examine their implications for annual decarbonization, or the rate at which GHG reductions would occur. So far, the United States is the only country to have included its annual rate of reduction when describing the fairness and ambition of its contribution. Australia indicated that its target roughly doubles its rate of emissions reduction but included no data to substantiate this claim.

Also, some countries have included information on their emissions intensity (GHG emissions in relation to GDP). Although expressed in different terms (either absolute or rates of reduction), Singapore, Morocco, Djibouti, Japan and Macedonia all included information indicating the anticipated decline in emissions intensity over the contribution period.

A country’s capabilities are a key component for assessing both fairness and ambition. Countries have addressed these issues so far in several ways. The Marshall Islands include their actual GDP per capita, Kenya its GDP per capita growth rate, and Switzerland noted that GDP per capita is an important indicator for assessing capacity to act (although its INDC did not include the country’s actual current GDP data). The Democratic Republic of the Congo highlighted that it has the lowest HDI ranking. Ethiopia included data on its capacity and development needs and highlighted that, as a least developed country, a fair and ambitious climate contribution is one that also achieves development outcomes, such as increased access to electricity for rural populations and greater resilience in the agriculture sector.

Vulnerability and capacity to adapt 
Ethiopia, Morocco and Andorra all specifically addressed vulnerability to climate impacts in the fairness and ambition portions of their INDCs, explaining how vulnerability in specific sectors or for specific communities shapes their contribution and informs their priorities. For example, Ethiopia’s high vulnerability to droughts and floods, coupled with its dependence on agriculture as the population’s main source of livelihood, has led to agriculture being a priority sector. Similarly, Morocco explains why developing a contribution that focuses on increasing resilience is fair and ambitious, based on its analysis of vulnerable economic activities and ecosystems.
Countries still in the process of developing INDCs should explicitly incorporate descriptions of fairness and ambition, and consider the information and factors that other countries have used so far in their INDCs.
Mitigation potential and opportunities 
A fair and ambitious contribution should seek to maximize a country’s mitigation potential and opportunities to act given its technological and economic capabilities. Ethiopia included both an estimation of its additional abatement potential that could be achieved at a specific cost per ton of CO2eq in reductions, and highlighted which sectors represented the greatest mitigation potential. Kenya explained that its INDC targets a high proportion of its mitigation potential, while Switzerland and the Republic of Korea stated that additional abatement opportunities may be limited in key sectors. However, these descriptions of mitigation potential lacked adequate supporting data.
Actions with mitigation and adaptation co-benefits, and alignment with sustainable development objectives 
Several countries, including Mexico and Ethiopia, have highlighted the importance of identifying synergies between mitigation and adaptation, particularly for those developing countries putting forward ambitious, non-conditional contributions based on limited domestic resources. Gabon described the philosophy behind its INDCs in terms of relevance for sustainable development objectives.

What's missing and where could improvements be made?

All countries could benefit from including more data to explain their intended contribution. There has been a tendency for many countries to include statements unsupported by either quantitative or qualitative information, making accurate assessments or comparison very difficult.

In particular, the United States, European Union, Australia, Norway, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Russia, China and the Republic of Korea could all provide more quantitative data to explain their emissions profile, capabilities and how their contribution realizes their mitigation potential. Key data that could provide valuable information includes historical emissions, per capita emissions and emissions as a percentage of global emissions along with GDP or GDP per capita.

More countries, including developed nations, also could include capabilities and levels of vulnerability to climate impacts as key elements in considering how fair their contributions are. Countries also could address the ways in which climate action can provide economic and social co-benefits, and how it can be aligned with broader sustainable development objectives. That can include identifying synergies between mitigation and adaptation actions.

Transparency about the fairness and ambition of climate contributions can help build the necessary trust between all countries to ensure an effective and binding outcome at COP21 in Paris later this year.

Discussions of fairness and ambition also should address the reference in the Lima COP decision to the objective in Article 2 of the UNFCCC, including stabilization of greenhouse gases in order to avoid dangerous climate change, as well as the need to adapt. Countries have not used quantitative metrics to describe the ways in which their INDCs are fair contributions to the global effort needed to reduce emissions.

Finally, not all countries have included a section of fairness and ambition in their INDCs. China, Canada and Gabon in particular avoided explicitly including a section on fairness and ambition in their INDCs.

Next steps

Countries still in the process of developing INDCs explicitly should incorporate descriptions of fairness and ambition, and consider the information and factors that other countries have used so far in their INDCs. Countries should focus on providing information that has been used by a number of countries — such as aggregate and per capita emissions — while also considering additional important factors, such as capabilities and mitigation potential.

Inclusion of quantitative and qualitative indicators relevant to fairness and ambition significantly can increase the comparability of contributions, build trust among countries and ensure that all countries are proposing actions that are ambitious enough that they collectively limit global temperature rise to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

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