INDCs: A critical — and critically misunderstood — part of the COP21 climate agreement

The handover of the new text of COP21 to ministers through the president of the COP21, Laurent Fabius. Intended Nationally Determined Contributions are the backbone of the climate agreement. Photo by: Benjamin Géminel / COP21

A few months ago, I wrote a post about the jargon around climate change, and my concern that our language can sometimes be prohibitively out of touch with everyday people.

Today let me expand upon that and elaborate on another term that remains one of the least known, yet critically important, elements of the deal being brokered at the Paris climate change conference: INDCs, or Intended Nationally Determined Contributions.

INDCs are the actions and targets that countries have signalled they will undertake to help keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. While INDCs are not legally binding, and thus not commitments, per se, they will ultimately become part of a (potentially) legally binding agreement coming out of COP21.

INDCs are essentially the backbone of the climate agreement. While securing a deal in Paris will be a huge success, the real challenge will be actual progress in tackling climate change, i.e. countries actually following through on the commitments they make at COP21. This is where INDCs are so important, as they provide an action plan going forward.

Live from the #Paris climate conference

Devex is live in Paris with updates on the COP21 summit and what it means for global development cooperation. Bookmark this live-blog to follow our reporters on the ground.

The beauty of the INDCs is that each country sets its own targets and actions through a “bottom-up” approach. The hope is that this will instil ownership over the goals, while ensuring they are realistic and achievable.

Through the process, countries were invited to assess their key sectors and development plans, and then use this information to prepare their goals. The process reflected the reality that what works in one country isn’t necessarily best for another. Honduras, for example, plan to increase forest coverage by a million hectares. The Solomon Islands, meanwhile, plans to invest in renewable energies and climate adaptation. Because INDCs are nationally determined, they vary significantly across countries and regions.

Some countries focus only on mitigating carbon emissions. Others (especially those already feeling climate impacts) include measures to adapt. While even others have signalled two tiers of targets: those that are unconditional; and those that are conditional on international support (such as climate financing). In all cases, the goal is to realistically establish what can and should be done to contribute to the effort to keep global temperatures from rising to dangerous levels.

In October, I had the chance to attend the INDC Forum in Rabat, Morocco, which the United Nations Development Program co-organized along with the European Commission, the government of Morocco and UNEP. This was an opportunity for countries to get together, assess the current state of affairs around the INDCs, and then strategize about how to begin implementation in the years to come. For UNDP — which has held a number of regional workshops on INDC development, and supported 43 countries directly — our focus at the Forum was on how to turn the intended targets into implemented actions.

I was struck by the overall sense of optimism in Rabat. While most people conceded that the national INDCs submitted at that point (some 150 or so) were cumulatively unlikely to keep global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius, it was nonetheless a huge step in the right direction and an impressive start.

Since the end of the forum, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has said that the INDCs to date will keep global temperature increase to 2.7 degrees Celsius. While still not meeting the target, the general consensus was that we are moving in the right direction, and that there is still room for “tightening the valve” over time. One option being considered, for instance, are five 10-year “review cycles” to revisit the INDCs and up the ante on targets, which could, hypothetically, come from economic shifts, increased public support or, as we’ve seen with the lower costs of solar power, new technologies.

All of this is very much relevant for those of us in the development field. If, as we hope, the INDCs are as crucial as they are supposed to be, then these will form an integral component in national and local development plans. In fact a key part of UNDP’s support was to help countries identify appropriate actions that already aligned with long-term development goals. In the post-Paris “era of implementation,” there will (and should) be a drive to make sure that new development projects are climate-friendly and that they correspond to national climate targets, i.e. the INDCs. With climate financing remaining a significant issue at COP21, it would not be surprising to see more and more climate requirements against otherwise non-climate specific projects going forward.

And in fact this issue has come up here in Paris, at COP21 itself, as member states, U.N. agencies and NGOs have been discussing the tangible connections between the recently launched Sustainable Development Goals and the new Paris agreement. Implemented correctly, the INDCs can serve as a thread that connects these critical agreements, meaning progress against one means progress against the other. This is something we in the development field should be pushing for, and, as a communications professional, something I continue to advocate for.

Overall, as someone who espouses a positive approach to advocacy and communications, I’m encouraged that the sense of optimism has continued, and indeed is prevalent in much of the discourse here in Paris. There seems to be a general sense that, while all issues may not be resolved and work on tackling climate change will undoubtedly continue into COP22 in Marrakesh, we are nonetheless moving toward something momentous that will dramatically shift global development. Let’s hope we can continue building on this support, through Paris and beyond.

Planet Worth is a global conversation in partnership with Abt Associates, Chemonics, HELVETAS, Tetra Tech, the U.N. Development Program and Zurich, exploring leading solutions in the fight against climate change, while highlighting the champions of climate adaptation amid emerging global challenges. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #PlanetWorth. 

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Carl Mercer

    Carl Mercer is a communications specialist for climate change and disaster risk reduction at the United Nations Development Program.