Enhanced NDCs: Will governments flunk the climate ambition test?

Posted on 04 September 2020

The delayed annual COP26 climate negotiations meeting provides an opportunity for governments to embed climate action in their responses to COVID-19. But they can’t wait too long, writes Fernanda de Carvalho.
California is once more ablaze. Summer temperature records in the Arctic are being smashed – with temperatures a staggering 10°C above normal in March, April and May. The melting of the Greenland ice sheet may have reached an irreversible tipping point. There is no shortage of evidence – were any needed – that the brief dip in emissions caused by COVID-19 lockdowns has done nothing to slow the remorseless impacts of climate change.

More time to do more

What the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed is the UN climate negotiations; COP26 has been delayed from this November to November 2021, given the challenges likely to be caused by ongoing travel and meeting restrictions and delays to preparatory meetings. However, that doesn't mean climate action on the ground should be delayed. Rather, it should be strengthened through alignment to post-COVID-19 measures in all phases: response and relief, recovery and rebuilding.

Back to the UNFCCC/Paris Agreement process: this delay has given governments a few months grace in submitting their revised Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). These are the national plans setting out how countries will meet the goal of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to no more than 1.5°C, in light of the warnings from climate scientists of the implications of even this level of warming.

Off track to a 1.5°C world

These enhanced NDCs were due to be submitted in good time for COP26. In a letter from Secretary General Patricia Espinosa, the UNFCCC has announced plans to publish in February a synthesis report that will summarize those enhanced NDCs that are published by December 2020. We expect this report to include an aggregated assessment that sets out how close these NDCs are, collectively, to putting the world on a pathway to 1.5°C. WWF believes that, based on the small number of enhanced NDCs published to date, and the lack of ambition demonstrated in other fora by many of the world’s largest emitters, we are a long way off that pathway.

WWF has been analysing the submitted NDCs according to the #NDCsWeWant checklist. Out of the 12 (considering Ecuador), only 3 come from developed countries; of these, two are NDCs We Don't Want and one has Some Way to Go. The other nine show that, once again, countries with less responsibility and capacity are the ones coming forward with enhanced ambition and incremental improvement in aspects such as participatory processes, nature-based solutions and contribution to sustainable development.

Insufficient action

The policies set out in the original NDCs, published in the run-up to the Paris negotiations in 2015, would lead to warming of 3°C by the end of the century. The catastrophic consequences are already well established by various authoritative scientific assessments. But there is little sign that the governments who could really move the needle on global greenhouse gas emissions are taking the opportunity presented by the NDC enhancement process to set out plans to urgently decarbonise their economies.

Time to think big

There is still time to act. Most countries have yet to publish their plans. Even those that already have can always revise them. Indeed, Japan, which merely resubmitted their 2015 NDC, has signalled that it could be revised upwards, according to promises made by Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi at a UNFCCC meeting in June. New Zealand's communication states that their Climate Change Commission will provide advice on how to make their NDC consistent with the global 1.5°C temperature goal in early 2021. So we might see better news by COP26.

Ambitious and rapid decarbonisation, in line with climate science, meets the needs of the times. It promises job creation and an economic boost that can help countries recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. It can help to address social inequalities and begin to slow and reverse our unsustainable depletion of natural resources.

NDCs as an opportunity to ‘build back better’

In vowing to ‘build back better’, some governments have signalled their intent to avoid the mistakes of the past and use the COVID-19 crisis to put their economies and societies on a more sustainable path. The enhanced NDC process provides an early test of their sincerity: it is a test they must not fail. Fernanda de Carvalho is the global policy manager for WWF International Climate & Energy Practice.
Protesters call for urgent action during a youth climate march in Germany
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