Political will to tackle the climate crisis will be measured in the latest round of NDCs

Posted on 14 September 2020

The UN Climate Change Secretariat provides clarity on timing of the current round of national climate plans due to be submitted to the UN by countries, given the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, writes Mark Lutes.

By February next year, the world will have a better sense of how much political will there is for governments to take urgent and scaled up action to address the climate crisis. On 13 August, the UN Climate Change Secretariat announced it will produce a Nationally Determined Contributions Synthesis Report by 28 February, 2021. Substantially enhanced NDCs remain essential to getting the world on track to meeting its agreed climate goals and avoiding catastrophic climatic impacts from a rapidly heating world. 

NDCs are the national climate plans and emission reduction targets which countries agreed to set every five years in terms of the ambition mechanism enshrined in the Paris Agreement. As 2020 marks the first five-year cycle, countries are in the process of submitting new or updated NDCs. The 2021 Synthesis Report will cover all NDCs submitted up to 31 December, 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic magnified uncertainties in the global race to prevent catastrophic climate change. Much has been written about the economic disruptions and massive spending on surviving and recovering economically from the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to ‘green the recovery’ to accelerate the shift to green technologies and a zero carbon economy. The pandemic caused the NDC processes in many countries to be delayed. Despite this, some committed countries like Rwanda and Jamaica managed to deliver new and enhanced NDCs, reflecting the fact that action on climate change and increased climate ambition is as urgent as ever. 

The Secretariat’s 2016 updated Synthesis Report on the baseline found that the aggregate effect of the intended NDCs were not in line with the Paris Agreement climate objectives and that “much greater emission reduction efforts than those associated with the intended NDCs will be required in the period after 2025 and 2030 to hold the temperature rise below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” and the gap to below 1.5℃ was even greater. 

The overall effect of the intended NDCs reduced emissions is that there remains a gap of more than 16 Gt CO2e between the overall effect of the intended NDCs in 2030 and levels consistent with a pathway that limits warming to 1.5oC. 

More recent research, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on the Impacts of Warming at 1.5oC and the 2019 UNEP Emissions Gap Report, put the gap at around 20 Gt CO2e. In plain words, the world is on a path to at least 3oC of global warming given the plans put forward by governments in their intended NDCs unless urgent and ambitious action is taken. 

The Paris Agreement calls on countries to submit new or updated NDCs by 2020, as part of a regular 5-year cycle designed to scale up climate efforts to limit warming and build resilience. Before  the COVID-19 crisis, it was expected that these would be presented prior to COP26 planned for November 2020, leaving time for the UN Climate Change Secretariat to analyse these NDCs and present a Synthesis Report with an aggregate assessment of the impact of the new NDCs. We now have a clear timeline for action towards COP26, that will take place in November 2021. 

The Challenges

With the COP26 postponement, and with expected difficulties and delays in the processes governments are putting in place to produce their NDCs, there was uncertainty about what was expected. The recent UN Climate Change Secretariat notification provides clarity and guidance on when NDCs are expected to be submitted. The initial version of the report will be based on NDCs submitted by end of December of this year, indicating the expectation that, where possible,  the original Paris Agreement schedule of presenting revised NDCs by 2020 should be met. But there will also be an update to the report, closer to COP26 in November 2021. This signals that if countries can`t submit their NDCs in 2020, they should not give up, but rather present them as early as possible in 2021. In a recent interview, UN Climate Change Executive Director Patricia Espinosa told Climate Home she expected about 80 countries out of the 197 signatories to the Paris Agreement to submit new NDCs by December 2020. 

Why is this important? 

The analysis of the aggregate impact of all NDCs to be provided in the report is essential so Parties and others understand how much closer we are to reaching the 1.5℃ temperature goal,  the remaining gap and how much additional effort will be necessary to meet agreed climate goals. Parties in particular require this information, presented through agreed channels, when they meet in Glasgow, to inform their preparation of COP outcomes and plans for getting emissions on track to meeting agreed goals.

WWF fully supports the UN Climate Change Secretariat in its work of preparing the Synthesis Report, including analysing the aggregate impact. All Parties must redouble efforts to enhance their NDCs in the coming months, so the report can present some good news and show that there is political will to tackle the climate crisis.


Mark Lutes is a senior global climate policy advisor for WWF.

Nature-based solutions should be a key feature of the revised national climate plans which countries must submit to the UN this year in line with the Paris Agreement.