Paris 2015: How can we compare the climate pledges so far?

By Helena Wright

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By Dr Helena Wright, ECIU Principal Analyst

As the UN climate talks continue this week in Bonn, so far 10 countries or groups have submitted their emission pledges to the UN. This already includes several major emitters: the US accounts for 15% of global emissions and the EU for about 11%. Adding up the total, pledges submitted so far account for about a third of global emissions.

Later this year, the UN climate convention (UNFCCC) and others will be calculating how much these pledges add up to, and whether they put the world on track to stay below the ‘safe’ threshold of 2oC of global warming.

The climate pledges submitted to the UN have a range of different conditions attached, and different baselines, making them hard to compare: and here are some of the reasons why.

Different methods and baselines

The pledges are known in UN-speak as INDCs, which stands for intended nationally determined contributions. Last year, countries agreed their emission reduction pledges had to be made against a baseline year, but did not specify what it had to be.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, virtually all countries with targets used the base year of 1990, making pledges easier to compare. This baseline has been kept by the EU and some others in their INDC.

But the flexibility under the current agenda means both the US and Canada opted for the baseline of 2005. This makes their promised cuts look higher than they actually are. Canada’s target of 30% below 2005 levels is equivalent to only 2% below 1990 levels. Japan’s pledge, expected this week, may use a 2013 baseline, a move that has drawn criticism from civil society.

The two developing countries that have submitted pledges so far (Mexico and Gabon) opted for the ‘business-as-usual scenario’ as the baseline, which they are entitled to do given that the UN convention puts more responsibility on countries with developed economies.

This means they will take a view as to how emissions would rise in the absence of any policies to constrain them, and then cut emissions against that ‘business-as-usual’ scenario. Clearly, this makes their pledge more uncertain.

On the positive side, Mexico said it will peak its emissions in 2026. This is good news for climate change, because global emissions need to peak and then reduce to stay below 2oC. There may be other developing country pledges to come that set a peaking year.

Cleared Land in Burkina Faso. Image: Creative Commons Licence, CIFOR
Cleared Land in Burkina Faso. Image: Creative Commons Licence, CIFOR

Will countries use carbon credits? And which gases are included?

The use of carbon credits is another important issue. Using carbon credits (often called carbon offsets) means instead of cutting emissions domestically, a country could pay for emission cuts abroad where they might be cheaper. However, this can also make accounting for emissions more complex.

Both the US and EU said in their INDC that they won’t count international carbon credits towards their pledge. But although the EU pledge says it will use “no contribution from international credits,” the EU's emissions trading scheme is still likely to be used at regional level.

Switzerland has confirmed it will “partly” use credits – and intends to use the Clean Development Mechanism, set up under the Kyoto Protocol.

Andorra, a tiny country next to Spain, has stated it will only cover four of the main greenhouse gases (CO2, CH4, N2O and SF6), which will make reporting easier for themselves. Although if other countries are also selective about which gases they report on, it will make accounting for these emissions more difficult.

Will countries use land use as a ‘get out clause’?

The pledges have differing approaches to land use. In particular, Russia says its pledge is “subject to the maximum possible account of absorbing capacity of forests”. That means Russia is likely to push for its vast forests to be counted towards its pledge and it has placed this condition on its pledge.

Forest scenery of Gede Pangrango, Indonesia.  Image: Creative Commons Licence, CIFOR
Forest scenery of Gede Pangrango, Indonesia. Image: Creative Commons Licence, CIFOR

In previous climate talks, negotiations on land use emissions – known as ‘LULUCF' – have often been fractious. Civil society groups previously criticized ‘LULUCF loopholes’ - such as not including emissions from wildfires.

Clearly, accounting for land use change and forests is important in global emissions. Deforestation accounts for around 17% of global emissions, and climate action gives countries an important incentive to conserve forests and plant trees.

However there is a high level of uncertainty in measurement of land use emissions, particularly for soils. For instance, there is high uncertainty about emissions from fertiliser application.

The accounting of land use emissions in the Paris agreement has not yet been agreed. Norway has said that they will “work towards a common framework for land sector accounting, for all Parties”. This is likely to be an important area of discussion. The EU says that the policy on how to include land use will be established “in any case before 2020”.

The US and Canada make similar proposals on land use. Both of them intend to use a “production approach” to account for harvested wood products. This means they want to include emissions from all wood produced in the country (including exports). But this runs a risk of double counting, unless measures are in place to prevent this. For example, when the US exports wood pellets to the UK for burning in its power stations, both countries could claim to be reducing emissions.

Overall, climate experts may have a difficult time calculating the impact of the climate agreement in Paris. Transparency of pledges is also an important communication issue – because if the pledges are confusing, it could make it easier for countries to claim that their pledges are stronger than they actually are.

The uncertainty makes it even more important for the Paris agreement to be reviewed regularly. Keeping the world below the agreed threshold of 2oC of warming may require strengthening many of the weaker pledges.

Civil society groups and the UN itself have urged countries to be transparent and clear with their INDCs. With many pledges left to go, analysts may be hoping that the remaining submissions are simple and transparent, as this will make it easier for overall progress to be monitored.

Table of INDC Pledges so far (as of June, 2015)

By Helena Wright, ECIU