Climate change in mongolia

A Key Climate Change Deadline Passes

March 31 marked a key deadline in the global race to find a binding international agreement to confront climate change and its deleterious effects.  Every country in the world was expected to submit their own national climate action plan, known formally as the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDCs) which will form a key pillar of the Paris Climate Talks in November. These climate talks are the last best hope for coordinated international response to climate change and the INDCs serve as a transparent way for countries to show their commitment to a global climate deal through actionable plans. Here’s an overview of the few submissions that have been made thus far and those that haven’t yet been announced.

U.S. Special Envoy on Climate Change Todd Stern made note during a press call yesterday that countries never agreed to March 31 as a formal deadline, but more of a guideline as to what constitutions a date “well ahead of Paris.”

Semantics aside, the number of submissions is low and reveals a good deal about the political aspect of these negotiations. Here are some particularly illuminated contributions (or lack thereof) so far.

USA…As expected, the historic U.S.-China climate deal back in November served as the basis for the INDC. The Obama administration pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 26 – 28% below 2005 levels by 2025, which is a double in emissions cuts compared to what is scheduled between now and 2020.

Of course, the administration has already been hit with political backlash from Republicans in Congress and Stern was quick to point out on the press call that the INDC is not legally binding and that any measures would require Congressional approval. The other issue with the U.S. submission is that though targets were presented, no pathway to achieving them was made clear. It has prompted some to question whether the U.S. is pushing itself enough in terms of “mitigation potential.” The U.S. submission also did not outline any plan of action for the pre-2020 period, the time between December when the Paris Agreement will be signed and 2020, when the Agreement goes into effect. For many in the developing world this ‘ramp up’ period is critical in terms of financing and ensuring developed countries equip themselves appropriately for the massive emissions cuts that are actually needed.

European Union…All 28 countries of the EU, the European Commission, and Switzerland submitted INDCs before the deadline. There were no real surprises here given the German and Scandinavian countries who have been leaders in emissions reductions and use of renewable energy. The EU has jointly agreed to reduce domestic emissions by 40% of 1990 levels by 2030, however many say these reductions are not enough as a whole to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Some countries also offered clear pathways to achieving their targets.

The main sticking point for the developing world is that the EU did not outline any financial or technological transfer commitments. On the latter, the Climate Technology Transfer Center (CTCN) is in operation to assist with climate-related development projects and has a relatively small budget for funding the technical assistance portion of them. However, Azeb Girmai of LDC Watch in Ethiopia asks: “How can we adapt to climate change impacts without a commitment on finance? How can African governments scale up their climate action if they don’t know what finance and technology is available to them?”

Mexico…This represented the first developing country to submit their INDC. Given the new, fairly comprehensive climate change laws passed in 2012, Mexico could set the tone for the rest of the Central and South American submissions. They have agreed to peak emissions in the year 2026, meaning reductions would begin thereafter. Of course, Brazil is an outlier in the region given levels of industrialization coupled with the Amazon rainforest preservation efforts. Mexico’s submission may also serve as a wake up call to neighbor Canada which is yet to submit an INDC — but is plagued by fracking and deforestation.

Russia…Given the tenuous relationship with other members of the Security Council, Russia’s timely submission to the UNFCCC was a bit of a surprise. If you count the EU countries separately, Russia is the 32nd country to submit — and a marker for 80% of the world’s emissions being ‘covered’ by INDC submissions.

Gabon…Today, Gabon became the first African nation to submit their INDC. The Africa bloc is becoming increasingly divided along economic development, with Nigeria and South Africa siding separately from the continent’s Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States. However, the INDC focus from African countries on the whole will be adaptation efforts: targets for improved infrastructure; outlining where financing is most needed depending on their unique environments.

India and China…These countries are key to any final accord, but they missed the March 31 “deadline. What China and India eventually submit central to an the ongoing debate  that has the potential to derail the entire negotiations–specifically whether rapidly developing countries regarding should include a focus on mitigation, or emissions reductions, instead of solely focusing on adaptation measures, or the projects undertaken to cope with the effects of climate change.

At the end of last year during the Lima round of talks, several countries had already concluded they would miss the deadline — and that is at least one promise being kept during these negotiations. Parties like India made it clear that their delay is driven by politics, waiting for Prime Minister Modi to meet with President Obama – which he did back in January – and settle on a more clear climate agenda given domestic spending priorities and revision of foreign investment rules. In fact, Environment Minister Javadekar seemed quite relaxed about the timeline and has recently announced India could submit their plan as late as September. It seems that China’s INDC is the deal brokered with the U.S. back in November 2014 ahead of Lima. But unlike the USA, they have declined to formally submit this to the UN.

On the road to a final agreement in December, there will only be a few more opportunities for countries to show the world their commitments to climate action. With the first one being missed by several key emitters, this may not bode well for the tight timetable leading up to the talks in Paris.