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Mar 24, 2015

Testing the Transparency of Climate Pledges

WRI’s CAIT Pre-2020 Pledges Map notes which nations have submitted climate action plans, and compares the types of data each country's pledge provides.

The diplomatic drama around the international climate negotiations tends to grab headlines. In the struggle to secure ambitious and fair climate targets, it can be easy to overlook the details of how those targets are set – and how closely their progress can be tracked.

Since 2003, World Resources Institute’s Climate Analysis Indicators Tool (CAIT) has been a powerful tool to help keep countries honest. Now, with the introduction of the Pre-2020 Pledges Map and Paris Contributions Map, CAIT brings the transparency of climate pledges into sharper focus. These indicators synthesize the information countries have provided in their climate action plans, for the years before and beyond 2020. Applying a common structure to this jumble of information helps uncover data gaps and compare the clarity of national climate plans. 

Scope: Global

First Released: March 2015

Intended Audience: Governments, policymakers, civil society

Potential Application: Enable the public scrutiny and comparison of international climate change pledges. Prompt countries to adopt increasingly transparent metrics for more ambitious climate goals.  

Developers: World Resources Institute (WRI)

Website: http://cait2.wri.org/pledges


In his remarks at the Atlantic Council earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry highlighted the steep stakes and narrowing timeline of the Paris 2015 Climate Summit (COP). “We have nine short months to come together around the kind of agreement that will put us on the right path,” he told partner country representatives, highlighting the significance of the Paris talks in December. There, the international community will meet to negotiate a new climate agreement for the years beyond 2020, replacing the goals set at the 2010 Copenhagen Accord. Given the increasingly precarious global carbon budget and a rare alignment of political will between key players, many see the Paris meeting as a make-or-break shot at meaningful international action.

Despite the tight timeline, it is a path with many turns. In the months leading up to Paris, nations will announce their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs. Submissions will plot countries’ plans for mobilizing climate mitigation, adaptation, and financing activities, to help limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. In a departure from past processes – where countries hammered out uniform mitigation targets as part of the negotiations – INDCs enable nations to set their own emission reduction goals.  

To date, Switzerland and the European Union have led the pack, releasing the first INDCs in early March. Other big emitters, including the United States, India, and China, are expected to release their plans within the next few months. As the Paris negotiations draw closer, these proposals will provide early indications of how much faith and skin different nations have in the game.

They also represent an enormous and risky shift in the approach to the climate negotiations. Optimists argue that INDCs will enable nations to move past political squabbling over mitigation targets, both within and between countries. Skeptics worry that a lack of common and consistent criteria will allow governments to duck their commitments. And the success and aim of the Copenhagen pledges – which many argue fell short of their goal – will help determine the ground INDCs need to make up in order to avoid the most damaging effects of climate change.

For climate pledges to move past deeply-rooted dysfunction within the UNFCCC process, most experts agree they need to meet three key criteria: transparency, equity, and ambition. The Pre-2020 Pledges Map and the Paris Contributions Map focus on the first leg of this triangle. The Pre-2020 Pledges Map takes a close look at the metrics that currently guide mitigation efforts. The Paris Contributions Map, set to be released later this month, will track which countries have submitted their INDCs, while also comparing the kinds of information each national pledge provides.

Traction and Transparency

The Pre-2020 Pledges Map compares metrics and targets between countries’ proposed climate mitigation plans.   

According to Johannes Friedrich, the lead of this project at WRI, CAIT’s indicators aim to complement, rather than supplant, “other projects,” such as the Climate Action Tracker, Climate Change Performance Index, and WRI’s own Equity Explorer, which “are already focusing on issues of equity and ambition.”

In practice, however, it can be hard to pull these key criteria apart, since transparency often lays the groundwork for ambition and equity. The most fundamental test of a pledge is its ability to be added up – that is, whether it provides key kinds of information, such as emission baselines and reduction goals, that enable others to track and evaluate its progress. Without this basic data, it becomes difficult to compare pledges, to assess fairness, or to pinpoint their contribution to the global goal of capping temperature rise at 2 degrees Celsius, to assess ambition.  

Friedrich explained that “rather than interpreting if plans go deep enough” in their cuts to carbon budgets, the Maps shed light on the information countries use to determine and measure these cuts. As a result, many of their metrics are categorical. The indicators run pledges through a checklist that notes if and how they define a base year and target year; a timeline for the implementation of their actions; their inclusion of the 7 greenhouse gases identified under the Kyoto Protocol; and the assumptions behind their methodological approaches.   

These indicators also bring the implications of different metric choices to the fore. For instance, plans that simply measure a country’s total carbon emissions  which can reflect fluctuations in the economy, rather than the impacts of new climate policies  may paint a different picture than plans that rely on measures of carbon intensity, which normalize a country’s greenhouse gas emissions against its gross domestic product. Crucially, the indicator also assesses how much of a country’s economy falls under its climate plan. This analysis roots out reduction targets that seem impressive, but only apply to a small percentage of a nation’s economic activities.

Process in Flux

INDCs create space for countries to revise and resubmit their plans, and the built-in period of public and international feedback, to which countries can respond before the Paris talks, makes up one of their key selling points. Friedrich and the WRI team hope to leverage this design, using the Maps to “highlight the blank spots” in national pledges and “make sure countries are aware that this kind of information will be publicly visible.” This groundwork enables the international community to focus on pushing climate freeriders to clarify their plans and up their game.   

However, the Maps may also struggle to respond to some of the other components of INDCs’ shifting nature. Pledge release dates keep creeping back, giving would-be watchdogs less time to apply pressure and issue realistic calls for revisions ahead of the Paris COP.

Key details about the INDC framework also remain up in the air, making it harder to hone in on especially important or telling metrics. For instance, the proposed timeline for INDCs will be up for debate at the next UNFCCC meeting this June, after many nations will have already released their plans.  At the most recent UNFCCC meeting this past February, many developing countries signaled their intention to incorporate adaptation into their INDCs, or to submit a separate INDC focused on adaptation. While the Maps include a space for considering miscellaneous or additional plan information, tracking targets in adaptation and finance, along with mitigation, could become increasingly important as countries search for strategies with sustainable development co-benefits.  

Despite these challenges, the Maps brings much-needed attention to the crucial, but easily overlooked, metrics that underpin the Paris COP agreement. In the absence of formal criteria, the scrutiny of concerned observers and of other nations may be the primary, or only, lever for compliance and cooperation.

And while the Paris COP itself is just one piece of a much larger climate strategy, it is, in Secretary Kerry’s words, “an absolutely vital first step…And it will set the market moving; it will change attitudes; it will change governments.” As international climate policy approaches a defining moment, the CAIT Maps offers critical support to ensuring that the pledges underwriting it add up.