Assessing the National Pledges – the state of the debate

Version 3.2 of April 10, 2015

This is only a quick overview to the current range of INDC tracking and assessment initiatives, which is to say, initiatives that are designed to help us make sense of the national pledges of climate action. Its focus is on the emerging art of equity assessment. In other words, what countries are doing, or proposing to do, their fair shares? Which countries are doing more than others? How do you even think about such comparisons when countries are at different levels of development?

Also, this is not intended to be comprehensive. But if I’ve left out something that you think should be here — something useful — please let me know. Remember, the focus here is and will remain on pledge assessment projects, frameworks and systems. Also, please tell me if I got anything wrong, or if you otherwise have a bone to pick with anything here. 

Tom Athanasiou

Framing the INDCs, and the Paris outcome

Some framing points to keep in mind

* The INDCs will focus on domestic mitigation alone. The larger picture, which must include international MOI, Adaptation, and Loss & Damage, could allow for national “pledges” (including conditional contributions) to be far stronger and more fair than implied by the INDCs alone.

* INDCs, in other words, are only “part of the picture.” Nevertheless, they are key. And we already know that any proper assessment of the INDCs will be an assessment of their inadequacy, not of their adequacy. This is a critical political fact. It should not be ducked.

* Many efforts to shape the Paris narrative are already underway. Much depends on how the “INDC Gap” (the space between the collective need and the collective effort) is framed. After all, framing the INDC Gap correctly will be essential to closing it, which we must do as quickly as possible. 2020 would not be too soon.

* Many assessments of the INDC Gap will be limited to the inadequacy of the collective effort. This is not a sufficient approach to assessment, and will not empower us to increase overall ambition, not fast enough in any case. Comparative equity assessment of national contributions is also essential, and inevitable. Such assessment must be done properly.

With this in mind, see below.

Assessments that will Probably be Limited to Collective Adequacy

Climate Interactive

Climate Interactive has historically been a good source for the collective adequacy of the pledges, and for concise tabular summaries of the basic pledge numbers. But they have done little on pledge comparison or equity.

Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project

The DDPP is not in the business of assessing the INDCs, but it is relevant here, because of its sectoral and national precision and because of its focus on pathways towards a very ambition long-term goal. There were rumors of a 2nd report focusing on equity, but it’s probably not happening, in part because DDPP has hit funding problems.

United Nations Environment Programme

From Monica Araya: “UNEP will stick to mitigation only for the purpose of the Gap report. There will be references to the upcoming Adaptation Gap Report 2015 because adaptation is a very important dimension of the INDCs (a very specific battle that AILAC fought last year). But their gap analysis will not look into equity issues as there is not mandate for it.”

Global Carbon Project

Focused on scientific understanding of the planetary carbon balance, and pretty definitive in that regard. The analysis does sometimes contain a small foray into equity, but judging from the example here, it is cursory, and limited to per-capita approaches.

Assessments that Include Equity as well as Collective Adequacy

Notable NGO initiatives

* CAN International strategy meeting in Geneva in February of 2015 approved an effort to attempt to organize a coordinated “civil society equity review” of the pledges. Stay tuned.

* GCCA “will focus on the public discourse around INDCs (well, trying to get some discussion about them actually happening outside the bubble, and then helping explain why they matter in terms of the opportunities climate action presents for national interests)”

* More to come . . .

Climate Equity Reference Project [1]

In the CERP framework, the user defines equity for themselves, by way of settings for level of Ambition, the balance between Capacity and Responsibility, the definition of Capacity, Responsibility, and Development Need, and so on. Many enhancement to the framework and to the CERP’s Climate Equity Reference Calculator are planned, subject to funding.

“We systematically apply a generalized and transparent equity reference framework with the goal of quantitatively examining the problem of national fair shares in a global effort to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This framework is based upon an effort-sharing approach, uses flexibly-defined national “responsibility and capacity indicators,” and is explicitly designed to reflect the UNFCCC’s core equity principles. It can be applied using a range of possible assumptions, and whatever values are chosen, they are applied to all countries, in a dynamic fashion that reflects the changing global economy.”

Based on output from the Climate Equity Reference Calculator, this spreadsheet 1) takes a specific effort by one “reference country,” as defied in that country’s INDC, and then 2) calculates Comparable Efforts, under a range of equity settings, for a number of countries, relative to this reference INDC. It does this by calculating what percentage of its “fair share” the reference country proposes to do (through its INDC) and then applying that same percentage to the fair shares of other countries or groups of countries. Essentially, it answers the question “If Country A is pledging to do X% of its fair share, what would Country B have to pledge to make an exactly comparable effort?”

Climate Analytics

Climate Analytics recently did a report for Greenpeace, entitled “Setting fair and adequate benchmarks for key countries.”  It is, according the the Climate Analytics website, “an internal reference document that approximates  ‘fair and adequate’ emission reduction ranges for 2025, 2030, 2040 and 2050 for key countries, according to criteria selected by Greenpeace.” The report is said to be public, but I cannot find it online.

It is perhaps odd to review a report that we cannot link to, but it is fair to say that the analysis here would be more helpful if more information had been provided. Specifically, it relies on both equity-related criteria (e.g. capacity, responsibility, need) and non-equity-related criteria (e.g., mitigation potential, energy and carbon intensity, cost) in ways that make it difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish the role of equity in the model results. However, the results presented as equity ranges are likely to be significantly affected by the presence of the non-equity criteria. Which is to say that analyses of this kind could be more useful if they showed the implications of backing out the non-equity factors and presented the results of the equity analysis alone.

This is a notable issue, and is in no way specific to this report.  Rather, it is associated with the framing and treatment of “national circumstances” in general, and after the adoption of the Lima Accord (“. . . and how the Party considers that its intended nationally determined contribution is fair and ambitious, in light of its national circumstances. . . “) it is a pressing one.

Climate Action Tracker

CAT has built a quantitative database of emission allocations studies, based on a set of papers from the effort-sharing literature. These studies are categorized into seven groups, each based on an effort-sharing approach.  As per the CAT categorization system, these are given as Responsibility, Capability, Equality, Equal cumulative per capita emissions, Responsibility/Capability/Need, Capability/Cost, and Staged. The studies are statistically harmonized and then grouped in a way that produces a single range of qualitative outcomes, which is divided into four smaller ranges: Inadequate, Medium, Sufficient, and Role Model.

The aggregation methodology is quite complex. The harmonization techniques are such that the historical data, target pathway and covered groups of gases are made directly comparable across studies that otherwise use different data. Next, for each effort-sharing approach and each country, outliers are excluded to create a range from the 10th to 90th percentiles of each category. Then, for each country, the top end of the most stringent category is excluded and the top end of the second most stringent category defines the border between “Sufficient” and Role Model.” The lowest end of the least stringent category is similarly excluded and the lowest end of the second least stringent category defines the border between “Inadequate” and “Medium.” Finally, a weighting method is used to define the border between the “Medium” and “Sufficient” ranges, such that if every country were at the same point in the Medium/Sufficient range, the total global effort would be compatible with the 2C budget.

Importantly, it is “the categories ‘equal per cumulative per capita emissions’ and ‘responsibility capability and need,’ which usually result in very stringent reductions for developed countries.” For the US and the EU, this means that the most stringent end of the “Equal per cumulative per capita emissions” group is discarded and the “Responsibility/Capability/Need” group[2] is taken to define the most-stringent subset of the Medium/Sufficient range; for Norway, Switzerland and Japan, it is the “Responsibility/Capability/Need” category that is discarded.

The least-stringent end of this range is (at least for the US) defined by the least-stringent ends of the “Capability” and “Capability/Cost” groups, which by CAT’s calculations strongly overlap. This is important because the “Capacity/Cost” group (which remains operational after “Capability” is discarded as an outlier, is defined by a range of studies that “use equal costs or welfare loss per GDP as a basis. . . essentially a combination of mitigation potential and capability,” in which countries are expected to apply the same percentage of their GNP to mitigation. This is, in effect, a “flat tax.”

Because the analysis is scoped over a wide range of equity approaches, the Medium/Sufficient range is very wide for most countries. Moreover, any pledge that is consistent with at least two effort-sharing approaches is rated to be at least “Medium,” even if it would be considered inadequate under other approaches. Currently, of the seven INDCs evaluated (Switzerland, EU, Norway, Mexico, USA and Russian Federation), all of the INDCs are ranked “Medium” except for that of the Russian Federation, which is ranked “Inadequate.”

World Resources Institute / CAIT 2.0

CAIT is undergoing a major buildout, with new Contribution Tracking, Emission Projection, and Equity Indicator modules being added. The contribution tracking is useful, and seems the best alternative so far to digging through the individual INDCs.  The emissions projections are also useful. The Equity Explorer is the most notable of the new modules, though it must be said that, finally, the Equity Explorer is a data visualization tool. There is no “theory” of equity here, no approach save the one announced on the splash page: “What is climate equity? That depends on the lenses through which you view it.”  That said, it is also true that there are a lot of indicators here, including a good set of basic development indicators.  Some combinations make ethical sense; others do not.

Climate Transparency Initiative

  • Coordinated by Transparency International.

The Climate Equity Reference Project, CAT, Climate Analytics, and Germanwatch are all involved, as is the World Bank, and some key academics. Focused on a broader range of data and indicators, not just INDCs, possibly not just climate. However, this is still an emerging initiative, so this is unclear.

Notable Framing Initiatives

New Climate Institute

In this report, which was done for the Climate Action Network, the New Climate Institute estimates the scale of major co-benefits of increased domestic mitigation ambition, with the focus on the US, China, and the EU. The report concludes that these co-benefits are very large, and estimates them in terms of deaths avoided, jobs created, and dollars saved. The report does not estimate the costs of increased ambition, but rather argues that “consideration of these co-benefits alongside climate change mitigation policy options are highly likely to decrease the perceived cost of climate change mitigation action.”

Climate Advisors

The analysis here is notable for 1) stressing the limits of the current INDCs (“Pledges to date have been focused on unconditional targets for domestic emissions—in other words, the emission reductions countries commit to achieve at home that do not depend on either additional actions or additional financial support from other countries,” and for 2) clearly noting (as the lead author did in The Guardian) that “While all nations should take climate action, one cannot expect developing nations to do more than their fair share: after all, they have done less to cause the problem and have fewer resources to stop it. A system that depends solely on unilateral, self-financed pollution targets by all nations is bound to fall short, with developing nations cutting emissions far less than the optimal amount.”

Harvard Project on Climate Agreements

The approach in this report is interesting for taking “standards of living” to be the key and most relevant aspect of national circumstances. In particular, it stresses the importance of progressivity: “It is fair to expect rich countries to accept bigger cuts than poor countries, measured relative to what their emissions paths would otherwise have been (the so-called ‘Business as Usual’ path, or BAU).” This said, the analysis is quite limited, for it accepts the reification in which (see above) “unconditional targets for domestic emissions” are taken as a proper approach to national action. This limitation is particularly problematic when it comes to costing, though the results remain interesting. Importantly, a critical point – “it is possible to quantify fairness” – is clearly asserted.

Pizer and Aldy are involved with the Harvard Project, and are also seen over at Resources for the Future. Pizer in particular is interested in the structure of commons problems, but this heavily promoted paper is more focused on working out what countries are actually doing than on what they should be doing, to do their fair shares or even to be considered leaders.

LSE and Grantham Research Institute

This sensationally titled report, notable for Nicholas Stern’s co-authorship, makes the essential point that, at the end of the day “the right to sustainable development” has to be more fundamental than CBDRC in any really serious equity debate. Beyond this, alas, it displays a weakness for caricature (“burden sharing” becomes the “right to emit”) and opportunities are wasted. A problematic typology of burden-sharing approaches it put forward, one that seems structured to support pre-chosen conclusions. The biggest shortcoming of the analysis, however, is that, though asserting the importance of co-benefits and “positive-sum opportunities” (and who could disagree?) the authors do not make a strong case and even seem to exaggerate the potential of the benefits approach. Their analysis (based on the New Climate Economy Report) is badly referenced and is done relative to a weak mitigation pathway (2050 emissions of 38 GT C02e). At the end of the day, they even walk back their dismissal of burden sharing.

Finance Data Collection and Normalization – Just a Stub at This Point

  • GCF contributions
  • Breaking down and tracking the $100 billion
  • Private vs. Public capital flows.

Adaptation and Impacts Data Collection and Normalization – Also Still a Stub

  • DARA
  • GAIN


[1] The Climate Equity Reference Project (CERP) is an evolution and generalization of the Greenhouse Development Rights project.

[2] See the Climate Equity Reference Project, and CAT’s cited studies by Winkler and Jayaraman, and also the work on Equitable Access to Sustainable Development that is being done by Xolisa Ngwadla’s and his colleagues. For example