INDC metrics: the need for measuring climate pledges on “net”

The road to Paris is filled with hope and anticipation as nations continue to submit their intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) for the upcoming United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meetings in Paris. So far, there has been significant press coverage about which countries have and have not submitted INDCs, and the strength of each pledge. Much of this coverage suggests that these UNFCCC negotiations will result in a meaningful global commitment to fight climate change. Largely missing from this coverage, however, is a discussion about the structure of the INDCs that each country has submitted. More specifically, there has been little coverage on how INDCs are measured, particularly whether emission reductions are on “net” (e.g. include carbon sequestration / removal efforts). This post explores the importance of communicating net reductions in INDCs, especially when thinking about developing carbon removal solutions.  

Background: What’s in an INDC?

INDCs are submitted as a packet of commitments, explaining each individual country’s climate mitigation and adaptation strategies. However, only the main INDC metrics, which are measured in absolute reductions from a base year or emissions intensity of GDP, are typically explained and analyzed by the media. Thus, it is especially vital that these main INDC metrics clearly envelop all verifiable climate action listed in the full INDC, including carbon removal/sequestration efforts.

 Image Credit: Wikia

Image Credit: Wikia

Case study: Carbon Sequestration in China’s INDC

Incorporating all relevant climate commitments into a single main metric for an INDC can be challenging. Take China’s INDC proposal, for example. In addition to its main goal of lowering the carbon intensity of its GDP by 60% to 65% below 2005 levels by 2030, China also committed to carbon sequestration by planning to expand forest carbon stocks by 4.5 billion cubic meters from 2005 levels. According to the World Resources Institute, this amounts to increasing forest cover by 124 - 247 million acres, creating a natural carbon sink with the capacity to sequester one gigaton of carbon per year. Although this forestry commitment is a significant contribution to China’s mitigation efforts (yes, the IPCC defines such carbon removal techniques as “mitigation”), this reforestation project is not captured by the main metric of China’s INDC (the GDP carbon-intensity target), potentially leading observers to think China’s commitments are weaker than they truly are.

Moving towards “net” INDCs

Since the main metric of the INDC does not encompass all relevant climate action, commitments can appear unrepresentative. This, then, is problematic because the success of UNFCCC negotiations hinges on the collective strength of climate commitments.  While no metric will be perfect, measuring commitments on “net”, taking into consideration both emissions put into the atmosphere (or lack there of) and legacy carbon emissions removed, can more accurately reflect all actions taken to reduce the threat of climate change. Such a metric could encourage participation from developing countries who can bolster action through these carbon sequestration projects without sacrificing growth.

Thinking in “net” terms can encourage countries to develop and deploy more carbon removal strategies, and the more climate solutions we have, the more action we will be able to take to curtail climate change. Setting INDCs in “net terms” can help capture all of the action that countries are pledging to take to fight climate change. It is critical to provide the correct incentives for countries to take all of the action they can to mitigate climate change, and to reflect accurately these commitments in international negotiations.