The U.S. climate submission and international climate negotiations

Q1: What did the United States release, and why does it matter?

A1: The international climate agreement that will be negotiated in December 2015 will be comprised of specific commitments put forward by each country to reduce greenhouse emissions in a post-2020 timeframe. This “bottom up” approach differs significantly from the predecessor agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, where global emissions reduction targets were assigned to countries at the negotiating table in a “top down” fashion. 

On March 31, the United States officially submitted its “intended nationally determined contribution” (INDC), its commitment of post-2020 domestic greenhouse gas mitigation action, to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The administration has pledged to cut domestic greenhouse gas emissions in all sectors of the economy, for a total reduction of 26-28 percent between 2020-2025 compared with 2005 emissions. This target is the same one announced earlier this year as part of the high level dialogue between the United States and China. Achieving the target would double the pace of emissions reduction achieved between 2005 and 2020 to a rate of 2.3-2.8 percent per year. Moreover, the administration has pledged to make these reductions using existing statutory authority.

Q2: What do the INDCs submitted so far tell us about the upcoming negotiations?

A2: As of April 1, Switzerland, the European Union, Norway, Mexico, Russia, and Gabon, in addition to the United States—together representing over a third of global greenhouse gas emissions—have submitted INDCs. These INDCs (with the exception of Gabon) are summarized in the table below. INDCs will continue to trickle in to the UNFCCC until December, although countries are expected to submit by the fall. The most important overarching factors influencing the negotiations are the thorny issues of fairness, ambition, and comparability of action. Perceptions of ambition, comparability, and fairness are crucial in an international negotiations process that requires buy-in from all countries. The top-down process is widely perceived to have faltered precisely because it was not accepted by enough countries  as fair—and it was not perceived as fair because ambition was not equally shared (comparability).

Each INDC will be judged based on its overall level of ambition and the comparability of its pledges relative to those of other countries, but if the INDCs are also part of country strategies to redefine and recalibrate notions of comparability and ambition inherited from previous negotiations. While the new framework of the INDCs requests each country to explain why their pledges are fair and ambitious, negotiators and advocates are likely to measure fairness, ambition, and comparability using several other yardsticks as well. Some INDCs measure ambition relative to previous climate action (either existing action in each country or actions put forth as a 2020 pledge in Cancun); others consider ambition relative to cost; some compare their post-2020 targets relative to previously held expectations about where countries ought to be by 2050; and still others measure it relative to no action at all.

While it is too soon to measure INDCs against each other or draw strong conclusions about the Paris outcomes from these INDCs, it is important to understand the INDC submission process in and of itself as an attempt to shape the December negotiations and the outcomes of any agreement by shaping how countries should think about ambition, comparability, and fairness. Viewed from that perspective, several other issues have already cropped up that are important to watch:

  • Timeframe for emission reductions. The United States has expressed its post-2020 target through 2025, while most other countries have expressed their targets through 2030. This may seem like a minor point, but the end point of the INDCs is actually quite significant. The administration’s position is that a five-year goal leaves more room for ambition as targets are revised every five years as technology improves. A longer time frame, by contrast, may be regarded as less ambitious for fear of overpromising and under-delivering. By contrast, those favoring a 2030 time frame argue that a longer commitment period provides stability and longer-term market signals, as well as gives countries time to plan, implement, and meet their targets. Timeframe is likely to remain unsettled until Paris. Regardless of how the issue is ultimately resolved, however, it is a promising sign that all of the INDCs released so far frame their contribution as consistent with a path towards much more dramatic carbon reduction goals by 2050.
  • How formally adaptation is included in INDCs and how adaptation contributions should be assessed relative to mitigation contributions. So far, Mexico and Gabon are the only countries who have mentioned adaptation in the INDCs. Whether adaptation efforts are counted towards ambition and fairness of INDCs is yet to be seen, but many developing countries have an interest in conveying the effort and expense of adaptation efforts in both the ambition and comparability discussions but also in the separate context of access to financing.
  • Conditionality of pledges and character of conditionality. Mexico’s INDC is comprised of an unconditional pledge and a conditional pledge; the conditional pledge increases the ambition of Mexico’s pledge. How many countries will make conditional pledges—and how much of their ambition is contingent upon conditional pledges—will matter for the outcome of the negotiations.  Conditional pledges are useful in that they provide opportunities to negotiate pathways towards greater ambition, but countries that use conditional pledges are likely to be careful to strike a balance between those negotiations and the desire to have their pledge look ambitious.  The factors upon which pledges are conditional—financing, technology transfer, ambition by other countries, and the availability of international market mechanisms—will also influence the direction of the negotiations and the final outcome. 
  • Role of financing and technology transfer. It is too early to judge what role financing and technology transfer will play in developing country INDCs, as Mexico and Gabon are the only countries who have mentioned financing or technology transfer. However, as INDCs roll out, especially from middle-income countries, expectations about finance and technology transfer will indicate how countries are thinking about the role these issues play relative to fairness, ambition, and comparability.
  • International market mechanisms. Some countries (like the United States) have explicitly stated that they do not intend to utilize international carbon markets to meet their emissions reduction commitments, while others (for example, Switzerland) have explicitly stated that they will use international market mechanisms. The interest in relying on market mechanisms could provide impetus for the further development of these mechanisms and increase ambition (because of the availability of lower-cost abatement opportunities). For those who see linkage among emissions reduction systems as an important part of reducing the cost of abatement and enabling even steeper emissions cuts, the failure of countries to proactively identify linkage intent or opportunities could serve to dampen market development opportunities. What role countries see for access to markets in providing low-cost mitigation opportunities could also influence how they perceive the ability to easily ramp up ambition and impact perceptions of fairness.

Q3: What is next for the INDCs and the negotiations in the run-up to Paris?

A3: As more INDCs are submitted—they are all due by October 1—there are several important countries and groups of countries whose submissions might indicate the direction of the negotiations and what might or might not be acceptable in any final agreement. First are major non-OECD emitters such as China and India. While China’s pledge is broadly known, negotiators will be watching to see whether they provide any more concrete detail about their plans and specifically how they characterize fairness and ambition within their own plan. India’s INDC is expected by many to take the form of an intensity pledge, but observers are particularly interested in the ambition of India’s INDC and whether the pledge will include any conditionality. Other countries worth watching include Japan (one of the only OECD countries yet to submit), “leading” non-OECD economies, such as Brazil, resource-endowed developed countries such as Canada and Australia, whose domestic and international posture on climate issues have shifted in recent years, and small island nations. How much the latter make action conditional upon reparations in their INDCs is likely to have an impact on the ability to reach an agreement.

While there are several formal UNFCCC meetings in preparation for the December talks in Paris, one of the most important milestones between now and then is the November 1 release of a UN synthesis report of the aggregate impact of all submitted INDCs. That document is expected to lay out the gap between pledged emission reductions and the level of emission reductions necessary to contain warming to 2 degrees Celsius, the internationally agreed upon target, although whether there will be further action to close that gap is the subject of debate. For now, for those who seek to achieve an affirmative outcome in the negotiations in Paris, the INDCs are fundamental to building momentum and encouraging greater international mitigation ambition. The recently-released INDCs are the first indicators of what is to come in that process, and how claims about fairness, ambition, and comparability are being made and perceived.

Sarah Ladislaw is a senior fellow and director of the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Michelle Melton is a research associate with the CSIS Energy and National Security Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2015 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.



Sarah Ladislaw

Sarah Ladislaw

Former Senior Associate (Non-resident), Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Michelle Melton