A Poker Score Card for COP 21: What They Mean, What They Hide, and How to Compare

A Poker Score Card for COP 21: What They Mean, What They Hide, and How to Compare

This post was written by Authored by Jasmine Hyman of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Gediz Kaya of Gaia Carbon Finance.

All eyes are on Paris as the negotiation window closes upon an international climate agreement that is hopefully, historic. States are promising to take climate action, and by some calculations their cumulative promises cover 90% of global emissions. But most people are wondering, what is actually being promised anyway? However, there is considerable confusion on how they compare to each other, on who is doing what and when, and on how they will be implemented. This blog post is your poker scorecard to understanding what is actually being put on the table in Paris right now. If we’re gambling for climate sanity, these INDCs are the poker chips – and they are all in different currencies.

In COP speak, each national pledge is called an “Intended Nationally-Determined Contribution” (INDCs). To get more details on the INDCs, the International Trading Emissions Association (IETA) has created a tool that spells out the primary commitments from each of the 155 submissions. We have used this tool to take stock of the different emission reduction strategies on offer. We find two basic approaches to framing the climate promise, actions are either measured from a baseline (based on the past) or a forecast (based on the future). Beyond that, we find three dominant methods for implementing the INDC: a sectoral method, an intensity method, and the establishment of a peak year. Confused yet? And on top of it all, most of the promises use a mix of the methods, leading to genuine confusion within the negotiation halls as to whether or not we are on track for ambitious climate action.

Two Approaches:

  • Emission reductions (ERs) pledged from a baseline. INDCs calculated from a baseline bind a nation to pledge an emission reduction below a historical point, and in this way they can be robust and binding. The USA, EU, Brazil employ this approach, though notably neither the USA nor the EU specify the emissions associated with their baseline. Still, the promise is to reduce emissions beyond a peak year that has already occurred: mitigation starts immediately. 72 of the 155 submitted INDCs use a baseline method.
  • Calculate ERs from forecasted growth. This model provides significant wiggle room because it incorporates a forecast into the future. It action assuming that a certain scenario of economic growth is achieved. For example, Turkey assumes 5% growth annually and 6% increased demand for energy annually, a highly optimistic scenario. By overestimating projected growth and making promises beneath the forecast, developing countries can avoid absolute emission reductions while claiming nonetheless to incorporate a high percentage of their national emissions into the plan. 57 of the 155 submitted INDCs reference a forecasted scenario. 

Three Methods:

  • ERs sector by sector. 25 countries have presented their INDCs vis-à-vis industry sectors where they will take action. Mexico sets goals for black carbon, Jamaica promises progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the energy sector. This approach is useful for political maneuvering if an environment minister has good inroads with a particular sector but is unable to generate traction for climate action on a national level.
  • ERs by reducing carbon emissions intensity. 7 countries promise to reduce their “carbon emissions intensity”, an ambiguous term that can either apply to reducing carbon emissions associated with each percentile of Gross Domestic Product, or the emissions intensity associated per capita of the population. Carbon intensity reductions can also by associated with specific sectors. China, for example, promises to reduce its carbon emissions intensity for their economy as a whole by 60% by 2030, working from a baseline of the 2005. In practice, this means that the carbon intensity recorded in 2005 is their benchmark for action by 2030.
  • Set ERs below a peak year in a Business as Usual (BAU) setting. This approach is a variation on the forecast format but it enables countries to delay action even longer than within the usual forecast method. Here, emissions continue unchecked until a self-selected peak year, after which mitigation begins to occur beneath highly optimistic BAU predictions. Thailand, for example, accepts a BAU scenario until 2030, after which it will peak in emissions and reduce its impact below that guestimate by 20-25%.

If the ultimate goal for the UNFCCC is to come up with an integrated plan for international climate action, then the need for comparison amongst INDCs is paramount. The purpose of this exercise is not to endorse any one model. Indeed, a clear baseline with insufficient pledges will not ensure global salvation. So too, the forecast method, if applied realistically, may provide a useful forum for achieving “common but differentiated responsibility” between developed and developing nations. There is much more to the story about choosing models and tools for INDCs then we can present here – it’s a complicated poker game where many nations are strategically putting down minimum climate mitigation efforts for maximum credit. By simply describing the considerable breadth of approaches to the pledges right now, we wish to stress just how essential clear, comparable and coherent carbon accounting is if we are all to win the international climate game to save the planet.