Contributed by energy economist Robert Lyman @ June 2016

In a previous post (Climate Change Targets for Canada: Examining the Consequences June 2015), I examined the history of climate change agreements prior to last December’s Conference of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention (COP 21) in Paris. I noted that previous agreements have included a series of targets for national and global greenhouse gas emissions reductions. In each case, countries failed by a considerable margin to meet the targets; nonetheless, in each succeeding agreement the parties set an even more demanding target. The targets, in effect, were made to be missed; their purpose was mainly political.


At COP 21, the Parties finally realized that agreeing on another yet-more-stringent target was not credible, so they adopted a new strategy. They agreed to not set explicit goals to cut their emissions. Consequently, the COP 21 agreement is not a treaty, there are no binding legal requirements, there is no formula for determining what each country’s obligations are, and there are no penalties for non-compliance.


Prior to the conference, however, the Parties were asked to submit “intended nationally determined contributions’ (INDCs) to the collective political goal of mitigating and adapting to climate change. 186 countries submitted INDCs. These eventually will be given some degree of higher political (though not necessarily legal) status as five-year plans. For the time being, they represent the public’s best source of information as to what countries plan to do, how much they plan to spend, and which conditions they will place on future compliance with the political agreement.


The United Nations Environment Program provides the most objective source of information available as to the contents of the INDCs and what they might mean. On October 30, 2015, the UN secretariat published a Synthesis Report on the aggregate effect of the intended nationally determined contributions. Here are some highlights from that report.


  • The INDC’s submitted represented 75% of the Parties and 86% of global emissions in 2010.
  • Many INDCs contained quantified emission reduction targets, which took a variety of forms and were set in relation to a variety of baselines (e.g. 1990, 2000, 2010, etc.)
  • Some Parties indicated that they reserved to right to revise their INDCs in the light of the outcome of discussions on the financing of the efforts of the less developed countries.
  • Several of the INDCs highlighted the link between the implied actions to reduce emissions and their development priorities, including social and economic development and poverty elimination.
  • If all the countries perform in accordance with the plans set out in their INDCs, this would result in aggregate global emission levels of 55.2 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GTCO2e) in 2025 and 56.7 GTCO2e in 2030. Global emissions would be 34-46% higher than 1990 levels by 2025 and 37-52% higher than 1990 levels by 2030. Emissions would be 8-18% higher than 2010 levels by 2025 and 11-22% higher than 2010 levels by 2030.
  • Even if all INDC actions are taken, total GHG emissions will be 8.7 GTCO2e (19%) higher in 2025 and 15.1 GTCO2e (35%) higher in 2030 than what would be required to stay on a path towards the IPCC goal of restraining post-industrial average global temperature increases below 2 degrees C.


The INDCs of some countries are of special interest. The Obama Administration in the United States submitted an INDC stating it would reduce net GHG emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels in 2025. This compares to the U.S.’s previous commitment at Copenhagen to reduce net GHG emissions by 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. China’s INDC stated that country’s intention to reduce the carbon intensity of its economy by 60% to 65% below 2005 levels by 2030 and to peak its CO2 emissions by 2030 at the latest. The peak would be at an emissions level of around 13.6 GTCO2e by 2030, according to Climate Action Tracker, a website that follows and promotes actions to reduce global emissions; the carbon intensity target would imply a 2030 emissions level of 15-16.9 GTCO2e. That means by 2030 China’s GHG emissions could be four times those of the United States. India’s INDC stated that it would lower the emissions intensity of GDP by 33 to 35% below 2005 levels by 2030 and increase the share of non-fossil based power generation capacity to 40% of installed electric power capacity by 2030.


Carbon Brief, another website that monitors and advocates for emissions reductions, in September 2015 began tracking and calculating the financial implications of the pledges made in the INDCs, based largely on what the developing countries say they will need from the developed countries. This does not include the huge amount of money that would be spent by the developed and developing countries from their own resources in attempting to reduce emissions. The call on developed countries for financial assistance now adds up to U.S. $3.5 trillion. Of this, $2.5 trillion has been requested by India alone. The remaining $1 trillion is made up of financial estimates of aid required by 72 other developing countries.


Developed countries have “promised” to provide $100 billion per year by 2020. Only a small fraction of that has been committed to date, and there are questions as to whether the U.S. Congress will approve the expenditures promised by the Obama Administration. The post-COP 21 agenda will include a difficult (perhaps impossible) negotiation over how much the developed countries will commit in future and how the global total of $100 billion will be shared among both the contributing countries and the receiving countries. A total requirement of $3.5 trillion to 2030, if accepted, would mean that developed countries would have to contribute $350 billion per year from 2021 to 2030. As many of the developing countries’ INDCs are contingent on receiving the funding they consider necessary, a failure to meet their demands would almost certainly mean that the countries where the highest emissions growth is occurring would not meet even their limited emission reduction goals.


For governments that accept the theory of human-induced catastrophic global warming, the COP21 agreement has served as a rallying point around which they have harangued their publics with the need for urgent action on climate change. They have used it to push extraordinary measures including carbon taxes, regulations, mandates, and subsidies. The credibility of these measures rests in part upon the public’s acceptance that this is a global action to which all countries are committed. If past performance on targets is any guide, it should become clear fairly soon that developed and developing countries alike are unlikely to accept the financial pain involved.


Developed countries like the United States and Canada may face an ultimatum from the developing countries. If we don’t pay, they won’t play. COP 21 easily could end up just like all the other empty promises.