The weaknesses and strengths of working with INDCs

The EarthThe 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21) that was celebrated in Paris two years ago, was part of the international political process that search to create an including framework on climate change, which looks to regulate Green House Gas (GHG) emissions in participating countries.  Starting with the  1992  United  Nations  Framework  Convention on  Climate  Change (UNFCCC),  which settled a non-binding pledge to return emissions levels to  1990 levels by  2000,  little steps have been made to achieve a  greater degree of commitments in both developed and developing countries. Historically there has been a breach between developing countries (annex I) and non-developing countries (non-annex I), not only in their position (as economic powerhouses) but also in their capacities (disposition of technology, resources, etc) to tackle the problem of climate change.

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which marked a first step in the reduction of GHG, is a clear example of this situation, as in its first commitment period (2008-2012), failed to accommodate a set of reduction goals for non-developing countries. In the actuality, the debate is centred around the idea of “differentiating responsibility”, in which developed countries pledge for the action in terms of current capabilities while developing countries do so in terms of historical responsibility.  Harmonising the positions between these two groups and inside them as well (as realities differ drastically, especially in the developing world) has been critical to the success of this conference.

The inclusion of environmental problems on the agenda of many nations worldwide, because of the distension created with the end of the Cold War and the increasing inherence of manmade outputs in the contamination of the planet, have propitiated an increased interest in the tackling these kinds of problems since the 1990s.  With an increased self-awareness of what environmental related problems, like Climate Change, can bring to the world as we know it, major effort has been made to create different scenarios in which problems can be assessed.

These endeavors resulted in the creation of local, national and international ecologic governance levels of policy action, which propitiated a spectrum of solutions that range from coordinated ones (like the creation of the United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change and its subsequent iterations) to individual ones (a determined local management of water resources for example). With the inclusion of these topics in the world agenda, many countries jumped into the idea of environmental action. Nevertheless, despite these efforts, a series of variables have caused the progress to be relatively slow, not only debilitating momentums of progress but also reducing the importance that topics like Climate Change have at a determinate point of time in the context of a specific country.

These variables allude to the previously mentioned problematic of surpassing the asymmetries present in any discussion that involves developing and developed countries. Considering the global aspect of climate change advocacy, it is important to understand why Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) have been chosen recently over legally binding documents, that in theory are more appropriate to effectively engage country towards certain goals? To comprehend the magnitude of the task at hand, it is important to first describe what exactly is the problem? And why go to such lengths to tackle it?

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution there has been a continuing increase in the concentration of GHG in the lower atmosphere, product of anthropogenic actions, that is, the inappropriate use of non-renewable energy sources for the development of countries, especially those in the developed world. This exponential increase in the concentration of GHG is responsible for the “greenhouse effect” that much scientist belief is tied with the current trend of global warming. The main elements that are related to this phenomenon are the concentration of gases like water vapor (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which retain the heat coming from the sun and increase the temperature of the earth surface and the lower atmosphere.

These gasses, especially the last three (as H2O would usually evaporate quickly in the atmosphere), are related in big quantities to the product of human related activities, like coal and oil burning, deforestation, bad management of industrial elements, the use of synthetic compounds, etc. In this regard, in its Fifth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, concluded that there is a 95 percent probability that human activities over the past 50 years have warmed our planet.

The effects of this ‘man-made’ rapid warmth of our planet are usually disastrous climate variability related events that would impact diverse parts of the worlds differently, as not only climate variability behave usually different in opposing areas of the earth, but also states count with different levels of preparedness against these effects. In terms of development, these situations mean that the usual means of productions, that are link to the availability of natural resources, land, climate zones, etc, are at risk of potential irreversible changes. In a few words, this point out at the conexion between climate change, development and poverty reduction, which are all linked.

In this regard, it is important to think of climate change as a global dynamic that must be treated conjunctly in order to be able to combat it, as no singular country is able to produce the enough change by its own to successfully reverse the negative effects of this phenomena. It is important to mention on this last point, that there is a first asymmetry to be taken into account under this issue, which is, that usually bigger polluters like China, the US, India, etc, are to be accounted for the majority of the current levels of pollution, while others smaller or less prepared countries will be the most affected by this situation, without representing an important proportion of the world CO2 pollution levels.

This asymmetry finds its maximum exponents in the case of Africa, as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) points out, there will be no other continent as vulnerable as Africa, given its position on the planet, its low resilience, adaptive capacity, low development and high levels of poverty put it at the mayor risk.

On this point, the ‘The Climate Change Vulnerability Index of 2016’ considers the continent of Africa as the most vulnerable continent of the world, by counting 31 countries in ‘high’ to ‘extreme’ level of vulnerability, while only 5 are considered to be ‘low’ level. The same study also includes in this category most of the global south, arguing that the situation of poverty, inequality, highly dependent agricultural economy, low level of resilience to disastrous events, etc, are the main drivers of this vulnerability levels.

On a more particular note, Tanzania is considered by the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index (ND-Gain) ranking, which balances vulnerability and readiness to climate change related disastrous events, to be a ‘low’ level country, in the 139 position of 180 selected states. This situation is further exacerbated if we consider the current social and economic arrangements of the country, in which agriculture, 95% of which is rain-fed supports the livelihoods of two thirds of Tanzanians, employs 80% of the rural workforce and accounts for 46% of GDP. 90% of Tanzania’s energy is derived from wood and biomass fuel and only 5% of the population have access to the electricity grid, this dynamic and its positive impact in climate change tackling are further exposed by HeatTalk.

The previous situation combined with the use of almost 1% of the country GDP to resolve disastrous climate related events every year, plus the projection of increase of the country temperature by 0.5ºC in 2025 and 4ºC by 2100 in ‘Business as Usual’ (BAU) scenarios, present a difficult situation for the country in terms of development, as it has not been able, even though increasing its GDP by double in the last 15 years, to resolve the problems of poverty and inequality in the country, in which 97% of its 41 million population are currently living below the 2 USD poverty line.

Institutionalising Climate Change and the debate over INDCs:

The UNFCCC marked the political institutionalisation of Climate Change in the United Nation world agenda. The 1992 non-binding document stated that the desire of nations towards the problematic of Climate Change phenomena would be “the stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” This type of institutional configuration would demark what would be the history of Climate Change advocacy until this day, in which apparent large political momentum is eclipsed by sovereign state interests that debilitates the character of more compelling and strong accords.

One exponent of this difficulty to set a ‘global’ climate change agenda was the first and second Kyoto protocols, in which the first tangible differences between developed and developing world surfaced in an attempt to obtain legally binding documents. In this scenario, developed countries settled for a legally binding goal, while the rest of the developing countries were not included in bigger parts of the negotiation, leaving them to contribute ‘as they could’. This situation reflects a second asymmetry in dealing with Climate Change topics, which is, the consecution of agenda setting, relevant action and implementation is tied to world power dynamics of developed and developing world agendas, in other words, the problem of Climate Change is shared by all actors, but the means to tackle it and the deepness and grade of ‘legality’ that such responses should have is differentiated between the developed and developing world.

This situation means that historically, in Climate Change related issues, developing countries like the previously mentioned Tanzania have found less than ideal spaces to make their ‘voice count’, as the agenda-setting is usually led by big polluters-big actors of the international system. Nevertheless, this situation would take an important change with the consecution of the COP 21.

After the failed 2009 Copenhagen conferences (COP 15), the world saw the difficulties of resolving the dichotomies between developed and developing countries agenda, reason which the next important meeting, the COP 21, searched to find a more flexible agenda, in which, legally binding elements would coexist with non-binding contributions. The INDCs then became a pragmatical mean in which ‘global’ agreement would be achieved, at expense of a more rigid and solid structure for action.

In the case of Tanzania, the 2015 Intended Nationally Determined Contributions report compromise the country to create climate resilience as a development pathway, by lowering Climate Change disastrous events from 70% to 50%, increasing access to clean and safe water from 60% to 75% and maintain sea rise level at 50cm to 1m considering best/worst case scenarios. These goals are complemented with the intention to maintain capital emissions low, at 0.2 tCO2e by preserving the status of Tanzania as a ‘net sink’, which is, conserving the 9.03 trillion of estimated carbon stocks that they possess in order to remove carbon of the atmosphere by incorporating it into biomass by the natural process undertaken by plants.

The principal problems that institutionally arise from this kind of structures is that, INDCS are set and developed by each country, meaning that usually the goals set by each countries would not push any existing boundaries or would not signify any bigger compromise than what each country is usually doing, even though it is important to mention that the means of verification and evaluation are legally-binding, the countries are nevertheless ‘allowed’ to set their own desired goals without great limitations.

Another problem is that much of what is accorded would need a considerable financial support, especially in the case of developing countries, in which not only monetary help will be important, but also technology and knowledge transfer will be important for the overall process. The Tanzanian report states that there will be an initial need of 150 million USD for the consecution of initial actions, which then would increase by 500 million USD per year until 2030 where the number would reach a 1 billion USD top. With the COP 21 the announcement of a donation pool made by developed countries would ensure the allocation of such resources, but the medium of achieving those resources, combined with the means of efficiently and transparently sharing them and the actual monetary figure are still unresolved.

This dual process of global and local complexities is at the center of the current problems of dealing with climate change policies, that is, to transform inputs of the international system into locally structured climate change mitigation policies.

Considering this scenario, it is important to understand the inherent necessities of INDCs in the road ahead, as it allow action to be undertaken by both developed and developing countries, while propitiating a more “flexible” framework in which diversity and asymmetries are more well accounted.

Author’s bio:

Alfredo José Hoyos Bahamon, Master of International Relations, University of Melbourne

Alfredo is a young graduate with great concern and passion about Climate Change related topics. He wishes to extend some of his previously researched topics into the attention of any reader interested in working towards fighting Climate Change.

Find more about Alfredo here:

Online CV/Webpage:

E-mail: Alfredjhb(at)gmail(dot)com

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