As of September 2021, 85 countries and the EU27 had submitted new or updated NDCs, covering around half of global GHG emissions. Some parties, like China and Japan, have proposed new targets but not yet submitted them formally while around 70 parties – including G20 countries like India, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – have neither proposed nor communicated a revised NDC target. Several parties have, moreover, submitted new NDCs without increasing ambition. These include Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, New Zealand, Russia, Singapore, Switzerland and Vietnam. In some of these cases, adjustments in baselines mean that ambition has de facto decreased (Brazil and Mexico). Analysis published by Climate Action Tracker in September 2021 shows that the NDC updates only narrow the gap to 1.5°C by, at best, 15 per cent (4 GtCO₂e). This leaves a large gap of 20–23 GtCO₂e.

Similar analysis from the UN underscores the need for further NDC enhancements. If all current NDCs are implemented, total GHG emissions (not including emissions associated with land use) in 2030 are projected to be 16.3 per cent higher than in 2010, and 5 per cent higher than in 2019. The emissions of the parties that have submitted new or updated NDCs are, however, expected to fall by around 12 per cent by the end of the decade, compared to 2010 levels. The UN report also highlights the importance of providing support to developing countries, as many of these have submitted NDCs that are – at least in part – conditional on the receipt of additional financial resources, capacity-building support, and technology transfer, among other things. If such support is forthcoming, global emissions could peak before 2030, with emission levels at the end of this decade being 1.4 per cent lower than in 2019. However, even the full implementation of both the unconditional and conditional elements of the NDCs would lead to an overshoot of the targets of the Paris Agreement – as alignment with 1.5°C and 2°C require cuts of 45 per cent and 25 per cent, respectively, by 2030 (relative to 2010 levels).

A large number of countries are also making more long-term net zero emissions or carbon neutrality pledges. As of September 2021, just over 130 countries had made such commitments, but not all of them have formally presented them to the UNFCCC. Examples include large economies like China, Japan, Brazil, the US, South Africa, South Korea, and the EU, as well as climate-vulnerable developing countries like the Marshall Islands, Barbados, Kiribati and Bangladesh. Climate Action Tracker estimates that if these long-term targets – and the NDCs – are fully implemented, global warming could be limited to 2°C. Most of the net zero pledges are, however, formulated in vague terms that are not consistent with good practice. The long-term targets are, moreover, only credible if they are backed up by ambitious and robust 2030 NDCs, given that substantial cuts in emissions must occur this decade. An additional concern that has been raised when it comes to net zero pledges is that they may encourage reliance on negative emissions technologies, such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), which have still to be tested at scale to assess land requirement, efficiency and economic viability.

The challenge of closing the gap

Bridging the gap between current NDCs and targets that would keep warming to 1.5°C is a defining challenge for governments ahead of COP26. As mentioned, UNEP estimates that the ambition of 2030 targets would need to be enhanced fivefold vis-à-vis pledges made in 2015 to align with a 1.5°C pathway. Several large emitters – including the US and the EU – have now submitted their new or updated NDCs. According to Climate Action Tracker, the UK’s target is considered to be compatible with a 1.5°C pathway, while those of the US, EU, Japan and Canada are classified as ‘almost sufficient’.

It is critical that all countries that have not yet submitted a new or updated NDC do so, and that these pledges are aligned with 1.5°C. It is equally important that countries that have submitted unambitious NDCs revisit their targets. The Paris Agreement states that parties may revise existing NDCs at any time, if the purpose is to enhance ambition. The G20 countries have a particularly important role to play. In July 2021, the Italian G20 presidency hosted the first ever G20 Climate and Energy Ministerial meeting. In the final communique the countries in the G20 stated that they ‘intend to update or communicate ambitious NDCs by COP26’. The importance of action from all members of the G20 is clear, as they collectively account for 80 per cent of global emissions and as UN Secretary-General António Guterres said, ‘there is no pathway to this [1.5°C] goal without the leadership of the G20’.

With only a few weeks to go it is, however, unlikely that the 20–23 GtCO₂e gap in targets will be closed by COP26. At the UK-hosted COP26 ministerial in July, a number of ministers stressed that parties would need to respond to any gap remaining by the Glasgow conference. Some suggested that such a response could include a ‘clear political commitment’ to keep 1.5°C within reach, a recognition of the gap, and a plan to bridge it. More specific proposals of actions that could be taken, as part of the response, to keep the 1.5°C pathway alive were also discussed. Suggestions included, but were not limited to, encouraging countries whose NDCs are not consistent with 1.5°C to bring their 2030 targets in line before 2025 (when the third round of NDCs are due); calling for parties to submit concrete long-term strategies for reaching net zero; and/or sending clear signals to markets through actions like phasing out unabated coal, carbon pricing, fossil fuel subsidy reform, nature-based solutions, and decarbonizing transport.

Achieving a positive COP26 outcome

The ultimate benchmark for a high ambition outcome at COP26 is whether the new or updated NDCs are ambitious enough to align with a 1.5°C pathway. For many communities and ecosystems, the threat of different climate impacts between 1.5°C and 2°C – not to mention 3°C, 4°C or 5°C – is existential. Each increment of warming is anticipated to drive increasingly devastating and costly impacts, including extreme heatwaves, rising sea levels, biodiversity loss, reductions in crop yields, and widespread ecosystems damage including to coral reefs and fisheries.

Keeping the goal of 1.5°C within reach will require substantial action this decade. Long-term targets to achieve net zero emissions or carbon neutrality have the potential to be powerful drivers of decarbonization but need to be supported by ambitious NDCs as well as concrete policies and sufficient investment.

Should we reach COP26 without sufficient ambition on NDCs, parties would need to present a plan for how ambition will be raised in the early 2020s. This could include a COP decision or a political statement underscoring the need to keep warming to 1.5°C and inviting parties to revisit their NDCs earlier than the Paris timetable dictates (for instance in 2023 instead of 2025). To support more ambitious action, countries should look to expand international collaboration and accelerate decarbonization in key sectors. At COP26, parties can help boost the credibility of their pledges by showcasing policies, measures and sector initiatives that will accelerate decarbonization, including on the phase out of unabated coal and the increased use of electric vehicles 

Since the signing of the Paris Agreement remarkable progress has been made in the manufacturing and deployment of many low-carbon technologies. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the cost of building new solar utility-scale projects is less than running existing coal plants in, for instance, India and China. In 2021, contracts were agreed for the commissioning of a new solar plant in Saudi Arabia at a world record low of $10 per megawatt hour (MWh). The global average ‘levelized cost of electricity’ from solar has fallen from around $350/MWh to $50/MWh in the last decade, while the cost of wind power has more than halved over the same time period. Furthermore, the contribution of these technologies to energy supply is rapidly increasing and the mechanism for their management and storage is becoming cheaper and more efficient. In 2020, renewables became the EU’s main source of energy, providing 38 per cent of Europe’s electricity. In Uruguay, wind now provides nearly one-third of its power while solar provides 10.7 per cent of total generation in Honduras and over 8 per cent in Chile.

In the run-up to COP26, the UK government is mobilizing its counterparts and non-state actors to drive accelerated action on phasing out the use of unabated coal, accelerating the deployment of electric vehicles, protecting and restoring nature (nature-based solutions), and aligning financial flows with the goals of the Paris Agreement. The role of the private sector is crucial in the transition to net zero economies and is recognized within the framework of the UNFCCC, as they can deliver funding, innovation and technology deployment at a pace and scale beyond that of most governments . It is hoped that some of these initiatives will lead to plurilateral agreements at or ahead of COP26, which could enhance the credibility of mitigation pledges and help keep the 1.5°C target within reach. Being able to showcase a package consisting of ambitious NDCs, plurilateral deals, and national policies at COP26 could generate positive momentum and create a sense of inevitability around the transition to net zero societies.

As the energy sector accounts for over two-thirds of global GHG emissions, action in this area will be key to meeting Paris Agreement targets. The burning of coal for electricity accounts for 30 per cent of global CO2 emissions, while providing 36 per cent of global electricity and a quarter of commercial energy. According to the IEA’s 2021 report, meeting the targets of the Paris Agreement will be impossible unless the use of coal is radically reduced.

There is growing international pressure to rapidly reduce and phase out coal use and production. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has, for instance, called for, ‘A decline in global coal use in electricity generation by 80 percent below 2010 levels by 2030. A commitment from all OECD countries to phase out coal by 2030, and a commitment from non-OECD countries to do so by 2040’. Momentum is growing. Since 2015, 44 countries have committed to not constructing new coal power plants, and an additional 40 do not have such projects in the development pipeline. The UK government has made it clear that COP26 must be the COP that ‘consigns coal power to history’.

The G7 Summit in 2021 created mixed messages on coal as members agreed to stop financing coal plants and mines outside of their borders by the end of the year. The global shift away from coal does in some cases seem to effectively influence China’s actions; its largest bank, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), has withdrawn financing for a $3 billion, 2.8 GW, coal power project in Zimbabwe and importantly President Xi announced at UNGA in September 2021 that China would ‘not build new coal-fired power projects abroad’, which is hugely significant given the scale of their global financing. However, although G7 states agreed to end new direct support for international investments in unabated coal, they have failed to agree on a clear timeline to phase out domestic coal, only committing to ‘accelerate the transition away from unabated coal capacity’ and to ‘overwhelmingly’ decarbonize power systems in the 2030s. Furthermore, China has yet to pledge a domestic coal cessation target. The G20 meeting in July also failed to agree common language on the use of coal and it was consequently not mentioned in the final communique. At the 76th UNGA, seven governments signed the UN-initiated ‘No new coal agreement’. The aim is to grow the alliance ahead of COP26.

The 2021 IEA report also suggested that no new oil and gas fields should be approved for development if the world is to be compatible with the 1.5°C target. Consequently, additional action could demonstrate that further exploration of fossil fuels is not compatible with the 1.5°C target of the Paris Agreement. Specific policy targets to reduce their use, such as deploying electric vehicles, insulating buildings and ending the sale of internal combustion engines and gas boilers are needed in national commitments at COP26.

While addressing coal, oil and gas consumption and production is central to efforts to drive down carbon emissions, additional emissions from agriculture, forestry and other land use (AFOLU) are also a key component to address. Non-CO₂ emissions (particularly methane) are increasingly coming under the spotlight and short and long-term targets will not be met without substantial changes in food production, farming and land use. Competition for land will play an increasingly important role in shaping climate plans. Land-based mitigation measures such as restoring lost carbon sinks through ecosystem restoration, together with less intensive food production techniques and biofuels will each require large land areas and careful consideration from a practical implementation perspective. The UK COP presidency has identified ‘protecting and restoring nature for the benefit of people and climate’ as a theme to advance at COP26 and this includes the protection and restoration of ecosystems as well as the curtailment of deforestation. Hence, COP26 is an opportunity to bring land use into climate plans as a central, cross cutting component.


Add new comment