The Truth Behind the Climate Pledges

You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.

Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States

The Paris Agreement represents the first collective effort by all countries to address climate change.

It is an historic turning point in the global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. For the first time, the United States, India, China and the European Union and its Member States were all at the table, influencing other nations to join the effort.

The Paris Agreement could have been stronger. Some nations wanted a treaty. Others wanted an agreement. Some nations lobbied for longer interval between reviews of performance in meeting national commitments. Other nations wanted less intrusive verification procedures.

Even though imperfect, the Paris Agreement solidly positioned the community of nations to recognize that each could and would contribute in an evolving way to the reduction of emissions to slow the rate of global warming.

The pledges made by all countries are focused on achieving the Paris Agreement goal of holding ‘the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C (2.7°F) above pre-industrial levels’1.

Keeping global warming to well below 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial times, or even 1.5°C (2.7°F), can only be achieved by significantly and rapidly reducing emissions. About 70 percent of global anthropogenic GHG emissions are from carbon dioxide (CO2) from fossil fuel2. These CO2 emissions are primarily driving the observed changes in the climate. Deforestation and other GHGs also contribute to changing the climate3.

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Global average temperature has already warmed by about 1°C (1.8°F), above pre-industrial levels, and could exceed the goal of the Paris Agreement of limiting the increase to 1.5°C (2.7°F) as early as 2030 if global warming continues to increase at the current rate4.

But global warming continues to accelerate –global CO2 emissions are still on the rise, reaching yet another peak in 2017, and are anticipated to continue to increase5.

To halt the trend in increasing global emissions, and thus in global temperature increase, 195 parties to the Climate Change Convention have signed the Paris Agreement in 2015, and 187 parties have ratified it6. As of October 1st 2019, 184 parties to the Climate Change Convention have submitted their climate pledges. After the ratification of the Paris Agreement, the climate pledges were re-submitted, changing their initial denomination from ‘Intended’ to Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC).

The climate pledges, even if fully implemented, will only cover less than half of the emission reductions needed to limit global temperature increase to 1.57.

Global GHG emissions have increased by about 20 percent in the last decade –from 44.7 GtCO2-eq (gigatons of all GHGs combined expressed as CO2 equivalent) in 2010 to 53.5 GtCO2-eq in 20178. Even if all climate pledges are fully implemented, global GHG emissions are projected to be, on average, 54 (50-58) GtCO2-eq in 20309.

Halting the increase of global GHG emissions and keeping them at the current level in 2030 may seem encouraging to some. It is just a first step. But to stay below 1.5°C (2.7°F), global GHG emissions should be, on average, 27 (25-30) GtCO2-eq in 203010.

This means that action to half emissions within the next decade need to at least double or triple and increase by five-fold to reach net zero emissions by 2050.The sooner decisive measures to reduce emissions are implemented, the most cost-effective these actions will be.

Without massive changes and active leadership in the very near future, we could be living in a 1.5°C world in about a decade.

The Climate Pledges

When the Climate Change Convention was adopted, countries were categorized into industrialized and developing (or Annex I and Non-Annex I countries).

This 1992 categorization is based on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, which establishes that all countries are responsible for addressing global environmental degradation yet not equally responsible. This key principle acknowledges the different capabilities and differing responsibilities of individual countries in addressing climate change.

More than 20 years ago, industrialized countries accounted for about half of global GHG emissions. Based on the historical share of GHG emissions, only industrialized countries had to comply with emission reduction targets11.

Currently, the share of global GHG emissions has changed. Upper and lower middle-income countries currently account collectively for more than half of global GHG emissions12.

When the Paris Agreement was adopted in 2015, all countries made pledges to reduce emissions.

The emission reduction commitments stated in the 184 climate pledges are voluntary and not legally binding. These commitments depend on policies, technologies and practices to be adopted and implemented at the national level in each country. For some countries, the implementation of the pledges also depends on the provision of international financial or technical support, referred to as conditional pledges.

Of the 184 pledges, 127 (including India) or 69 percent are partially or totally conditional. This means that without international finance or technical support, these pledges may not be implemented.

These conditional pledges were mostly put forward by developing countries that lack the financial capability to reduce emissions as well as the technological and institutional capacity.

The conditionality of these climate pledges is based on the categorization of countries under the Climate Change Convention. However, in their latest assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has updated the categorization of countries, based on their income. Thus, some countries which are currently categorized as high-income economies13 are still considered as developing countries for the Convention.

Based on the difference in the categorization of countries between the Convention and the IPCC, some high-income countries have put forward conditional pledges that depend on international funding for its implementation.

Reducing emissions by 50 percent by 2030 will require a significant transformation in the way all countries generate and use energy. Some countries will need international funding to implement the required actions to change their energy generation and use in the framework of sustainable growth.

The ratification of the Paris Agreement could have been an opportunity for countries to review and increase actions to reduce emissions. However, 97 percent of the 184 climate pledges are the same as those initially submitted in 2015-2016, after the Paris Agreement was adopted. Compared to the intended commitments submitted in 2015-16, only six countries have reviewed their pledges: 4 countries increased their plan to cut emissions; 2 countries weakened their commitments:

  1. Argentina –a 20 percent increase in ambition: from a 30 percent reduction in GHG emissions, to 37 percent; about half of this pledge is conditional.
  2. Morocco –a 30 percent increase in ambition: from a 32 percent reduction in GHG emissions to 42 percent; about 60 percent of this pledge is conditional.
  3. Ecuador –revision of the target year and emission reduction target: from 30-46 percent reduction of CO2 emissions by 2030, to 20.9 percent by 2025; almost 60 percent of this pledge is conditional.
  4. Marshall Islands (submission of their second climate pledge) –increase in ambition by including ‘at least’ to 32 percent reduction of GHG emissions by 2025 and a 45 percent by 2030. Adding ‘at least’ is consistent with the intention to overachieve the 2025 target and to try to achieve the 2030 indicative target; 100 percent of this pledge is conditional.
  5. Eritrea –a 50 percent decrease in ambition: from 80 percent of CO2 emissions to 38.5 percent; about 70 percent of this pledge is conditional.
  6. Benin –a 25 percent decrease in ambition: from 21.4 percent reduction in GHG emissions to 16 percent; more than 75 percent of this pledge is conditional.



1. Paris Agreement, Article 2 (2015)

2. UNEP (2018). The Emissions Gap Report 2018, Global Carbon Atlas, Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research

3. Other GHGs are methane and nitrous oxide

4. Universal Ecological Fund: The Truth About Climate Change (2016), IPCC: Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (2018)

5. Global Carbon Project, 2018

6. Status of ratification of the Paris Agreement

7. IPCC: Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (2018)

8. Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research, UNEP (2018). The Emissions Gap Report 2018

9. IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5oC (2018)

10. IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5oC (2018)

11. Under the Kyoto Protocol, industrialized countries committed to emission reductions: 5% below 1990 level between 2008-2012 and  18% below 1990 level between 2013-2020

12. IPCC, Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), Working Group III, Chapter 1 (2014)

13. The 2014 IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) analyzed global GHG emissions categorizing countries based on their income, into high-income, upper-middle income, lower-middle income and low-income countries. This categorization is based on the World Bank’s categorization of countries by income.

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