Ambitious climate goals, weak foundations

With a little over a week left until the UN climate conference starts in Paris on 30 November, most countries have already submitted their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). 

The INDCs are public pledges detailing how each country plans to cope with climate change, starting in 2020, as part of a new international climate agreement that will be adopted at the UN conference. 

As of 20 November, 140 INDCs representing 167 nations have been submitted. Eight come from the ASEAN region — Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam (Brunei and Malaysia have yet to submit theirs). Another eight are from the Pacific small island developing states (SIDS), which include Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. 

The fact that many countries in South-East Asia and the Pacific have made a pledge, although they contribute very little to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, could inspire more ambitious commitments from richer and bigger countries. As such, INDCs are crucial indicators of whether or not the world can realistically forge ahead with the low-carbon, climate-resilient future that the conference is promoting.

Questionable methodology 

Civil society groups, however, are concerned about the greenhouse gas inventory used to write up those contributions. 

Jessica Dator-Bercilla, senior advocacy and policy officer at Christian Aid, tells SciDev.Net that many of the data sets on emissions used by countries in South-East Asia are based on their national communication, a set of initiatives and government programmes designed to reduce GHG emissions that countries have been required to submit to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change after the 1992 UN environment conference in Rio de Janeiro. 

The problem is that many South-East Asian countries haven’t been tracking their emissions so it’s difficult to gauge the accuracy of the numbers or even the base year used for some of the data. Dator-Bercilla notes that “a lot” of the INDCs from the region are based on pre-existing modelling taken from prior studies, many of which were reviews or related literature rather than actual science. 

“If we are really to address the issue of mitigation, it has to be evidence based, something that many South-East Asian countries do not have,” says Dator-Bercilla. 

That becomes evident after analysing the INDCs. Countries can submit mitigation contributions in various ways. One is in the form of quantifiable “outcomes”, the ideal method whereby nations express a desire to achieve a particular result then provide detail. The Philippine INDC, for instance, says it wants to reduce emissions by 70 per cent relative to its business as usual (BAU) scenario of 2000-2030, but it does not provide a BAU level. 

Countries can also choose to present their contributions in the form of “actions” then elaborate on the initiatives and policies they will implement as a result. (This is less ideal since it’s harder to track the GHG effects of the country pledge.) 

Laos takes this path and plans to carry out a number of projects over the next 15 years in areas such as forestry and renewable energy to reduce carbon emissions. But while the Laos INDC provides some numbers, no data sets are offered, leaving significant information gaps. 

Technology transfer 

INDCs are widely seen as a vehicle for reducing GHG emissions, but for vulnerable countries in South-East Asia and the Pacific, their country pledges are more complex. 

“Here it’s not just about mitigation, it’s also about adaptation,” Rosa Perez, a member of the national panel of technical experts from the Philippine Climate Change Commission, tells SciDev.Net. “It’s not just about financial resources, it’s also about technology transfer, technical assistance and capacity-building. Those three have to come together.” 

Most of the INDCs in the region are conditional as opposed to unconditional, meaning that each country’s ability to achieve their stipulated goals is based on technology that exists but isn’t necessarily accessible to poor nations. 

Where INDCs are unconditional, the country is usually already heavily reliant on foreign assistance in key national sectors. This is the case for Kiribati, which is asking for additional funds and technical assistance to develop coconut oil as biodiesel for electricity. 

But Perez stresses that the current INDCs are just the initial submission. “It is not cast in stone. Probably the next submission will be so much different and based on further research and development.”  

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