Intended Nationally Determined Contributions
Will the Paris INDCs slow global warming? Exactly what does that question mean? In early 2014, China decided its use of 4 billion tons per year of coal was “at the limits of endurance for the domestic environment.” And it experts predicted that coal use would peak by 2020. Then in November of 2014 it issued a joint pledge with the US that its coal use would peak by 2020. In that pledge it did not mention the climate, although the US said they were climate pledges. Later those pledges became INDCs.
China’s INDC describes a dramatic change in its upward trajectory of coal use. Does that mean the UN climate negotiations have succeeding in getting China to help save the planet from climate change? Here’s what UN Climate Chief Christian Figueres says:
Clearly, Figueres is saying China’s pledge was not the result of UN climate negotiations, it was the result of attempting to reduce the more than half-million per year premature deaths from coal-burning pollution. In the same interview she said:
All of these countries are putting their best foot forward because they understand it’s good for their economies. And that is the most powerful driving force — the self-interest of every country is what is behind all of these measures. It’s not because they want to save the planet. Maybe it surprises you that I say that. Let’s be realistic here.”
So let’s be realistic. Figueres is undoubtedly being a bit pessimistic here, and some of the INDCs undoubtedly contain contributions that include a touch of altruism, but mostly they reflect narrow self-interest. Mostly the pledges are not the result of UN negotiations. Like the Chinese pledge, countries are mostly (Figueres says entirely) just looking out for their own interests, which is what countries do anyway.
So, will the INDCs slow global warming? For the most part, No. The INDCs just describe things that would happen anyway, that are good for the climate. But some small parts of the INDCs probably are climate related, and so the UN can legitimately take credit for these parts that are not just countries doing what they would do anyway — acting in their narrow self interests.
Unfortunately, estimates of the impact of the INDCs do not even attempt to separate what they would do anyway from what the INDCs have actually caused. Instead they simply look at past trends — like China’s rocketing coal use — and assume they would continue. Then they give the UN credit for China’s decision to “listen their citizens who actually would like to breathe.”
For the most part, the UN and even Figueres are taking credit for actions they did not contribute to. No, the UN did not convince China to act in its own self interest.