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  • Writer's pictureHannah-Polly Williams

NDCs: What you need to know, and where the 3 key players are as COP26 begins

In this three-part series, we delve beyond the headlines and unpick what success could look like at COP26. In the first article we identified the big players whose decisions will most effectively move the needle. Second, we examine where each of those big players is right now, focused on their legislative agenda and recent commitments. In the third article of the series, we look at what companies need to know about COP26 as they evolve their ESG strategies.

COP21 was a big deal. Hosted in Paris in 2015, it was the first time ever that every country committed to reduce global emissions so that average temperatures will rise to “well below 2 degrees”¹, with an aim to cap increases at 1.5 degrees. Each country agreed to set out how they would contribute to this goal, through their Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC).² Countries agreed to increase the ambition of their NDC’s every 5 years, and convene to share their progress. COP26 (one year delayed due to COVID) is the first global summit to review the new NDCs since the Paris agreement, and is of paramount importance. The commitments made in Paris did not bring global emissions down sufficiently to see a cap on temperature increases of 1.5 degrees. If we are to achieve this goal, COP26 must deliver consequential, sustained and equitable commitments.

In the last article we identified that the actions of three key players are particularly important. Firstly, we have our eyes on the US, given its absolute volume of emissions (15%) and also important ethical adjustments which increase the burden of responsibility the US ought to carry, such as per capita and consumption-adjustments. China is next on our list; with emissions accounting for a headline-grabbing 27% of the global total. That said, China’s politicians emphasise valid ethical considerations. When looking at per capita emissions, China drops from 1st to 53rd place in global rankings, and further still if we factored in consumption-adjustments (where other countries consume many of the goods that China produces and contribute to their emissions), and historical considerations. Finally, we have our eyes on the EU block. The EU-27 accounts for 10% global emissions, but its cumulative historical responsibility is 18%. We also established in the previous article that at 73% of global emissions, the energy sector, in particular production of energy used in industry, road transport and energy in residential buildings, was a highly critical industry.

The US: Shaky ground but seeking to re-establish leadership

Former President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement in 2017 was disastrous for the global fight to tackle climate change. The Biden-Harris administration was swift and decisive in reversing this; Biden made re-joining the 2015 Paris Climate Accords a priority on his first day in office with the release of an Executive Order to tackle the climate crisis at home and abroad.³

Like the EU-27, Japan, Canada and several other countries, the US has pledged to be carbon-neutral by 2050. The centrepiece of the US NDC, announced in April this year, is a 50-52% reduction in net greenhouse gas pollution by 2030 (compared to 2005 levels), which would bring the US annual emissions to 4 bn tonnes CO₂ equivalent. Biden also pledged a package of measures to deliver this, including components of his ambitious infrastructure bill. Whether the political will is there to implement these ambitions is yet to be seen.

China: Moving to its own schedule

Concept art illustrating a 3d global network of people

Although signatories to the Paris Agreement, China has not played a trailblazing role in global discussions, and although there has been no official announcement, it is unlikely that Xi will attend COP26 in person. His absence sends a strong signal of disengagement.

That said, China has committed to be carbon neutral by 2060, and in April 2021, Xi announced the 14th Five-Year Plan (FYP) which committed to phase down coal consumption in the 15th FYP period (2026-2030). China also launched a national emissions trading system (ETS) this year. Although initially only applicable to coal and gas plants, it is an important first step and extensions to this scheme to seven other industries are already planned, meaning it could be a lynchpin for China to achieve its overall goals.

EU-27: Fit for 55

On many metrics (reductions to date, comprehensive plans and systems, political will), the EU-27 is leading the charge. Emissions are reducing, and in July 2021, the EU announced a robust package of policy proposals - Fit for 55 - that commits to go beyond the current goal to reduce emissions by 55% by 2030 from 1990 levels. Although tensions between national governments threaten aspects of the program, there is nonetheless a strong legislative agenda behind these commitments; with the European Climate Law, Green Finance schemes and an ambitious extension to the current ETS so that it includes maritime, heating and transport, and carbon in imported materials within supply chains. Nonetheless, analysts estimate that the EU-27 would need to go further and reduce emissions by 62% by 2030 were it to make its ethics-adjusted contribution to keeping temperature increases below 1.5 degrees.

The devil in the details

Finally, it's worth keeping in mind that the devil is in the details when it comes to targets, as a recent Economist article highlights. The US targets, for example, use 2005 levels compared to the EU’s use of 1990 levels, and when we add in the progress that the EU has made since 1990, the US’s targets are arguably more ambitious.

In the next and final article in this series we will explore what good, and great, would look like when COP26 draws to a close on November 12th.

Portrait photo of author

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Hannah-Polly Williams is an ESG Impact & Implementation Strategist, & Senior Board Adviser to ESG Oracle. Read her full bio here.



2 You may also hear reference to NECPs. NECPs are the National Energy and Climate Plans that are a critical aspect of the NDCs, since energy accounts for 73% of global emissions.


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