The Acronym Standing Between Us and Disaster

What’s an intended nationally determined contribution?

Intended nationally determined contribution (INDC) (n.): a government commitment to limit carbon emissions.

The United Arab Emirates last week became the latest country to submit its intended nationally determined contribution, or INDC, to the United Nations. INDCs—not the catchiest acronym—are perhaps the most important promises being made by governments today. With an INDC, a national government commits to limiting carbon emissions over the next 10 to 15 years.

The phrase rose to prominence at the 2013 Warsaw climate conference. After inadequate preparation doomed several climate change meetings, negotiators agreed that each country would offer a carbon reduction commitment in the first quarter of 2015. This would give scientists and politicians eight months before the critical Paris meeting to assess whether the collective cuts would avert a disaster.

INDCs come in several forms. Some countries have opted for limits relative to specific years in the past (e.g., a 50 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, compared with a 2005 baseline). Other governments have promised to lower their emissions per unit of GDP, fearing that an absolute cap could restrain their economic growth. A third option is committing to a reduction against “business as usual,” the country’s projected emissions if it were to take no preventive measures.

It has been a meandering, chaotic process. Only four countries plus the European Union submitted an INDC by the March 31 deadline. Several of the late submissions were frustratingly unambitious. Russia thinks trees can absorb all of its runaway carbon emissions. Australia ignored the advice of its own government climate authority. Canada cut funding for green energy and will remain a climate pariah until it stops expanding the tar sands industry. Other countries, such as Indonesia, declined to define their business-as-usual scenarios, making it virtually impossible to measure their compliance.

Nevertheless, the INDC process is better than anything that came before. As of this writing, 126 countries, together responsible for 87 percent of current global carbon emissions, have submitted INDCs. On November 1, the United Nations will estimate how much more is necessary to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. So when negotiators arrive in Paris at the end of the month, they’ll at least have a starting point for discussions that just may save the world.

This post first appeared in OnEarth.

By Brian Palmer

Palmer covers daily environmental news for Earthwire. His science writing has appeared in Slate, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and many other publications.