12 December 2020. Save the date. It could be the most crucial in the planet’s history…

On that day, the UK will host a virtual UN Climate Summit. It’s already been dubbed “the sprint to Glasgow”, as organisers seek to build momentum for the global climate summit, COP26, to be held there next year.

COP26 aims to clarify the vaguer and rougher edges of the historic Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 and increase the world’s collective climate ambition.

UK Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary and COP26 Chair Alok Sharma has already been clear that in the virtual summit there’ll be ‘no space for general statements’ and priority will be ‘given to the most transformational commitments put forward’.

Most of the upcoming summit’s attention will be devoted to updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).


In Paris in 2015, virtually the whole world agreed to commit to prevent a warming of the planet by 2°C and to aim to limit global warming to 1.5°C. Why the summit in Paris succeeded compared to previous global climate summits was primarily due to the creation of NDCs.

This inverted the established pyramid of multiparty agreements in international relations with a “bottom-up” approach. NDCs allow nations to set their own pace of climate action mitigation and adaptation. They cover a range of sections, from energy transition to nature-based solutions, to the development of innovative technologies.

The creation of NDCs was a recognition of each party’s sovereignty and the need for flexibility in emissions targets between countries, particularly between developed and developing nations.

Countries can also make unconditional and conditional contributions, the latter being subject to international support or if other conditions are met. All this sounds like a potential recipe for diluted emissions reduction targets and buck-passing, and you would be right.

However, under the Paris Agreement, it was agreed that parties had to submit revised NDCs every 5 years, at least 9-12 months before the next major climate summit. The aim is that each party’s NDC should ‘represent a progression’ from the previous submission and ‘reflect its highest possible ambition’.

The idea is to produce a ratcheting up of commitments cycle, further influenced by another mechanism, a global stocktake every 5 years from 2023 onwards. This will assess the gap between the world’s collective ambition, implementation and the overall primary target to limit global warming to 1.5-2°C.

Early 2021 is the deadline for the first updated NDCs.

Almost all Paris agreement parties submitted their first NDCs by early 2017. Their initial individual ambitions have been collectively judged nowhere near enough. The latest set of NDCs are pivotal to close the gap between the 2°C target and current direction.

The story so far

As of 18 November, 12 countries had submitted updated NDCs, covering the current producers of a mere 2.8% of global emissions. Seven countries will not submit, or have merely restated, the NDCs they produced last time – Australia, Japan, Russia and New Zealand are among the culprits.

This leaves 168 parties who submitted NDCs previously who have yet to offer up their revised contributions.

This bleak picture is made gloomier by the #NDCsWeWant scorecard of the World Wildlife Fun (WWF). Only three of the countries that have so far put forward updated NDCs have been awarded the top grade, judged as in line with the 1.5-2°C target.

While it’s great to see Moldova, Rwanda and Suriname make the best progress expected of them, these nations only account for <0.45% of global emissions.

Recent long-term carbon neutral and net zero pledges by China, Japan and South Korea are big steps though. Additionally, once the current resident of the White House is replaced by President-elect Joe Biden, the US will return to the Paris Climate Agreement. Together, the US and China contribute c.43% of the world’s global emissions, making these developments rather important.

Yet the science shows – and environmental groups say – more urgency is required, both on mitigation and adaptation. In 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said a 0.8-1.2°C rise had already happened. In July 2020, the World Meteorological Institute estimated there was a 20% chance of seeing a 1.5°C rise in temperatures in at least one year by 2024.

In the first NDCs, developing countries proved more aware of the need for adaptation to climate change as well as mitigation plans. If Norway’s updated NDC is indicative, there’s a significant risk that most developed countries will again fail to submit adaptation plan details.

What of the UK? Well, the largely rehashed monetary pledges contained within the recent 10 point climate plan aren’t promising.

Banning all sales of petrol and diesel cars by 2030 and hybrids shortly after is significant and as advocated by the UK Climate Assembly. Alok Sharma’s emphasis in his address ahead of the UN Climate Summit on adaptation plans suggests the UK will address this in their updated NDC too.

A blog by the director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) Richard Black explained that for various reasons – summarised simply here: Brexit, bogs and cows’ farts – a new emissions reduction target of 64% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, it would be basically the same as their previous target.

The political pressure is on the UK as COP26 hosts and with the EU set to cut emissions much more over the next decade for an increased 2030 target. A recently published WWF-commissioned study calls for that new target to be at least a 72% cut

If this year is to end with a glimmer of hope for the world, we must see at the virtual UN climate summit the UK, EU, Canada, China and many other Paris Agreement parties announce greater ambitions in their updated NDCs.

Without sufficient ambitious pledges announced on 12 December, especially from developed nations, there is a serious danger that the sprint to Glasgow will look more like a pedestrian stroll, or worse, a lethargic trudge.

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