Five years on; what are the NDCs and why are they important?

UN Development Programme
4 min readDec 12, 2020
The objective of Costa Rica´s NDC is to focus its climate change actions on increasing society’s resilience to the impact of climate change and strengthening the country’s capacity for low-emission development in the long-term. Photo: UNDP Costa Rica/Priscilla Mora Flores

The Paris Agreement in 2015 was a landmark in the fight against climate change.

After years of negotiating, every one of the 196 countries, plus the European Union, all Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), agreed on a set of principles to curb greenhouse gas emissions and tackle climate change head on.

The aim of the Paris Agreement is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ensure that global temperatures don’t rise more than 2C above pre-industrial levels this century, and ultimately pursue a scenario where temperature rise remains below 1.5C.

Not too complicated so far, but what are NDCs?

NDC stands for a Nationally Determined Contribution. For the Paris Agreement goals to be achieved, every country needs to play its part.

Because countries have different circumstances, resources and abilities, the agreement was designed so each country defines their own pledges, in terms of what they can contribute to the 2030 Agenda. These country pledges are the NDCs.

Each country produced a document outlining these contributions and how they will be achieved.

Nearly all the NDCs include a target to reduce CO2 emissions by a certain amount over a given time. Most of them also highlight how climatic changes will affect their country, and how they intend to adapt to these changes.

What’s changed since 2015?

The stakes have becoming progressively higher. The last decade was the hottest in history. Critical new research has also emerged since 2015 demonstrating the potential devastating impacts of a 1.5o rise in temperature.

This year, the devastation of COVID-19 has made the whole world more vulnerable to shocks and changes and illustrated the potentially severe effect of global crises.

A critical aspect of the Paris Agreement is that every five years, countries are required to update their national pledges with more ambitious targets.

We have seen the necessity of this in 2020 more than ever.

UNDP’s Climate Promise

UNDP’s Climate Promise is the world’s largest programme of support to countries on NDCs working with 115 countries and more than 35 partners. Around 70 percent of countries have indicated that they are likely to specifically strengthen their targets for reducing greenhouse gases to become more ambitious, and 98 percent are likely to strengthen their pledges on adaptation.

And as advocates of ambitious climate action, it is only right that UNDP practices what we preach. We are, along with the whole UN system, working on ‘greening the blue’, a sustainability initiative designed to reduce our carbon footprint as much as possible.

UNDP’s Moonshot initiative aims to reduce greenhouse emissions from operations and facilities 25 percent by 2025 and half by 2030, while ensuring that programming and operations are socially and environmentally sustainable.

So if every country achieves their NDC targets, the Paris Agreement will be a success and we will avert the worst effects of climate change?

Unfortunately, it’s not that straightforward.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has underlined the importance of keeping global temperature rise below 1.5C. It highlighted the severe impact our planet and its people would face in a world that is 2C warmer than pre-industrial levels.

At the UN Climate Action Summit in 2019, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres cited 77 countries that have pledged to go carbon neutral by 2050, an essential objective for all countries if we are to prevent global warming from reaching catastrophic levels of 1.5C degrees and above.

Yet a 2018 report from the United Nations Environment Programme indicates that if all countries met their current NDC targets, we would still only be one third of the way towards reaching the Paris Agreement. Two new authoritative reports from the Global Climate Report and the Production Gap Report 2020 spell out how close we are to climate catastrophe: 2020 is on track to be one of the three warmest years on record, while countries plan to produce more than double the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with a 1.5C degrees.

It’s for this reason that the Paris Agreement has a “ratchet” mechanism in place. It was not expected that countries would meet the global goals in their first round of NDCs, and this is why they are expected to revise and update with greater ambition each time

How big a mess are we in?

No need to panic, all is not lost.

Public awareness around the absolute necessity to deal with climate change has skyrocketed. This has been driven by grassroots movements such as Fridays For Future which has inspired millions of protestors in some 215 countries.

Extreme weather — raging bushfires, rapidly melting polar ice caps and ever more severe hurricanes — are seen almost daily on the news and provide a constant reminder.

On top of this, COVID-19 has dialed in a very loud wake-up call on what a global crisis can do.

Governments and business are beginning to listen.

Where to now?

Despite the devastation caused by COVID-19, the world has been given an unprecedented opportunity to restructure economies and make them more equitable, resilient and climate responsive.

The NDCs can be the cornerstone for a green recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. They offer a blueprint that can spur economic growth, transformation through technology, and job creation. They can address social inequalities that must be tackled if we are to recover better from the devastation of COVID-19.

Editor’s Note: If you enjoyed reading this blog, check out our latest report 20 insights on NDCs in 2020.