Twenty-three years after signing the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris (30 November –11 December 2015) aims to provide an ambitious global agreement to guide future efforts in this area. Stakes are high, and collective action to avoid abrupt climate change will require structural changes in energy systems, land-use, and in societies’ development pathways as a whole. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report, to have a 50% probability of limiting the global temperature warming to 2°C, CO2 cumulative emissions should stay below 820 GtC (IPCC, 2013). Considering the amount of CO2 already emitted, and business-as-usual yearly emissions rates, we are expected to exceed this limit within 30 years (Stern, 2007). This means that the international community should aim at achieving global carbon neutrality sometime between 2055 and 2070.

In order to deviate from business-as-usual scenarios and avoid an abrupt change in Earth’s climate, member states will propose emissions reduction pathways ahead of the Conference. The Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) present voluntary country’s commitments towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions that will be presented before negotiations start in December and will serve as a basis for it. There is a high degree of flexibility, and some of the elements expected to be included on the proposals are:

  • Reference point: Countries should present measurable information on the reference point for the proposal, as a base year (also known as baseline). For example, the Kyoto Protocol stipulated the year 1990 as the base year, so its reduction targets referred to 1990’s emissions levels. Since there is not a fixed baseline for the INDCs, the choice may vary across countries, which are able to pick a year with the most appropriate emissions rate and benefit from it.
  • Time frames: When does the implementation from a country start? Countries may choose a specific year for achieving the reduction goals, when they will start the implementation process and present more than one milestone.
  • Scope and coverage:  Which greenhouse gases are covered by the proposal (e.g. CO2, CH4, N2O, HFCs, PFCs, SF6, NF3)? Which sectors will be targeted and how? Options are: energy; agriculture and land-use, industry and forestry, among others. Does the proposal consider only domestic emissions, or does it allows for compensation through the exchange or carbon credits?
  • Planning processes: Member states should present how they intend to implement the proposal. Options may include national consultations, establishment of legal frameworks, review processes and long-term strategies.
  • Assumptions and methodology: This section includes estimates and accounting mechanisms for national greenhouse gas emissions.

Submitting the INDCs is just the first step of a long process. At COP21 and beyond, they will be evaluated together to see if the aggregated result meets the ultimate goal established by the UNFCCC’s Article 2: to stabilize “greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”(UNFCCC 1992). In practical terms, this has been translated into limiting the increase in global temperatures by 2oC, and all INDCs, together, are expected to provide the necessary reduction in GHG emissions coherent with this target. Therefore, countries should show during negotiations that their proposals are ambitious and fair.


  • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, WG1, 2013. 5th Assessment Summary for Policymakers

  • Stern, Nicholas (2007). The Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

  • United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), 1992.

Cassia Moraes is the Project Lead for Campaigns at SDSN Youth. She has been working with international cooperation on environmental issues in the public, private and third sectors. She has worked as an advisor on Sustainable Development at the Brazilian Permanent Mission to the United Nations. During her MPA in Development Practice at SIPA, she worked as a Graduate Assistant at the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), and helped support the launch of SDSN Youth. All opinions expressed on the blog are the opinions of the author and not of SDSN Youth.