Regardless of when and how COP26 in Glasgow will be held, this year countries must submit more ambitious climate plans (or Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs) under the Paris Agreement. Any further delay in combatting climate change makes it almost impossible to limit average global warming to 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Countries agreed in Paris that they would update or communicate their NDCs well before the relevant COP session; the deadline was 9 February, before COP26 was postponed. The reality, however, is that only a handful of countries have submitted so far. Worse, the stated ambition of most new or updated NDCs is far from impressive. The Marshall Islands, for example, increased its economy-wide reduction target from 32% below 2010 levels by 2025 to “at least” 32% below by 2025. Japan has not increased its mitigation target at all in the NDC it submitted last month.

Opportunity to improve NDCs

But the postponing of COP26 gives countries more time to formulate a new or updated NDC. While a country might not necessarily need this time to set a more ambitious mitigation target, it could make good use of it to prepare an NDC that is effective.

Transparency, coherence and implementability are the characteristics of an effective NDC – that is, whether it can be achieved irrespective of its level of ambition. This is, in brief, the key message of a new special issue of the journal Climate Policy, which comprises eight papers prepared by 27 experts from 13 different countries.

Transparency

NDCs are central to implementing the Paris Agreement, but their limited transparency puts the effectiveness of the NDC model as a whole under pressure: it will be difficult to assess and compare countries’ progress towards achieving their NDCs because they are too dissimilar, qualitative and conditional. What’s more, UNFCCC mechanisms lack the teeth to ensure that NDCs are implemented.

Taking conditionality as an example, the special issue reveals that 136 NDCs are conditional on one or more types of support (i.e. capacity building, finance and/or technology transfer). However, in many cases it is difficult to discern whether a contribution is partly or fully conditional, or whether the country simply views the provision of support as desirable. The most frequent condition is capacity building. However, capacity building needs identified in the NDCs lack specificity. For example, almost 60% of stated capacity building needs do not mention a sector for which the need exists. The next round of developing countries’ NDCs must be more concrete and quantitative, and thus more transparent, on the support countries need to implement their NDCs.

Coherence

Developing countries’ NDCs often aim to strike a balance between taking adequate climate action and meeting their broader development objectives. Coherence between climate action and measures aimed at sustainable development increase overall effectiveness and efficiency, especially in times when resources are scarce and time is short.

However, priorities defined in the NDCs of small island developing states (SIDS) appear limited to a narrow range of climate-sensitive sectors, rather than those sectors that feature most in SIDS’ broader development plans. Governance and institutions, education, health, and land-use planning determine the conditions that can make communities vulnerable in the first place, and which matter in making climate change adaptation effective. There is still much to gain here – but developing policy coherence takes time, as it requires a range of diverse stakeholders to work, plan and act together.

Implementability

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. An NDC can look great on paper, but if it cannot be implemented, it does nothing to prevent dangerous climate change. For developing nations and emerging economies in particular, the process of preparing and implementing NDCs presents challenges in terms of political support; financial, human and technical resources; and analytical capabilities. There is a need for developed countries to provide support to developing countries in these areas. As mentioned, the implementation of most developing-country NDCs is indeed conditional on support.

While support in general might help to increase equity among countries, the amount of financial support requested by developing countries for NDC implementation far exceeds existing funding pledges. It even exceeds the committed annual US$ 100 billion of climate finance. Clearly this puts NDC implementability under pressure: without support, many conditional pledges may not be implemented.

Ambition alone is not enough

While global emissions are temporarily reduced because of the COVID-19 crisis, this is unlikely to last. Countries therefore need to put forward ambitious NDCs this year if we are to prevent a crisis with even larger and more widespread implications than the pandemic we currently face.

But raising the ambition of NDCs alone is not sufficient. Effectiveness is a key complement to ambition: an increase in NDC ambition is hardly useful if this ambition cannot be achieved effectively. To ensure effective climate action, NDCs also need to be more transparent, coherent and implementable.