Encyclopedia of Sustainability in Higher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho

Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) and Sustainable Development

  • Emma ThorntonEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-63951-2_284-1


Climate negotiations Paris Climate Agreement Sustainable development Climate change Mitigation Adaptation 


The Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) are the foundation of the Paris Agreement (WRI n.d.). They represent the voluntary national post-2020 climate action commitments that Parties intended to take and communicate to the United Nations (UN) Climate Change Secretariat under the 2015 Paris Agreement (WRI n.d.; Levin et al. 2015; World Bank Group 2016; Clemencon 2016). Each country developed its own commitment to combatting climate change, according to its own unique circumstances, making each INDC “nationally determined” (Levin et al. 2015). The pledges are voluntary and demonstrate a wide variety of methodologies and baselines (Clemencon 2016). When the INDCs were devised in 2015, their legal status was yet to be solidified, which made them “intended” (Levin et al. 2015). They become binding Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) when a Party ratifies the Paris Agreement (World Bank Group 2016). These INDCs collectively “contribute” towards reaching the global goal of less than 2 °C warming compared to the preindustrial baseline (Levin et al. 2015).

Simply put, the INDCs are the method by which countries communicate internationally on their climate policies and address emissions reduction and adaptation strategies, thereby creating “a constructive feedback loop” on the global scale (WRI n.d.). The concept behind INDCs is a way to commit into writing the mitigation and adaptation strategies that each nation must take to sustainably develop in the face of climate change (World Bank Group 2016).

INDCs which are ambitious, transparent, and equitable present an opportunity for individual nations to stand out and demonstrate leadership and political commitment (WRI n.d.; Levin et al. 2015). They aim to spark investment, new technologies, and innovation to create a shift towards sustainable development and a low-carbon future (Levin et al. 2015).


The Paris Climate Agreement was adopted by 196 Parties under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in December 2015 during the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) (Rogelj et al. 2016; UNFCCC 2019). This monumental global Agreement strives to limit global warming to 2 °C or less above preindustrial levels, with a further ambition to keep warming below 1.5 °C, in an effort to mitigate the threats caused by climate change; create common but differentiated mitigation commitments between countries so as to safeguard equity; and ensure transparent monitoring and reporting of emissions (Clemencon 2016; Levin et al. 2015; WRI n.d.). In order to achieve these goals, Article 4, paragraph 2 of the Paris Agreement calls upon Member Parties to create and communicate voluntary emissions reductions targets detailed by Member Parties to COP21, called the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) (Clemencon 2016; Levin et al. 2015; UNFCCC 2019).

How the INDCs Were Created?

The INDCs were to be drafted for the 2015 COP21 in Paris, after which they were adopted (Levin et al. 2015). The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement was a breakthrough in the climate negotiations after years of deadlock, as it represented a shift in the way nations viewed their approach to solving the climate change crisis (Clemencon 2016). Previously, under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol for which negotiations began in 1992 in Rio, both developing and developed countries were required to limit their emissions equally, though emissions reductions targets were binding for developed countries only (Chasek et al. 2017).

When the INDCs were designed, each Party was entitled to take its own approach to creating its unique INDC in the spirit of common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR) (WRI n.d.). This resulted in documents which differ greatly from country to country (Clemencon 2016). In developing their INDCs, Parties had the option of taking one of two approaches: (1) outlining specific mitigation strategies and (2) specifying a desired outcome of national action (Levin et al. 2015). The Regional Technical Dialogues on INDCs, hosted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and UNFCCC in 2014–2015, recommended that the Parties use data and technical analysis, including current and projected emissions, to inform their INDCs (Levin et al. 2015). This is distinct from the legally binding Kyoto Protocol because it is the first time that each country created a voluntary, nationally determined obligation, or commitment to combat climate change with an emphasis on consensus-building. In the Paris Agreement, there is no real division between developed and developing nations (Chasek et al. 2017).

Transitioning INDCs to NDCs

The INDCs are “intended” because they were created in anticipation of the Paris Agreement (WRI n.d.). These commitments turn into NDCs when a country formally ratifies and joins the Paris Agreement (WRI n.d.; Meinshausen n.d.). The Paris Agreement entered into force on November 4, 2016, which is 30 days after the date that 55 Parties (constituting 55% of the global greenhouse gas emissions) submitted their ratifications. Parties are invited to communicate their first NDC prior to ratification (UNFCCC 2019), and countries are expected to submit to the UNFCCC Secretariat an updated NDC every 5 years (WRI n.d.). Each new submission, all of which are public in the NDC registry on the UNFCCC Secretariat’s website, must represent a progression upwards from that Party’s last commitment (UNFCCC 2019).

At COP23 and 24 in 2017–2018 the Global Stocktake (GST), with negotiations known as the Talanoa Dialogue, was initiated. Every 5 years starting in 2023, the GST will encourage countries to prepare new NDCs and increase their ambitions and long-term targets (UNFCCC 2019). The implementation of the GST is one of the major achievements of COP21 (Kinley 2017).

Select Components

Many sectors are touched upon in the mitigation, adaptation, and financing aspects of the INDCs, including energy, agriculture, transport, environment, urban, water, and disaster risk management (World Bank Group 2016; UNFCCC 2019). The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) published briefing papers on sectoral implementation of the NDCs, including recommendations. In its overview, GIZ notes that in order to best implement NDCs, action takes place primarily at a sectoral level. The most commonly covered sectors are energy, agriculture, and mitigation. Mitigation is an obvious inclusion since its very definition in this context is reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, a major focus of the Paris Agreement and an essential way to tackle the root cause of climate change. The energy sector retains great importance, considering over half of GHG emissions come from this sector. Agriculture is another major source of GHG emissions, but more information is needed on how to make and enforce low-carbon strategies (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) 2017).

The strategies outlined in the NDCs are either conditional or unconditional. Conditional NDCs, which are common in developing countries, are contingent on external funding for implementation (Helland et al. 2018). These distinctions represent the CBDRs of different countries outlined under the Paris Agreement, as developing countries are usually those which have not contributed to climate change but tend to suffer disproportionately from its harm (Zyl et al. 2018).

Sustainable Development

According to the UNFCCC, emissions reductions should be done in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication (UNFCCC 2019). Indeed, 2015 marked both the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the completion of the Paris Agreement on climate change (Ari 2017). Sustainable development is defined by the monumental Brundtland Report as development which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland et al. 1987). This concept is better characterized as ecologically sound development than as sustained growth or change (Lele 1991), since the limits to global development are enshrined in the limits of ecological and energy resources (Brundtland et al. 1987).

International cooperation is necessary to successfully ensure sustainable development (Brundtland et al. 1987). In light of this, nations around the world came together in 2015 to develop the Sustainable Development Goals. While explicit connections between the SDGs and the Paris Agreement are not strong, the two international agreements remain interconnected nonetheless (Ari 2017). Each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is connected to ten or more climate activities in the original INDCs. The SDGs with the greatest presence (according to how many INDC climate activities correspond to the SDG) in the original INDCs are (7) Affordable and Clean Energy, (15) Life on Land, (2) No Hunger, and (11) Sustainable Cities and Communities, in that order. SDG 13 (Climate Action) is inherently present in all NDCs, and 66% of climate action is related to adaptation measures (compared to 9% mitigation and 22% combination mitigation and adaptation). In terms of SDG 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy), 31% of INDC climate action commitments in this space are quantifiable and therefore measurable (German Development Institute n.d.).

Adaptation and Mitigation

The (I)NDCs are the way that countries communicate internally and globally on their climate policies through adaptation and mitigation targets (WRI n.d.). Climate change mitigation refers to combatting the issue through GHG emissions reductions, and broad policy categories include switching to renewables, increasing energy efficiency and reducing energy demand, and sequestering atmospheric carbon (IPCC 2007). A sustainable energy future would require all countries to lower their emissions, requiring a dramatic shift in the way we see energy: fossil fuels to renewable sources, along with carbon capture and storage (CSS) (World Bank 2009). Other methods of reducing GHG emissions in different sectors include policies which promote active transport, including walking and bicycling; sustainable agriculture policies, including those that decrease meat consumption; and reforestation and forest growth land-use policies (Dellasala and Goldstein 2018). One such conditional mitigation method is reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+), by which developing countries are compensated for sustainable management of forests and reduction of forest-related carbon emissions (Larson et al. 2013).

Climate change adaptation refers to an “adjustment in ecological, social, or economic systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli and their effects or impacts” (IPCC 2007). While 189 countries included mitigation targets in their initial or subsequent (I)NDCs, only 140 included adaptation targets (World Bank Group 2016). Much of adaptation is reactive, and adaptations may amplify the impacts of climate change (or example, air conditioning). Any adaptation has the potential to impose unintended consequences on natural and social systems (Adger et al. 2005; Nelson 2011; Godfray et al. 2010). Therefore, successful adaptation measures are effective, efficient, and equitable, taking into account sustainable development, especially for developing countries (Adger et al. 2005).

Common but Differentiated Responsibilities

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol asked each country to share an equal part of carbon emissions reduction. Unfortunately, this strategy led to a disproportionate burden on developing countries (Clemencon 2016), especially since developed countries are responsible for the majority of atmospheric carbon emissions related to energy, while developing countries are hardest hit by climate change (World Bank 2009). Learning from this, the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) was determined so that Parties from developed countries must provide financial resources for Parties from developing countries (Zhang and Pan 2016). The shared responsibility of mitigation is determined based on development level, including social, economic, and technical capabilities (Ari 2017). Since each country faces unique challenges, each INDC was designed such that every Party could determine its own fair contributions (Levin et al. 2015). The Paris Agreement was a shift to a universal treaty, so that all countries, not just the developed ones, made commitments (Chasek et al. 2017).

Climate Finance

The issue of finance is widely debated. Nonetheless, coming out of COP21 Parties agreed to focus on the reporting and assessment of financial support from developed countries to developing countries (Kinley 2017). Out of 160 INDCs, 122 include information on financing. Finance is linked to mitigation, adaptation, technology transfer, and capacity-building (Zhang and Pan 2016). The total self-reported cost of the INDCs is $5,119 billion USD by 50 countries, while the International Finance Corporation Climate Investment Opportunity Report finds that there are $23 trillion in emerging markets investment potential by 2030 (World Bank Group 2016).

Business support is a necessary part of moving to a low-carbon economy: the world needs not only the financial resources in the private sector but also that field’s technical and organizational skills (Geels et al. 2017). Market approaches to tacking climate change mitigation were codified in Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, thereby creating a pathway of emissions reductions for industries and businesses (Kinley 2017). Some believe that market mechanisms such as a carbon cap-and-trade program or carbon tax are essential in the transition to lower emissions without risking social and economic disruptions (World Bank 2009).

The global abatement costs of meeting the unconditional commitments outlined in the original INDCs are estimated to be $135 billion by 2030. In order for many developing countries to meet their primary and successive (I)NDC goals, conditional financing is necessary. Implementation of these conditional commitments could add another $40 to 55 billion (Hof et al. 2017). Under CBDR, developing nations are expected to achieve their “fair share” of the mitigation effort in their own contexts, which can require pursuing renewable energy options which lead to net savings. After this point, further reductions necessitate, and are therefore conditional upon, international financing (Zyl et al. 2018).


The challenges we must overcome in the face of climate change have inspired “unprecedented” innovations and collaborations in technology (Jiang et al. 2017). In light of this, technology is a major component of many of the NDCs. Following the technology transfer commitments mandated by the UNFCCC in 1992 (Zhou 2019), the Paris Agreement proposed a climate change technology development and transfer mechanism for which policy and financial support were advocated (Jiang et al. 2017). As the world’s population grows in number and affluence, leaders must find a way to feed even those of the lowest economic status in an environmentally and socially sustainable way (Godfray et al. 2010; Jiang et al. 2017). Technology might be the way to support sustainable growth. According to some, technology is the link between humans and nature. Many believe that advancements in technology are what we need to focus on to ensure sustainable development (Anado et al. 2016). Technology and innovation need to be made accessible to people in developing countries, and technology development should pay attention to environmental factors (Brundtland et al. 1987). However, others caution that this approach is too simplistic. In Limits to Growth, the authors argue that the most dangerous reaction to the global climate model is technological optimism, since it is a band-aid on the root of the problem: the illusion of a possibility of unlimited growth in a finite system (Meadows and Club of Rome 1972). In any event, global development and sharing of technology based on cooperation is essential in combatting climate change (Jiang et al. 2017).

Implications of the INDCs

Energy, Emissions, and GDP Growth

Climate science research, particularly that of the carbon cycle, demonstrates that the total carbon we can allow to enter the atmosphere is finite (Matthews and Caldeira 2008), and that over two-thirds of allowable atmospheric carbon levels before reaching the 2 °C threshold have already been emitted (UNFCCC Secretariat 2016). Indeed, in order to regain geologic stability, we must eventually reach net zero emissions (Matthews and Caldeira 2008). Unfortunately, it is difficult to get a clear estimate on how INDCs and their subsequent policies will affect warming, since many commitments lack the details necessary to create an analysis (Rogelj et al. 2016). Analyses conducted in 2016 predict that without action, the world will reach 4 °C warming by 2100, and even if the INDC commitments are met, the world will still experience warming close to or exceeding 3 °C by 2100 (Rogelj et al. 2016; Clemencon 2016). Unfortunately, the first INDC commitments are not strong enough to reach even our 2030 goals, as global GHG emissions show no sign of peaking (UN Environment n.d.). There are competing goals in energy policy: economic growth, energy access for the poor, energy security, and environmental protection. The overarching objective is to produce affordable, reliable energy which increases economic growth for all people without compromising the environment (World Bank 2009). In order to reach global goals, Parties should increase the commitments in their future NDCs and follow-up with strong national policies. Non-state and subnational actors should also focus on their own emissions reductions (UN Environment n.d.). This is especially important given the IPCC Report on 1.5°, which demonstrates the need for a rapid, increased effort to limit warming to below 1.5 °C to best ensure that the world wins the fights against climate change and poverty in the context of sustainable development (IPCC 2018).

Future Effects

As of April 2016, 161 INDCs were received by the UNFCCC Secretariat, covering 189 Parties and 99% of global emissions, according to a synthesis report on the aggregate effects of INDCs which was originally prepared by the Secretariat in November 2015 and updated in May 2016 (UNFCCC Secretariat 2016).

While the Paris Agreement and the INDCs represent an important step towards global emissions reductions, there are some aspects which could be improved upon. For example, the Paris Agreement fails to make legally binding emission targets, create specific financial support mechanisms, determine liability for loss and damage, or address connected international trade policies (Clemencon 2016). New fiscal policies and innovation spurred from the INDCs can create new opportunities, but this cannot happen without impetus (UN Environment n.d.).

Final Remarks

In 2018, the IPCC heightened the significance of meeting national emissions targets when it released its Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 C focused on “the impacts of global warming of 1.5 C above preindustrial levels and related global GHG emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty” (IPCC 2018).

While the INDCs are a step along the path to a more sustainable global future, the Paris Agreement and therefore the NDCs are nonbinding and nonenforceable. Indeed, after its implementation, more than one country has threatened to exit the agreement. However, even if governments in the international community fail to act, other actors work to combat climate change and hold their countries accountable. For example, young people have inspired media-attracting grassroots activism. In Sweden, 15-year-old Greta Thunberg began taking school strikes on Fridays in protest of climate inaction, which has sparked similar protests globally. In the USA, a group of young students legally challenged the US government’s unsafe policies, which the students claim violate their constitutional rights (Juliana v. The United States) (Taylor 2018). The inspiring action of this young generation brings hope that countries will take strong action on the commitments they made in their initial INDCs and beyond.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Northeastern UniversityBostonUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Madhavi Venkatesan
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of EconomicsNortheastern UniversityBostonUSA