The signatories of the Paris Agreement have to submit more ambitious decarbonisation plans by early November. We take a look at how committed they are to reducing transport CO2.
By Hans Michael Kloth
Finally, during the third all-nighter in a row, the breakthrough came. In the catacombs of the airport-turned-convention centre in Le Bourget on the northern outskirts of Paris, lawyers huddled from 2 a.m. to comb through 29 articles of fiendishly complex text. As morning broke, translators went to work. In the afternoon, deft diplomacy forestalled a surging last-minute drama over a single contentious word.
At 7:16 p.m. on Saturday, 12 December 2015, France’s foreign minister took the stage. Only barely controlling his emotions, Laurent Fabius announced the almost unimaginable: nearly all the planet’s sovereign nations had found a common way forward to stop climate change. “We are now at the end of one path, and without doubt at the beginning of another”, Fabius exclaimed. “The world is holding its breath and counting on all of us.”
Six years later, the world is still holding its breath, and it is still counting. Much has started to move since the historic moment in Paris. But will it be enough?
Almost all recent analyses agree that the international community is not yet on a path to achieve the goal agreed in Paris: to limit global warming to 1.5° Celsius above the temperature level of the pre-industrial era. “The pledges by governments to date – even if fully achieved – fall well short of what is required to bring global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions to net-zero by 2050 and give the world an even chance of limiting the global temperature rise”, warns the International Energy Agency.
A nifty mechanism
Yet the Paris Agreement created a nifty mechanism to nudge countries towards sustained action. It not only obliges them to draw up national decarbonisation plans and submit them to the United Nations. The treaty also requires signatories to repeat this exercise every five years, and with more stringent measures.
In the words of the Paris Agreement, successive plans “will represent a progression beyond the Party’s then current nationally determined contribution and reflect its highest possible ambition”. In simpler language: countries must continuously up their game, and to the max.
The second round of those “Nationally Determined Contributions”, known for short as NDCs, was due in 2020. By the deadline – extended to 30 July 2021 because of the Covid-19 pandemic – only 110 countries had submitted new or updated NDCs. Latecomers will not be turned down (although left out of the UNFCCC’s “synthesis report” that will take stock of progress) – indeed, fourteen more NDCs have since come in. And what the lagging nations bring to the table can make a considerable difference for the overall picture. That will be reviewed in Glasgow in November at COP26 (short for “26th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change”), hosted by the United Kingdom.
Eyes on transport
Many eyes will be on transport. Almost one-quarter of all CO2 emissions from fuel combustion comes from transport activity (see chart). Half a century after the first oil shock, transport remains more than 90% dependent on oil. Increasing demand for mobility drives transport CO2 emissions further up: the International Transport Forum projects global transport to more than double by 2050, with traffic emissions rising by 16% compared to 2015 – even if existing commitments to decarbonise transport will be fully implemented.
How, then, does transport figure in countries decarbonisation commitments? An analysis of the first round of NDCs was hardly encouraging. The 2018 report “Transport CO2 and the Paris Climate Agreement” found that 8 out of 10 NDCs evoked transport somehow, but only 6 in 10 included transport measures, and a disappointing 10% set targets.
Even those first NDCs which acknowledge transport merely listed “CO2 reduction ambitions, but not yet clear pathways or measures”. And the quality of the measures, the report concluded, “often … remain vague at best” and “in some cases, the mitigation potential of identified ‘measures’ is contestable”.
Rough but illuminating
Five years on, things look ambivalent at best from a transport decarbonisation perspective. On the positive side, nearly all signatory countries now recognise transport in some shape or form in their current NDCs. The Transport NDC Tracker of the International Tramsport Forum clocked in at 94% on this measure on 27 September 2021. Only eleven countries still ignore transport, and of these nine still have to submit second-round NDCs – so it is still possible to reach 99% overall by November.
Those countries which mention transport in their NDCs do so 33 times on average. This number might be interpreted as awareness for the role of transport in climate change mitigation, but it is misleading, for 14 countries mention transport only once. Another 11 do so twice. Two nations drive up the average: Colombia’s NDC includes 112 references to transport; that of South Sudan 117.
On this level, transport mentions in NDCs are illuminating but only the roughest of indicators for decarbonisation ambitions. What about concrete measures to decarbonise transport? Five years ago, 60% of the parties to the Paris Agreement listed at least some in their first NDC submissions. At the end of September 2021, the share has increased to over three-quarters (77%). Depending on how many outstanding second-round NDC will include transport-related measures, that share could still go up to as much as 92%.
The gold standard of decarbonisation
How effective these measures can be will require a thorough qualitative assessment. A first glance reveals a wide range of proposed actions – some bordering on the trivial, others well-aimed and with a solid evidence base like the decarbonisation measures listed in the Transport Climate Action Directory.
The gold standard in decarbonisation policy is concrete CO2 reduction targets, however: benchmarks against which the real impact of interventions can be measured and which help steer ambitions towards real results. Yet targets can also be a two-edged sword, as missing goals may cause political backlash. So they need to be developed with great care, based on a good understanding of the complexities involved.
For those reasons, it was not so surprising that only a smattering of first NDCs contained concrete quantitative targets for cutting transport CO2 emissions. Many will find it disappointing, however, that five years on the share of NDCs with transport CO2 reduction targets has grown by only four percentage points, from 10 to 14%. So progress for the most important action item has been much less than for the other two indicators, which grew by 13 (mentions) and 17 (measures) percentage points over the same period.
Several dozen second-round NDCs are still due for COP26. There and then, the world will get a better sense of whether it still needs to hold its breath, and on whom it can count.