Chapter Guide Resource
Transparency about national commitments and performance is a critical element in the international effort to fight global warming. “The whole climate regime rests on transparency,” Pete Betts, the former lead negotiator for the UK and EU, told a 2021 press briefing in Glasgow, as reported by Carbon Brief.
Why is transparency so important?
Betts explained: “There are no penalties in the climate regime, there’s only naming and shaming… Having a functioning transparency regime is absolutely key to the whole system working.” Similarly, this transparency system was called “a feedback loop” in a 2022 report by the NDC Aspects, a European Union-funded think tank.
Plenty of material exists for journalists to investigate what their countries are doing and whether promises are being kept. This section will explain where to find such pledges.
Disclosure: An Evolving Framework
International negotiations have produced progressively greater transparency requirements. Essentially, they call on signatory governments to submit their commitments and make progress reports.
Creating international transparency standards hasn’t been easy, however. There are gaps. For example, the rules do not require reporting on fossil fuel subsidies. Negotiations on complicated details are continuing. (A report on the COP27 transparency discussions was prepared by TransGov, a research project backed by academics and the Dutch government.)
Nevertheless, more uniformity and detail lies ahead. Building on previous arrangements, the 2015 Paris Agreement created an “Enhanced Transparency Framework” (ETF). By the end of 2024, all countries are called on to submit reports under that framework. For more, read the UNFCCC’s June 2022 ETF Reference Manual.
So what does all this mean for reporters? Essentially, the current and forthcoming reports provide crucial starting points for holding governments accountable.
Now let’s get more specific on where to find things.
NDC: The Foundational Document
The core document describing each government’s voluntary pledges is known as the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). “Simply put, an NDC… is a climate action plan to cut emissions and adapt to climate impacts,” as explained by the UNFCCC page All About the NDCs.
All 194 parties to the Paris Agreement have submitted at least one NDC. (See the list of NDCs on the UNFCCC page.) Or find your country’s documents on the NDC Registry. There is also an RSS feed of the latest NDC filings.
What Do NDCs Cover?
There is variation in NDCs, but essentially they include:
- Targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
- Sector-specific mitigation targets.
- Plans for reaching the targets.
So, for example, Australia in June 2022 said it “is increasing the ambition of its 2030 target, committing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 43% below 2005 levels by 2030.” Targets for different emission types are provided in the NDCs.
There’s much more detail. For example, Australia promised “a $20 billion investment in Australia’s electricity grid to unlock greater penetration of renewable energy and accelerate decarbonisation of the grid.”
A Pocket Guide to NDCs, put together by the European Capacity Building Initiative (ECBI), walks through the history and features of NDCs.
Many NDCs are found wanting. In its 2022 State of the NDCs report, the World Resource Institute (WRI), an NGO based in Washington, DC, wrote: “Most new and updated NDCs are more transparent than the initial NDCs, but approximately 16 percent still lack crucial information to quantify emissions.” Twenty of them, WRI added, “still lack the information necessary to estimate the countries’ 2030 emissions.”
“While most NDCs now contain sector-specific policies and measures for mitigation, there are notable gaps in many NDCs, including in key sectors like forests, power and transport,” the WRI noted. In addition, only half of the NDCs detail what funding will be necessary to achieve emissions reductions goals, according to the WRI report.
Under the 2021 Glasgow Climate Pact, all countries were supposed to revisit and strengthen the targets in their NDCs in 2022. But only two-dozen countries did so in advance of COP27, held in Egypt in late 2022.
The COP27 Implementation Plan urged parties that have not yet communicated new or updated NDCs “to do so as soon as possible” in advance of the next meeting (COP28 will be held in Dubai in late November and early December 2023), and all parties were requested to revisit and strengthen 2030 targets in their NDCs as necessary by the end of 2023.
The next big round of NDCs will arrive in 2025 and are to be published at least nine months before COP30. Countries are ”encouraged” to look ahead to the five-year period, from 2031-2035. Some may include longer time horizons. So the time periods covered in the NDCs will likely vary.
Long-Term Strategies Also Submitted
There’s another document to check out, too, a long-term strategy plan that supplements the NDCs.
As described by the UNFCCC, “All parties should strive to formulate and communicate long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies.” These strategy documents usually provide more detail on how NDCs will be achieved. As of May 18, 2023, 62 countries have provided them.
National Adaptation Plans Created by Developing Countries
National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) are created by developing countries to identify medium- and long-term adaptation needs and strategies to address them. (Learn more and see “submitted NAPS” on the UNFCCC NAP website.)
Many countries receive support and assistance from the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), and the Green Climate Fund (GCF), according to a summary by the UNDP that also describes the process.
For an example, see a February 2021 NAP by Chad, its first. NAPs typically contain considerable information about national conditions.
Toby McIntosh is a senior advisor for GIJN’s Resource Center, which provides online resources to journalists worldwide. He was the editor of FreedomInfo.org, (2010-2017) a nonprofit website based in Washington, D.C. that covers international transparency laws. He was with Bloomberg BNA for 39 years and has filed numerous US Freedom of Information requests and has written about FOI policies worldwide. He is a steering committee member of FOIANet, a network of FOI advocates.