Why ethics requires that Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) identify: (1) tonnes of CO2eq emissions reduced rather than a percent reduction from a baseline year, (b) the temperature limit and associated carbon budget that the INDC is seeking to achieve, (c) the equity principles that the nation relied on to assure the justice of its INDC, and (d) For Annex 1 countries, ghg emissions in 1990, the common baseline year.

INDC implications aubrey

COP-21 INDCs Compared With Carbon Budgets to achieve a warming limit of: (a)  3 to 4 degrees C, (b) a 50% probability of 2 degrees C, (c) a 66% probability of 2 degrees C , and, (d)  1.5 degrees C.  Global Commons Institute, Aubrey Meyer.

I. Introduction.

The above chart by the Global Commons Institute compares INDCs filed by nations with the UNFCCC before Paris with the reductions that would be needed by the entire world to live within carbon budgets that may not be exceeded if warming will be limited to;  between 3 degrees and 4 degrees C, a 50% chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees C, a 66% chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees C, and a reasonable chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C.

A quick glance at the chart makes it clear that the INDCs that have been submitted by nations so far makes it very unlikely that the international community will be successful in limiting warming to 2 degrees C and virtually impossible to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C unless nations make significant increases in the ambition of their INDCs.

This entry argues that because nations have clear ethical duties to make national commitments on ghg emissions reductions consistent with their fair share of safe global emissions, they have duties to provide clear and transparent information about how their INDCs satisfies the nation’s ethical duty to limit its ghg emissions to levels which are sufficiently ambitious and fair so that citizens around the world can evaluate whether a nation has satisfied its ethical obligations. Furthermore, because national INDCs that have been submitted to the UNFCCC do not contain crucial information that is necessary to evaluate the nation’s compliance with its ethical obligations, nations must submit additional information to allow citizens around the world to  evaluate national compliance with its ethical obligations to prevent dangerous climate change.

All developed countries and some non-Annex 1 countries have submitted INDCs that have made commitments on the basis of percent reductions below a baseline year such as 1990 or 2005 by a specific date such as 2030, 2050, etc.

Although nations were encouraged by the Lima COP-20  decision in 2014  to include in their INDC submissions information that was transparent as to  why their INDC was sufficiently ambitious and fair, few nations have done this.

As of October 8th, 2015, 121 INDC submissions have been filed with the UNFCCC, reflecting 148 countries (including the European Union member states), and covering around 86% of global emissions in 2010 (excluding land use and forest emissions) and 87% of global population.) Most nations have not submitted information that is useful in determining the adequacy of the ambition or fairness of the INDCs submitted.

II. Why nations have a strong ethical duty to be clearly transparent on how they satisfied their ethical obligations to reduce its ghg emissions to the nation’s fair share of safe global emissions. 

A strong ethical case can be made that if nations have duties to limit their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, a conclusion that follows both as a matter of ethics and justice and several international legal principles including, among others, the “no harm principle,” and promises nations made in the 1992 UNFCCC to adopt policies and measures required to prevent dangerous anthropocentric interference with the climate system in accordance with equity and common but differentiated responsibilities, nations have a duty to clearly explain how their national ghg emissions reductions commitments arguably satisfy their ethical obligations to limit their ghg emissions to the nation’s fair share of safe global emissions.

Because information submitted by nations with their INDCs does not contain sufficient information to help evaluate the ethical acceptability of national INDCs, nations should submit additional information needed to evaluate a nation’s compliance with its ethical obligations to prevent dangerous climate change.

The ethical duty to clearly explain how a nation satisfied its ethical obligations for climate change follows from the ethical duty of nations to not harm others beyond their national boundary. Although nations could reasonably disagree on what equity frameworks should guide national commitments on ghg emissions, no nation can deny its responsibility to reduce its ghg emissions on the basis of equity and principles of distributive justice to levels that will prevent dangerous climate impacts around the world. Unless nations specifically identify the equity principles that have guided their ghg emissions reductions, and the assumptions about warming limits entailed by their INDC,  nations and citizens around the world who may be harmed by illigitmate uses of common pool resources have an insufficient factual basis to challenge the potentially unethical responses of nations to their ethical obligations.  From this it is clear that nations have a strong duty to be clear on how they satisfied their ethical responsibilities for climate change. Yet almost all INDCs submitted thus far have either no information or inadequate information on how the nation satisfied its ethical duties in regard to the sufficient ambition or the justice of its INDC.

III. The ethical basis for why national INDCs should specify; (a) the number of tons of ghg emissions that will be reduced by implementation of the INDC by a specific date, (b) the warming limit and associated carbon budget that the nation’s INDC is seeking to achieve in cooperation with other nations, (c) the equity principles assumed by the nation in determining the fairness of its INDC, and (d) for Annex 1 nations,  emissions reductions that will be achieved by the INDC from 1990, a common baseline year. 

Any national ghg emissions reduction commitment is implicitly a position on two ethical questions, namely, first, what safe atmospheric ghg concentration level the commitment is designed to achieve and, second, what equity framework or principles of distributive justice the INDC is based on. Although some nations have acknowledged their ethical duties to base their INDC on ethically justifiable criteria, almost all INDC submissions have not explained how specific emissions reductions commitments link to a specific desired atmospheric ghg concentration levels and its associated carbon budget that will provide some level of confidence that a warming limit will be achieved nor why their ghg emissions reductions commitment is fair as a matter of distributive justice.

In fact no nation has explained quantitatively how its commitment is related to an atmospheric carbon budget or a specific equity framework. In addition the information submitted with INDCs submitted so far make it virtually impossible to rigorously evaluate the adequacy of the INDC as a matter of ethics and justice.

Almost all INDCs that have been submitted thus far by developed nations commit to a percentage reduction in ghg emissions from a baseline year by a a stated year. Although some nations acknowledge that their climate policies should be guided by ethical principles, no nation has expressly explained quantitatively how their commitments were specifically guided by ethical principles.

Because the acceptability of an INDC is a matter of ethics and justice, and citizens need additional information about the INDC to be able to evaluate the ethical acceptability of the INDC, INDCs submitted should be supplemented by additional information because an INDC expressed as a percent reduction from a given baseline year by a certain future date does not reveal:

(a) the percentage of the global carbon budget that will be consumed by the nation’s emissions because a percentage reduction commitment does not say when the reductions will be achieved yet the speed with which the reductions are achieved will affect the tonnes of any remaining carbon budget with quicker reductions consuming less amounts of the available carbon budget while waiting until the end of the period to achieve the percent reduction committed to will consume much more of the remaining carbon budget;


(b) the carbon budget in gigatons of CO2eq that the INDC is seeking to achieve. Because different carbon budgets will provide different levels of confidence that warming will be limited to specific temperature increases and the amount of temperature increase that an INDC has implicitly deemed to be acceptable to the nation is an ethical issue at its core, the nation should be required to link the INDC to a specific carbon budget so that the ambition of the INDC can be evaluated through an ethical lens.


(c) the equity framework or principles assumed by the nation in determining how much of a global carbon budget should be allocated to the nation in establishing its INDC such as contraction and  convergence, ghg development rights, historical emissions responsibilities, or other principles of distributive justice.  Although reasonable people may disagree what equity framework is just, nations should be expected to expressly specify the equity framework or principles of  distributive justice they used in determining their INDC so that citizens around the world can evaluate claims about fairness made by a nation in setting its INDC.


(d) the fairness of the baseline year selected such as 1990. Some nations including the United States have selected baseline years such as 2005 which represents the year of its peak emissions, 13 years after the United States agreed in the 1992 UNFCCC to adopt policies and measures to prevent dangerous climate change that would return ghg emissions to levels that existed before 1992 by 2000. Although the international community could reasonably adopt different baseline years, ideally the baseline year should be consistent among nations so that citizens could more easily compare commitments and understand how a nation has taken responsibility for policies they adopted or failed to adopt after the nation agreed to adopt climate policies and measure in the 1992 UNFCCC. Although a strong case can be made that historical ghg emissions before 1990 should be considered in determining a nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, selecting a common baseline year such as 1990 would facilitate easier citizen comparison of national commitments while retaining the rights of nations to make arguments that historical ghg emissions should be considered in any equity framework.

For these reasons, ghg emissions reductions commitments in INDCs should be: (a) stated in tons of ghg emissions reductions rather then percent reductions  from a baseline year, (b) identify the temperature limit and its associated carbon budget that the INDC is seeking to achieve to satisfy its ethical responsibilities to prevent dangerous climate change, (c) identify the equity framework or principles a nation followed to assure that its ghg emissions reductions were fair and just, and (d) compute its ghg emissions reductions commitment from the baseline year of 1990.


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law