State of the Nationally Determined Contributions: Enhancing Adaptation Ambition

Executive Summary


  • The adaptation components of countries’ nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement are voluntary, and the agreement has not provided guidance for their development.
  • This working paper compares both the first and updated NDCs of 86 countries, analyzing changes in their adaptation components.
  • About half of both rounds of analyzed NDCs include an adaptation component, with updated submissions including more adaptation components and more detailed actions, suggesting that countries are increasingly viewing adaptation as an important element.
  • The analysis highlights the need for improved guidance on including adaptation in the NDCs, increased clarity about the goals and objectives of countries’ adaptation components, and support for investment and implementation plans for prioritized adaptation actions.
  • This paper contributes to a growing literature on adaptation ambition and assessment, and it offers findings that can be used by donors, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and country governments to assess the current state of adaptation ambition and improve the adaptation components of future NDCs.


Nationally determined contributions are a core obligation of the Parties to the Paris Agreement. Pursuant of Article 4.2 of the Paris Agreement, Parties have committed to prepare, communicate, and maintain successive NDCs with their domestic goals for mitigating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (UNFCCC 2015a). Many countries also voluntarily include adaptation in their NDCs as an imperative part of climate action in pursuit of the Global Goal on Adaptation. The Paris Agreement provides some guidance on how countries may provide NDC mitigation information and establishes a basis for adaptation planning outside of the NDCs through the national adaptation plan (NAP) process. However, it leaves countries free to choose how they want to present adaptation information in their NDCs. Existing guidelines for other instruments may be applied to NDC adaptation components, such as Decision 9/CMA.1 for adaptation communications, but designated guidance remains lacking. The decision to voluntarily include adaptation in the NDCs is politically salient because Parties remain divided on whether the component should be a core element of these documents or should remain in separate instruments.

Parties to the Paris Agreement commit to a five-year NDC enhancement cycle, with the expectation that they will ratchet up ambition over time. Ambition in mitigating GHG emissions can be measured through quantitative reductions in emissions. Yet understanding and assessing ambition in adaptation is not easy: no agreed quantitative or qualitative indicators exist for assessing reductions in vulnerability, increases in resilience, or enhanced adaptive capacity. This complexity in measurement has prevented the establishment of a common definition for the term adaptation ambition. Despite lacking clear metrics, adaptation ambition remains crucial to protect the most vulnerable as climate change impacts intensify.

Understanding what countries are including in the adaptation component of their NDCs is a critical step toward fully assessing and increasing adaptation ambition. Tracking the adaptation component of each country’s NDC and how it is changing over each NDC submission cycle can help inform how countries are tackling climate change adaptation and what types of additional support may be needed.

About This Working Paper

This working paper presents the findings from a comprehensive assessment of the adaptation components of the 86 updated NDCs submitted by the end of June 2021.1 The assessment also includes the first NDCs as well as NAP documents submitted by these 86 countries to the UNFCCC until the end of June 2021. Although only 9 of the 86 Parties had submitted NAPs, they were included in the analysis as important complements to the NDCs because they often expand on and operationalize NDC adaptation commitments. Countries that had only submitted their first NDCs by the end of June 2021 were excluded from analysis. This paper uses the term updated NDC to refer to both updated first and second NDCs submitted to the UNFCCC that are included in the analysis. The assessment is built on past World Resources Institute (WRI) work on NDC enhancement, the Global Commission on Adaptation’s work that put forward a bold agenda on adaptation, and guidance from the UNFCCC on adaptation reporting (Bapna et al. 2019; Fransen et al. 2019; UNFCCC 2015b).

This paper does not judge how well each country has enhanced its adaptation NDC. Assessing whether the prioritized actions in a country’s NDC will be sufficient to fully address climate change vulnerabilities and impacts is challenging—and their effectiveness will also depend on implementation. This paper instead seeks to identify trends between the first and updated submissions of NDC adaptation components and build a framework for assessing adaptation ambition. All NDC documents used in the analysis can be found on the UNFCCC NDC Registry (UNFCCC 2021b), and the data produced in this assessment is publicly available on the Climate Watch data platform (

The findings from this paper will be useful to bilateral and multilateral donors, the UNFCCC, and the Parties to the Paris Agreement. Donors may be able to use this analysis in conjunction with other adaptation instruments to tailor technical, capacity building, and financial assistance to support adaptation priorities communicated in updated NDCs. The UNFCCC—and, in particular, the Adaptation Committee—can use this analysis to help guide the development of different adaptation instruments. And finally, Parties can use the analysis to better understand how different countries are progressing toward increased adaptation ambition, and they can learn from each other.

Assessing Adaptation Ambition

To help fill the void in establishing standard quantitative metrics for adaptation, this paper presents a set of qualitative criteria for assessing NDC adaptation ambition. The paper breaks down the question of adaptation ambition of the NDCs into the following nine categories:

  1. Country ownership
  2. Alignment with planning exercises and other adaptation plans and policies
  3. Use of latest impact, risk, and vulnerability information
  4. Focus on critical adaptation systems as identified in the Global Commission on Adaptation’s Adapt Now report
  5. Presence of additional information for priority actions, such as baselines, time frames, and costs
  6. Clarity about monitoring and evaluation approaches
  7. Commitments to social inclusion, gender, and equity
  8. References to losses and damages from climate change
  9. Evidence of transformative adaptation in the prioritized actions

The assessment framework used to analyze the adaptation components of the NDCs includes four sections, which address the nine elements identified above:

  • Elements of adaptation communications: The first section includes questions based on guidance found in the annex of Decision 9/CMA.1 for adaptation communications (UNFCCC 2015b). Adaptation communications are a different instrument for adaptation reporting under the Paris Agreement, but the guidance for adaptation communications is still relevant for adaptation NDCs. Links between these two instruments are especially pertinent because Parties to the Paris Agreement have the option to use their NDCs as a vehicle for reporting adaptation communications. This component addresses Elements 1, 2, 3, 6, and 7 of the adaptation ambition criteria, relating to ownership, alignment, information, monitoring and evaluation, and equity.
  • Critical systems and sectors in adaptation priorities: The second section categorizes prioritized adaptation actions based on the critical systems that the Global Commission on Adaptation identified in its flagship report (Bapna et al. 2019). This component addresses Elements 4 and 5 of the ambition criteria, which concern issues related to information about priority actions.
  • Losses and damages: The third section addresses Element 8 of the ambition criteria by assessing how issues related to losses and damages2 from climate change are addressed in the NDC. It is based on the work plan of the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage.
  • Transformative adaptation: The final section addresses Element 9 of the ambition criteria and assesses whether countries are including actions that could be identified as transformative adaptation, based on WRI work (Carter et al. 2018).3

Key Findings

Our key findings are summarized in Table ES-1. More detailed results of the analysis can be found in Section 3.

Table ES-1 | Summary of Findings for Adaptation Ambition of Updated NDCs

Ambition Element

Description of Findings


Across the board, there is greater awareness and country ownership of the updated nationally determined contribution (NDC) document. Countries have developed more detailed adaptation components in their NDCs, with more consultations across government agencies and diverse stakeholder groups. Many countries also approved their updated NDCs through a high-level national political body.


The updated NDCs show improved alignment with other national and international policy processes. The updated NDCs increasingly referenced the influence of ongoing or completed national adaptation plan (NAP) processes at the national level, which are much more comprehensive than the NDC process. References to other subnational, sectoral, national, and international policy processes are more numerous in the updated NDCs.

Latest information

Impact, risk, and vulnerability information used in the updated NDCs reflects the increasing urgency of climate impacts. The latest national communications, or assessments and climate modeling conducted as part of other planning processes, such as the NAP process, have provided countries with up-to-date information. Updated NDCs also more frequently identify specific population groups as more vulnerable to climate change impacts.

Critical systems

Of the critical systems assessed using the Global Commission on Adaptation’s Adapt Now report, food and nutrition security, water, and nature-based solutions constitute the largest number of prioritized adaptation actions. However, all critical systems saw an increase in prioritized actions in the updated NDCs compared to the first submissions.

Implementation readiness of prioritized actions

Although updated NDCs include more prioritized actions overall, most of these actions are neither investment nor implementation ready. They require additional work to clarify indicators, costs, and time frames. This should be done in alignment with related instruments, such as NDC implementation plans and NAPs.

Monitoring and evaluation

The updated NDCs increasingly include information related to the monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) of adaptation activities, but the overall number remains low. Coordination between the tracking of NDC activities and communication of this information to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will be key as countries begin implementation.

Equity and inclusion

The updated NDCs reflect improvements in the integration of gender equality, in particular, but also of local knowledge and indigenous concerns. Although updated NDCs include increased references to indigenous rights, there remains room for improvement regarding the direct consultation of indigenous and local groups in adaptation NDC development.

Losses and damages

Updated NDCs have not increased references to Loss and Damage compared to the first submissions. However, there are more instances of countries including various components for minimizing and averting losses and damages from climate change. These include setting up early warning systems and comprehensive risk management approaches. However, references to slow-onset events, noneconomic damages, displacement, and migration are few.

Transformative adaptation

An understanding of transformative adaptation is lacking across the NDCs. The authors see small increases in references to transformative adaptation in the updated NDCs. Some countries reference attempting to scale adaptation actions more widely and address underlying systemic conditions. But references to actions, including innovation or shifting locations due to climate change impacts, have not increased in the updated NDCs.

Source: WRI analysis.

Reflections for Further Action

For Country Governments

  • Countries should strengthen links between NDCs and other adaptation plans and processes. Improved synergies with the NAP process and adaptation communications could work to improve international visibility for adaptation and advance implementation on the national level.
  • Countries should ensure that their adaptation NDCs are strategically aligned with other adaptation instruments under the Paris Agreement. Including adaptation as part of the Enhanced Transparency Framework (ETF) and integrating ongoing adaptation monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) efforts can support tracking of adaptation NDC implementation.
  • Countries should engage a wide variety of stakeholders throughout NDC development to ensure inclusive adaptation priorities that meet the needs of the most vulnerable.

For Bilateral and Multilateral Donors

  • Climate change will impact all sections of society. In addition to investments in critical systems such as food and nutrition security, nature-based solutions, and water, donors should invest in integrating climate adaptation into less prioritized systems, such as cities and urban areas, locally led adaptation, adaptation financing, and human health.
  • Donors should support work on linking the adaptation elements of the Paris Agreement’s ETF with development of national adaptation MEL systems.
  • Donors should support developing countries to implement the adaptation efforts identified in their NDCs by assisting with the creation of investment and implementation plans, reinforcing links to existing national plans and NAPs when available, and further refining MEL frameworks.
  • Donors should support national governments in their efforts to minimize, avert, and address climate change–related losses and damages. Supporting comprehensive climate risk management approaches is a strong entry point for this work.
  • Though transformative adaptation is critical to respond to present and future climate change impacts, many national governments do not yet explicitly address this in their adaptation NDCs. Donors could help build the capacities of national institutions to drive this agenda.

For the UNFCCC

  • Develop improved NDC adaptation guidance for the Parties. Currently, the information that should be included in the various adaptation instruments under the Paris Agreement, particularly NDC adaptation components, is not clear. The Adaptation Committee is already developing supplementary guidance on adaptation communications to help address this gap, and such guidance should map out information needs and synergies between adaptation instruments.
  • Improve the details on adaptation included in the annual NDC synthesis reports. By indicating what has changed since the previous round of NDCs, the secretariat could facilitate a process for sharing and learning and could support increased ambition in the NDC enhancement cycle.
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