Beyond 2020: Driving Up Country Climate Action Plans in South Asia

A solar panel is installed on a roof in Bhutan. The South Asian country is the first to become carbon negative in the world. Photo credit: Asian Development Bank.

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Proposed strategies to deepen commitments under the Paris Agreement include sharing of practices and lessons and linking climate actions with COVID-19 recovery.


Setting the scene

Home to over 1.5 billion people, including one-third of the world’s poor, South Asia faces changing temperatures, erratic rainfall patterns, and extreme weather events that threaten to exacerbate existing regional exposures. From the low-lying delta areas of Bangladesh and the island states of Maldives and Sri Lanka to the glacial highlands of Bhutan and Nepal, livelihoods dependent on climate vulnerable sectors, such as agriculture and fisheries, may be jeopardized. In addition, regional megatrends, such as rapid urbanization, are outpacing the provision of climate-resilient infrastructure and services.[1] Greenhouse gas emissions in the region, although low per capita, are growing and emission intensities are predicted to increase.

South Asian countries have been navigating complex institutional, stakeholder, and financing conditions in implementing their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), and they are now enhancing their contributions at the end of 2020, 5 years after the Paris Agreement was adopted. Despite multiple challenges, some notable progress on the NDC process have been achieved by countries in terms of mitigation and adaptation measures and governance and financing efforts (see table). However, this progress is now threatened by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, which has highlighted the need for countries to integrate health, climate, and disaster risk management priorities into national development planning to support a green, inclusive, and resilient recovery.

Examples of NDC Progress in South Asia to Date

NAMA = nationally appropriate mitigation action, NDC = nationally determined contribution, REDD+ = reduce carbon dioxide emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and conserve and enhance forest carbon stocks, SDG = Sustainable Development Goal.

Source: The authors.

Enhancing Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs)

South Asian countries will need to enhance their NDCs by updating their emissions reduction targets, expanding sectoral coverage, strengthening adaptation commitments, and improving data collection and analysis. To assess and discuss these issues, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), together with South Asia Co-operative Environment Programme (SACEP), undertook a survey to assess the status of NDC implementation in selected countries, followed by a capacity building workshop on developing skills on climate investment planning and a webinar on the links and opportunities for integrating climate change into COVID-19 recovery initiatives in South Asia.[2] From these discussions, it is clearly evident that a range of cross-sectoral approaches, policies, and strategies will be needed to fully increase NDC ambitions and achieve a resilient and low-carbon development objectives.  These include

  • Addressing the dual challenge of adaptation and mitigation. As most South Asian countries are members of the Vulnerable 20 Group (V20), a dedicated cooperation initiative of economies systemically vulnerable to climate change, it is unsurprising that vulnerable sectors, such as food and water security and human health, are often NDC adaptation priorities. In contrast, given the generally low total and per-capita emissions in the region, mitigation priorities have proved more variable to date but will need to be revisited as part of NDC target revisions.
  • Better alignment of NDCs with national development goals, improving NDC coordination efforts, and enhancing monitoring, reporting, and verification systems. To date, countries have faced challenges converting their NDCs into concrete planning and investment outcomes. NDCs can be better integrated into development planning cycles at national and sub-national levels and NDC coordination bodies, which are often still being established, should have their status, structure, and resourcing within government confirmed. In addition, monitoring, reporting, and verification systems need to be developed to allow measurement and tracking of progress (including for climate finance) and to provide feedback for national climate and disaster risk management planning and policy processes.
  • Tapping opportunities to enhance private sector participation. Beyond national budget allocations and public sector investments, countries are exploring additional NDC financing mechanisms, such as green taxes (e.g., from tourism), green/climate bonds, carbon market establishment, and crowding-in private sector support (for example, matchmaking between government and private sector stakeholders to identify climate investment opportunities in Bhutan and exploring carbon market opportunities in Maldives).
  • A willingness to collaborate regionally. Opportunities for potential cross-country collaboration include experience-sharing of best practices and lessons learned, joint capacity building exercises, and strategic initiatives such as regional emissions reduction strategies and cross-border sector investments (e.g., hydropower, forestry).
  • Country requests for technical and financial support for NDC implementation. As countries work toward tangible NDC goals and actions, they are starting to estimate implementation costs. For example, Nepal has estimated NDC mitigation costs in select sub-national administrative units, while Bangladesh has estimated national NDC costs for its power sector. As countries better quantify NDC costs, they are seeking grant support and assistance in mobilizing domestic and international climate finance resources.
Planning for a Green Recovery

Beyond identifying key NDC implementation needs and opportunities, there is an emerging link between low-carbon and resilient NDC pathways and COVID-19 recovery packages. This provides an opportunity to:

  • Learn from the region’s globally leading climate exemplars. For example, Bangladesh launched the world’s first country investment plan to tackle climate change. Nepal is the first co-recipient country of a Green Climate Fund grant for national adaptation planning. Bhutan’s NDC unconditionally pledges to maintain national carbon neutrality by 2030. These milestones help set new global benchmarks, serve as models for other countries, and may enhance regional capabilities to integrate COVID-19 measures into national development planning and NDC implementation.
  • Explore concrete opportunities to integrate green, inclusive, and resilient COVID-19 recovery packages. These include long-term policy changes to support NDC implementation, mainstreaming adaptation measures to guide national and subnational development strategies, enhancing access to climate finance support for rural development, and economic diversification to generate multiple health and climate co-benefits. Some evidence is emerging from countries that green, inclusive, and resilient COVID-19 recovery components are now being integrated into NDC revisions and implementation plans. For example, in Nepal, a detailed NDC implementation plan will be developed to integrate a finance and investment framework to ensure efficient access to climate funds and evidence-based allocations to areas of demand, including the green recovery agenda.[3]

Roles for development partners may exist to help countries identify locally relevant COVID-19-compatible NDC interventions where both economic multipliers and climate and resilience impact metrics are optimized. Development partners could tailor their support offerings to complement evolving NDC implementation needs and ambitions by

  • Providing national-level technical, financial, and capacity building support to develop sector- and economy-wide NDC action plans, formulate climate investment plans, conduct gap analyses of climate finance needs, and integrate NDC implementation into COVID-19 recovery packages; and
  • Playing a regional convening role to facilitate ongoing dialogue and knowledge exchange to share NDC preparation and implementation experiences, identify collaboration opportunities, help mobilize climate finance, and scale up successes.

The regional progress made to date on climate change, coupled with renewed regional impetus (as evidenced by the enhanced targets to achieve net zero emissions as announced by Japan and Republic of Korea by 2050 and People’s Republic of China by 2060) provide a viable platform upon which South Asian countries and their development partners can continue to enhance NDC ambition and implementation.

[1] It is estimated that South Asia will need $6.35 trillion for its infrastructure needs or equivalent to $423 billion annually from 2016–2030. Source: ADB. 2017. Meeting Asia’s Infrastructure Needs. Manila.

[2] These activities were co-organized by the South Asia Co-operative Environment Programme (SACEP) and ADB with participation of countries including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. A survey was undertaken and gathered information on status of NDC implementation in South Asia. This was followed by the Subregional Workshop on Advancing Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) in South Asia held in 26–27 September 2019 in Bangkok, Thailand; and a webinar on Leveraging NDCs to Increase Climate Action in the COVID-19 Recovery in South Asian Countries held on 25 February 2021. Government representatives from selected countries participated in various events.

[3] UNFCCC. 2020. Second Nationally Determined Contributions. Government of Nepal.


Asian Development Bank. 2017. Meeting Asia’s Infrastructure Needs. Manila.

South Asia Co-operative Environment Programme and Asian Development Bank. 2021. Leveraging NDCs to Increase Climate Action in the COVID-19 Recovery in South Asian Countries. Manila. Webinar

Bradley Hiller
Consultant, Asian Development Bank

Bradley Hiller is a sustainable development and climate change consultant. He has worked with the Asian Development Bank, World Bank Group and Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. He is a section editor for the journal Sustainability and holds PhD and Masters degrees from the University of Cambridge.

Jose Alfred Cantos
Consultant, Asian Development Bank

Jose Alfred Cantos is a climate change consultant with the Asian Development Bank. He was a US Fulbright Fellow-Hubert Humphrey on environmental economics at the University of California-Davis. He has worked on climate adaptation and mitigation projects from the US California Energy Commission, World Bank, GEF, and WWF International.

Asian Development Bank (ADB)

The Asian Development Bank is committed to achieving a prosperous, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable Asia and the Pacific, while sustaining its efforts to eradicate extreme poverty. Established in 1966, it is owned by 68 members—49 from the region. Its main instruments for helping its developing member countries are policy dialogue, loans, equity investments, guarantees, grants, and technical assistance.

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