If you want more than ambition, there is high-ambition: But what does it mean?

From Paris

At her closing speech on December 12, Christiana Figueres, Executive Sectretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, noted that the Paris Agreement was the result of years of work. Focused work started following COP17 in Durban, giving its name to the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action. In many respects the Ad Hoc Working Group of the Durban Platform (ADP) carried out the process of working on a new agreement from 2011 to 2015.

As the ADP completed its work at the end of the first week at COP21, the working draft was a patchwork of hundreds of square brackets. A sentence, a phrase, or a word put in square brackets meant that some parties wanted it in while others wanted it out. In parts of the text, not words but entire paragraphs were bracketed. This process was important, for there was a mandate to ensure that draft Agreement be truly “party-owned”. But it made the first week of the Paris negotiations particularly fraught.

The disputed aspects of the text were many, but four particularly stubborn issues could be isolated as the ADP handed over the negotiation process to the Conference of the Parties (COP) for the final round on week two. These high priority issues, which could potentially take the process down a path of failure if not resolved, were:

  1. Differentiation of responsibilities (for details, see my previous post)
  2. Mechanisms of raising ambition over time
  3. Means of implementation, including climate finance
  4. Workstream 2

In this post, my focus will be on Workstream 2, which refers to the pre-2020 ambition gap. This is not to be conflated with the issue of raising ambition over time. The pre-2020 ambition gap is a specific issue of its own. It refers to the gap between aggregate effects of mitigation pledges made by 2020 and aggregate emission reduction pathways consistent with likelihood of keeping temperature rise under 2 degrees Celsius.

Throughout the Durban Platform phase of negotiations, the goal was to put in place the architecture of long-term cooperation on climate. The goal was to put in place a system of pledges, to be assessed and reviewed under strict procedures set by the UNFCCC at intervals as a mechanism for ratcheting up ambition. With its adoption in Paris, this architecture of global climate cooperation creates a framework for limiting global temperature increase below 2 degrees (and hopefully well below that mark).

This is the long-term vision for the international climate effort. It was always understood that the current pledges that have been submitted by the majority of the parties throughout 2015 were just a first step in order to get the ball rolling.

What became clear, however, was that levels of emissions are in fact well above what is needed to limit temperature increase to 2 degrees, let alone to limit it at 1.5 degrees. So, the Ad Hoc Working Group of the Durban Platform gave itself two work streams: (1) the 2015 Agreement for the post-2020 climate effort and (2) closing the ambition gap before 2020. It is workstream two that is about “high-ambition”.

The question about ambition should be framed carefully. It is not just about how much mitigation or adaptation one wants (the target), but also about how quickly or how slowly one wants to achieve that target (the time taken to reach the target). It is about whether one wants to adopt a “time-gaining” strategy or not. In short, the time frame determines the level of ambition as much as the target itself. This adds a temporal dimension to the equation and, with it, a layer of complexity.

One of the successes of Paris is that the Agreement includes very specific language on pre-2020 ambition. Again, this was not an easy process. On the second week, when it was still tenuous where this issue was going to land, what came to be known as “High-Ambition Coalition” was formed. The European Union and a significant number of developing countries, joined by the United States, formed a coalition of about 100 countries to support high ambition in the agreement. Interestingly, Canada did not join.

Although it did not form a negotiation bloc, the coalition was vocal about making the Paris Agreement not just ambitious, but highly ambitious. It is in this context that parties called for an effort to set the limit of temperature rise to somewhere closer to 1.5 degrees than just settling for two. Critics dismiss the coalition for being merely symbolic. But it did send strong signals in the final days of the negotiations.

Now, the Paris Agreement contains not just provisions for the post-2020 climate effort, but also specific work plan for before 2020. The next review will be in 2018. The working group, which takes the relay from the ADP is the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement.

Ethicists working on climate ethics have long been interested in what our obligations for distant future generations might be, leading to complicated discussions on whether those obligations can be grounded at all. What the Paris Agreement does is create a framework – with tangible tools and institutional pathways – which opens a direction for acting collectively. It does this with an unprecedented scope involving 195 nations. In doing so, it also allows us to move away from abstract questions about the distant future toward working within a well-defined institutional structure in the present. It creates an architecture that resembles a rolling carpet or, better, an escalator, where all Parties to the UNFCCC are invited to participate, and each generation can take its turn. This is an important turning point. Most importantly, this brings it all so close to us that most of the work has to be done now by 2020.

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