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Ambition in the Durban Climate Deal

The UNFCCC’s ultimate goal is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a “level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” Thus, the most compelling measure of success of the Durban climate negotiations is arguably its ability to secure an adequate level of collective ambition on the part of countries. In this post, we review how well the Durban decisions can help reach this goal.

Why are we talking about ambition in the climate negotiations?

Ambition indicates how much the global community is willing to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions over the next few decades. The Cancun Agreements define a long-term goal of keeping global average temperature from rising more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. An assessment convened by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that the emissions trajectory “likely” to limit warming to 2°C must peak before 2020, and emissions in 2050 must be 46% lower than 1990 values (53% lower than 2005 levels).1 Other trajectories (for example, if global emissions do not peak until after 2020) have more significant negative implications for changes in physical, hydrological and ecological systems.

While the Durban outcome under the Kyoto Protocol notes the goal for reducing emissions in developed countries by 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020,2 unfortunately Parties’ current emissions reduction commitments fall very short of this range. There is a gap of 6-11 GtCO2e between current commitments and emissions trajectories consistent with a 2°C warming limit. Thus, they are not within the range that can limit warming by 2°C. In addition, Parties have agreed to neither a peak year nor a long-term global mitigation goal. This raises the critical question of how much more Parties must reduce emissions in the short term (pre-2020) and the long term (by 2050) both collectively and individually.

Can Parties increase their pledges before 2020?

Yes. Nothing prevents countries from coming forward with new or increased pledges at any time. The Cancun Agreements and the Durban decisions have “urged” an increase in ambition on the part of developed countries. Developing countries that have not yet submitted mitigation actions to the UNFCCC are “encouraged” to do so. The Durban outcome also notes that developing countries “could enhance their mitigation actions” depending on the provision of support from developed countries. However, current Kyoto Protocol rules do not allow for an easy adjustment of second commitment period targets, and amendments should be made accordingly so that Parties can ratchet up their targets.

In addition, as a result of a strong push from the Alliance of Small Island States, the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and the European Union, the Durban decisions launch a “workplan on enhancing mitigation ambition” that will begin in 2012. The workplan invites submissions from Parties and observers on options and ways for further increasing the level of ambition and a related workshop to be convened at the first negotiating session in 2012. WRI and UNEP recently released an analysis presenting several relevant options.

Lastly, the first Periodic Review that will take place between 2013 and 2015 could inform a decision to increase ambition. Given that it concludes at the same time as a new agreement will be adopted in 2015, this review is more likely to shape post-2020 commitments, but it could spur countries to do more before then as well.

How will Parties decide upon their post-2020 commitments, and how will the effort be divided among Parties?

The Ad-Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action will focus on the individual and collective ambition of countries post 2020. While the Durban decision provides some clarity on the legal form of the agreement to be adopted in 2015 – and to a lesser extent the legal form of the commitments within it – the content of the post-2020 commitments remains unknown. Parties will negotiate between now and 2015 the level and the nature of these commitments for all countries.

It remains to be seen whether Parties will agree to a global mitigation goal and then divide the effort accordingly, or if each country will bring forward the commitment it will follow in a more bottom-up manner, as has been done with the 2020 pledges, or if another approach will emerge. Governments and research institutions have put forward a variety of approaches for sharing the mitigation effort among countries. At the request of India, Parties at COP17 decided to organize a workshop in 2012 on “equitable access to sustainable development,” which will focus on this important question.

What are the links between ambition and the Durban provisions on transparency and accountability (or “MRV”)?

The Durban decisions include provisions specifically targeted at measuring, reporting, and verifying (MRV) countries’ targets and actions, which will have an important impact on ambition.

Regular and detailed reporting and review of countries’ commitments and actions could help build confidence that all countries are doing what they said they would do and incentivize countries to meet their existing commitments and potentially increase their ambition. And the very process of conducting MRV can help highlight what has worked and what has not, which can help improve the choice and implementation of various policies and actions. Furthermore, the Durban decisions, while they could have gone farther, advance the clarification of countries’ pledges, as without further detail on the assumptions underlying Parties’ targets and actions it is difficult to fully evaluate current levels of commitments and therefore understand what additional mitigation is required.

In addition, the strength of accounting rules has implications for the level of ambition. As the recent UNEP Bridging the Gap Report noted, accounting rules are a key determinant of the size of the emissions gap in 2020. If lenient land use, land-use change, and forestry (LULUCF) methodologies are avoided, the emissions gap in 2020 can be reduced by 0.6 GtCO2e. Double counting of offsets can increase the gap by 1.6 GtCO2e. The lack of common accounting guidance in the Durban outcome opens the door to lenient accounting and double counting, meaning that additional measures will have to be undertaken accordingly to reach the desired level of emissions reductions if these loopholes are not closed. While a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol preserves the Protocol’s accounting guidance, and can therefore be a key input into a future agreement, its application is limited as the same provisions were not made under the AWG-LCA negotiating track which applies to many more Parties. It remains to be seen what approach will be chosen by 2015 for future commitments.

Are there other provisions in the Durban agreements that affect the ambition of pledges?

Another important factor of global ambition is the level of support developed countries will provide developing countries in the form of finance, technology, and capacity building. In Copenhagen, developed countries committed to mobilizing USD 100 billion a year by 2020 for mitigation and adaptation. It was a voluntary political commitment by the developed countries and not based on an agreed estimate of the amount of investment required. In Durban, Parties launched the Green Climate Fund, which is expected to channel a significant share of the USD 100 billion. However, developed countries did not specify how these resources would be raised, only agreeing to a series of workshops in 2012 to clarify the pathway to USD 100 billion. A stronger financial commitment from developed countries could help increase the ambition of developing countries, given that many pledges are dependent upon international support.


  1. This may be conservative given that the emissions pathways “reach global net negative carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel and industry before the end of the century in more than 50% of the cases.” If this is not the case, there would need to be steeper rates of decline. 

  2. This is the range of emission reductions – 25 to 40% – that the IPCC notes would be necessary for stabilizing concentrations of CO2e at 450 ppm, a level associated with a 26 to 78% risk of overshooting a 2°C goal (Meinshausen 2005). 

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