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What Is Ambition in the Context of Climate Change?

This post was co-authored with Kate DeAngelis, an intern with WRI's Climate and Energy Program.

Ambition is a word often used in the context of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations. While most people think of ambition as a strong desire to achieve something, the word has a more specific meaning when it comes to international climate action.

What Does Ambition Mean and Why Is it Important?

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.” Scientists have found that in order to avoid devastating consequences such as mass desertification, glacier loss, extreme weather, and sea level rise, the international community must limit global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels. In the climate negotiations, “ambition” refers to countries’ collective will—through both domestic action and international initiatives—to cut global greenhouse gas emissions enough to meet the 2°C goal. Ambition further represents the actual steps countries are taking to meet that temperature goal.

Collective ambition is deemed to be lacking when the aggregate policies and actions of all countries are deemed insufficient to meet the 2°C goal. Countries are also judged on their own individual ambition levels, which are assessed based on their commitments to reduce greenhouse gases. In recent years, effective implementation of policies has emerged as an additional method for evaluating whether individual countries are sufficiently ambitious or not. Beyond emissions reductions, ambition is also used in the context of “means of implementation.” In other words, the finance, capacity building, and technology transfer support offered to help developing nations—arguably the countries that are most vulnerable to climate change—mitigate and adapt to global warming’s impacts. Climate finance has been the centerpiece of this support, whereby developed countries have made an initial pledge approaching $30 billion for the period 2010 – 2012, with the aim of mobilizing $100 billion per year by 2020. In this context, ambition is used to refer to whether countries are meeting their finance targets.

In the climate negotiations, “ambition” refers to countries’ collective will—through both domestic action and international initiatives—to cut global greenhouse gas emissions enough to limit global temperature rise to 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

Why Has it Been So Difficult to Get Countries to Increase their Ambition?

Many countries have been hesitant to increase their ambition for a variety of reasons. First, many countries aren’t confident that large emitters will make significant reductions, partially because these countries are either not parties to or have withdrawn from the Kyoto Protocol. Philosophical differences, domestic political constraints, and insufficient technological capabilities further hinder countries’ abilities to make emission-reduction commitments. Finally, the financial crisis in Europe and slowing of Asia’s largest economies have caused many nations to shift money away from clean energy and low-carbon development in favor of business-as-usual operations.

These economic realities have put the source of developing nations’ financial support in even greater jeopardy, making them hesitant to develop mitigation action plans. Some developing countries are also reluctant to address climate change because of competing concerns to address poverty and development.

Another factor in increasing ambition is whether all countries perceive an international agreement to reduce emissions as equitable. Many developing countries and emerging economies believe that they should not have to take meaningful actions because they’re not historically responsible for the majority of emissions. Moreover, many of these countries feel that they can only take action if developed countries provide the necessary financial, capacity building, and technical support. On the other hand, developed countries believe those countries with rapidly increasing emissions should agree to significant reductions.

What Could Countries Do to Increase their Ambition?

The UN Environment Programme’s Bridging the Emissions Gap report reflects the scale of effort required to limit warming to 2°C and articulates a wide range of actions that could be taken across many different sectors, including power, industry, and transport. Submissions to the UNFCCC have suggested actions to enhance ambition—some that are country-specific and others that could be applied globally, including the removal of fossil fuel subsidies, improvements in energy efficiency, and increased reliance on clean energy technology.

International initiatives outside the UNFCCC also have the potential to complement UNFCCC work and allow countries to agree to more ambitious targets. For instance, the Montreal Protocol has been successful in phasing out ozone-depleting substances and could possibly work to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), extremely potent greenhouse gases. Other initiatives with varying levels of success include: the European Union’s attempt to control aviation emissions through an emissions-trading scheme; the International Maritime Organization’s work to cut emissions from international shipping; and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s efforts to reduce short-lived climate pollutants, such as black carbon and methane.

Enhancing ambition is vital to the success of the UNFCCC and the health of the planet. If countries don’t agree to more ambitious pledges—both in terms of emissions reductions and financial assistance—the world will undoubtedly suffer from climate change’s most catastrophic impacts.

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