Blog Post

Aiming Low: The Ambition Deficit in Global Emissions Reductions

Dec 5, 2012 | Kristin Hayes

As in Durban, a notable concern at this COP is the “ambition deficit”—that is, the significant gap between the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recommended level of emissions reductions—those required to limit global temperature rise to 2°C—and the level of emissions reductions currently committed to by countries worldwide.

In other words, everyone is aiming low on an issue that many believe requires countries to aim extremely high.

Recent French commentary on the negotiations put some numbers on the gap, noting that “according to the lowest stabilisation scenario of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the developed countries should reduce their emissions by 25% to 40% in 2020 compared with 1990 to limit the rise in mean global temperature to 2°C. Recent analyses suggest that the current commitments of Annex I Parties would result in a global reduction of emissions of between 11% and 16% by 2020 compared with the 1990 level.”

How to encourage countries to increase their level of ambition has been a point of discussion and debate in both the negotiations and the side events associated with the COP. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) released a report a few weeks ago providing some tangible suggestions, but underneath all of them is the driving sense that countries simply need to aim higher.

And the ambition deficit isn’t just a matter of concern for meeting overall emissions targets; it’s also a sticking point in the negotiations, further hindering progress. Many developing countries are less than thrilled about setting their own firm commitments until they see the developed world—those countries historically responsible for the vast majority of global emissions—stepping up to do what they say they’re going to do.

At the moment, subnational action seems to be a bright light in a sea of bad news on this topic. As noted in Rob Stavins’s blog post included here on Common Resources, California—the world’s ninth largest economy—is moving ahead successfully in auctioning allowances and advancing its statewide cap-and-trade program. China is launching pilot emissions trading schemes in seven areas (four municipalities including Beijing and Shanghai, plus two provinces and one special economic zone). And cities across the globe are committing to action on energy efficiency and other avenues for emissions reductions.

These subnational actions certainly have their challenges, including how to link systems to expand trading opportunities. But they also allow for greater experimentation and tailoring in system design, as one Chinese scholar noted. When asked if all seven pilot trading programs were going to be harmonized (or even homogenized), he suggested that for the moment, they will be developed independently.

UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner argued in one of this week's side events that local actions aren’t enough, as they can’t be scaled up quickly enough to meet the required pace of decarbonization. But whatever their efficacy on a global scale, they are a major topic here in Doha, and might provide a method to kickstart greater national and global ambition.