Milestones for Building International Climate Change Ambition

Joshua P. Meltzer and Claire Langley

On May 5th the Abu Dhabi Ascent, a meeting of government ministers and leaders from business, finance and civil society, kicked off an international effort to build ambition around a new post-Copenhagen climate change agreement. This process will culminate in the United Nations climate change meeting in Paris in December 2015, when governments have agreed to finalize a new international climate change agreement with legal force to be implemented by 2020. The aim for such an outcome is to agree to new targets and actions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions after 2020—when the current Kyoto Protocol commitments and set of so-called bottom-up Copenhagen pledges expire. Means for monitoring, reporting and verifying success in meeting these new goals will also be crucial.  In addition, a Paris agreement is expected to include new commitments on financing for mitigation and adaptation as well as mechanisms for transferring climate change technologies to developing countries.  

Recent Efforts Have Not Adequately Addressed the Scale of the Problem

The key challenge over the next 20 months is going to be generating enough ambition among the major greenhouse gas emitters that collectively, their actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will put the world on a pathway to meeting the agreed-upon goal of keeping global temperatures within a 2 degrees Celsius increase above pre-industrial levels. Currently, the sum of commitments that governments have made to 2020 falls well short of this goal. As the 2013 UNEP emissions gap report finds, even if nations meet their current climate pledges, greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 are likely to be 8 to 12 gigatons of CO2-equivalent above the level needed to have a good chance of remaining below temperature increases of 2 C.

Failure to close the gap between what is needed and what is being done should call into question the effectiveness of the bottom-up process for agreeing to mutual targets and actions that was the main outcome of the 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference. The top-down Kyoto Protocol process, where governments agreed to a global target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions that was then distributed amongst only developed countries, also had its limitations. Some countries such as Canada simply failed to meet their targets while others such as the United States did not ratify the outcome—the underlying problem was a disconnect between the target governments were willing to accept and the actual reductions they were able to deliver.

The bottom-up Copenhagen process responded to this by starting with the mitigation governments could deliver, that were then reflected in international pledges. Such a process was also politically more acceptable for developing countries that had refused to accept absolute cuts on their greenhouse gas emissions, but have been prepared to pledge under the Copenhagen Accord actions such as energy efficiency and renewable energy targets.  

This bottom-up approach was successful in that seven large developing countries have made emission reduction pledges, including China, India, Brazil, South Africa, and Indonesia. For example China has pledged to reduce carbon intensity by 40 to 45 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, India has pledged to reduce emissions intensity 20 percent to 25 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and Brazil has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 36 to 39 percent below business as usual in 2020. Some developed countries have committed to new targets to 2020 under the Kyoto Protocol and along with other developed countries such as the U.S. have also pledged greenhouse gas mitigation targets under the Copenhagen Accord. For example, by 2020 the United States pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent on 2005 levels, the EU pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent on 1990 levels  and Japan pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 17-18 percent on 2005 levels. For key takeaways from the most recent UN negotiating session see analysis from Nathan Hultman and Claire Langley here.

The Road Ahead: Key Milestones Between Now And Paris 2015

The challenge now is to use this process to significantly increase the level of ambition. To help this process the Abu Dhabi Ascent will be followed by a series of meetings of leaders that provide crucial opportunities to generate momentum. In particular, the U.N. secretary-general led Climate Summit in September 2014 and the G-20 meetings in November 2014 and 2015 are all at the leader level and attended by the major emitters among whom action is needed. Other meetings including the Clean Energy Ministerial and Major Economies Forum are important opportunities to test progress.

Bilateral agreements on climate change and energy are other places to develop concrete ways to reduce emissions. For example, the U.S. and China are looking at ways to deepen climate change and clean energy cooperation in their bilateral Climate Change Working Group. And the U.S-India agreement to accelerate progress on clean energy and address climate change presents another place to test new and innovative ways that developing countries can improve their energy efficiency and reduce emissions. These are all important efforts in their own right and also can build trust and goodwill among key countries on these issues, which is needed if leaders are going to be able to reach a deal in Paris on post-2020 carbon reductions consistent with the goal of keeping global temperature increase below 2 C above pre-industrial levels.

The findings, interpretations and conclusions posted on are solely those of the authors and not of The Brookings Institution, its officers, staff, board, funders, or organizations with which they may have a relationship.