Ambition Gap: Important issue or side-show at the Doha Conference?

In fact, I consider ambition to be so light and airy that it’s only the shadow of a shadow. -Rosencrantz from Hamlet

Some phrases seem to come out of nowhere and then  become absolutely prominent in discussions.  And one such phrase is the “ambition gap” at the Doha Climate conference.  The idea became important at the Durban conference, but it is really becoming key at Doha.  However, like so many issues there appears to be some disagreement about it.  And a key question for us is whether this is an important issue or a side-show?

Here’s my definition of the ambition gap: The agreements made were not ambitious enough to solve the problem.  Another plausible definition is that there are different levels of ambition between countries (it appears this may have been the use in some early discussions).  However, the ambition gap seems to be a gap between what has been agreed to and what needs to be done.  It is important to remember that the Kyoto Protocol was originally designed not as a good enough solution, but a first step toward working for a good solution.  But then we haven’t progressed much on that because of U.S. opposition and the inability to integrate in developing countries to the requirements.

As far as I can find (and this is a preliminary sketch of idea), the idea of an ambition gap, phrased as such, really got going at the Durban Climate Conference.  From the ENB report:

The EU suggested that the decision focus on: recognizing and establishing a process to narrow the ambition gap; an international, common rules-based accounting system; and a process to understand the assumptions underlying current pledges. On the level of ambition, Switzerland, for the EIG, suggested: a process to increase ambition; technical workshops; and further consideration at COP 18. The US said the Cancun Agreements do not establish a process for narrowing the ambition gap and this should be considered in the 2013-2015 review. NEW ZEALAND, supported by AUSTRALIA and NORWAY, proposed a template as a flexible tool to capture information on pledges, including on sectors, metrics, gases and time frames covered.

This idea has certainly existed before Durban, but it was at Durban that the idea was conceptualized as a gap and an agenda item.  In the Kyoto-Copenhagen years, the major focus was how to get Kyoto working.  But following Copenhagen, the agenda has switched to getting a good agreement.  As shown in the quote above, the agenda gap was postponed until COP 18 (the Doha Conference).  And so, Doha has come.

Before I get onto Doha, remember that we do have a number of different gaps.  We have the emissions gap which is the gap between our emissions and where our emissions should be to limit warming to 2 degrees.  There is the commitment period gap, which is impending and all but assured without a new agreement (what that means is probably not as bad as it could be because of the Cancun, Durban, and Doha meetings).  And others.  But the ambition gap is certainly one of the main problems.

Enter the Doha meeting and the following discussions of the ambition gap from today (not much done on the earlier days), all from the ENB link above:

China, for BASIC, urged developed countries to raise their level of ambition in line with science and their historical responsibility, and suggested further discussions on ambition under the COP or CMP.

Swaziland, for the AFRICAN GROUP, underlined that work on pre-2020 mitigation provides additional opportunities to close the ambition gap but is not an alternative to commitments under the Kyoto Protocol and the AWG-LCA

What is interesting to me about these statements is that both China and Swaziland, as the representatives of different groups, seem to be arguing that the ambition gap is somewhat of a side project that may be a distraction from the core project.  China wants it moved to the main Conference of the Parties and Swaziland makes clear that the ambition gap can be dealt with in a lot of forums, but that we need to keep our focus on the core agenda.

Without going into why developing countries might be wary of this, it is simply sufficient to note that the ambition gap is seen differently by the various actors.  While I want to have states agree to better requirements, I also feel there may be something problematic about an agenda item on the ambition gap.  And here’s my problem: Let’s focus on the emissions gap and get some agreement.  The ambition gap seems like a middle point on the process and not a crucial step.

We’ll see tomorrow and the rest of this week if the “ambition gap” keeps being a big issue.  As shorthand for trying to do better, it is useful.  As an agenda item, it may be a needless series of meetings that should happen in more high-profile settings. I’m not sure what it is yet.  There appears to be some warranted skepticism out there about it, but it certainly isn’t nailed down yet.  So, let’s watch the ambition gap and hope it works well, but let’s also make sure it is not just the shadow of a shadow.

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