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Should ambition always be first?

At an event in Brussels earlier this week the EU Commission shared some initial thinking with business and NGOs on the consultation they have launched with regards the EU international position on climate change as we head towards COP 21 in France in 2015 where a deal is targeted for agreement. Although the EU remains very open to input on the shape of their position, it was clear to me reading the consultation document and listening to the presenter in Brussels that they are putting enormous emphasis on ambition – largely in the form of the size of national pledges.

In one sense this is hardly surprising given the world is a long way from anything that looks like a 2°C pathway, but it feels like it is becoming a distraction in itself, taking the emphasis away from the much more difficult job of putting in place the various tools and practices that might actually give us some chance of getting on a pathway that leads to some real reductions. The EU focus, like the international one, is divided into two parts, increasing global ambition to 2020 and post 2020 goals and targets.

The discussion reminded me of one I had about a decade ago with a senior policy maker in a Kyoto Annex 1 government. At that time the country had just ratified a pretty ambitious target under the Kyoto Protocol, considerably more than economically comparable countries. The government was trying to come to terms with the task of meeting the target, but the perceived difficulty of meeting the target was becoming a major distraction in itself. The conversation went something like this:

GM (government policy maker): The target is very difficult to meet.

Me: Agreed, but perhaps that shouldn’t be your primary consideration.

GM: It has to be, we have a target.

Me: Yes, but perhaps you should focus on getting a carbon price embedded in the economy first, then use that to start to drive change.

GM: But will we meet the target?

Me: You may not, but you would leave a legacy of an economy with emissions management up and running, the required capacity building done and emissions at least moving in the right direction. At the end of the day if you don’t meet the target, at least you will have made a good attempt.

GM: Yes, I understand. But what about the target?

Although this country has seen considerable regional activity (bound only by their own targets, developed as part of their policy making), the national government has struggled to this day with a target it felt somewhat helpless about. Early paralysis was almost certainly a contributing factor.

The current international discussion over a 2°C pathway is now at a similar stage and the EU appears to have fallen victim to this sort of thinking. Building a position on the need for more national ambition to meet the target, may well be a self defeating strategy. Rather, what is needed is a clear focus on two primary objectives;

    1. Getting a carbon price into the global energy economy.
    2. Getting CCS up and running and ready for rapid commercial deployment.

These are very specific climate objectives so play in to what the UNFCCC should be able to deliver, although they will also need to be supported by strong growth in other energy technologies, such as solar, nuclear, geothermal and the like (which shouldn’t necessarily be the objective of the UNFCCC at all). This also carves out a different role for UNFCCC, one which is related to pragmatic implementation of the tools and practices related to mitigation, rather than trying to create a frenzy of activity around targets and enhanced ambition.

Ambition will always be important, but without some clear ideas as to the pathways available, it becomes a rather empty and pointless discussion.

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