Reflecting on Ambition in the era of COVID-19

Thursday, June 4, 2020
By: Fernanda Carvalho
Our vision for ambition must go beyond the three Paris goals and include a focus on directing economic recovery packages with stimulus to the right sectors.

By: Fernanda Carvalho, Global Policy Lead - Climate and Energy Practice at WWF International

In a previous era (or at least it feels like it), in December 2015, countries agreed in Paris on a new international agreement of the climate regime under which their contributions to tackling climate change (Nationally-Determined Contributions, or NDCs) would be enhanced to the "highest possible level of ambition every 5 years", taking into account differentiated responsibilities and capabilities as well as national circumstances.

We,  in the climate movement, talk very much about ‘ambition' often accompanied by ‘enhanced’ or ‘highest possible’. Yet no precise definition of what it entails is present In the UNFCCC or the Paris agreement "definitions" section. Ambition is a term that has always puzzled me since, curiously, in my native language (Portuguese), it has a negative connotation: a synonym for greed. So it always strikes me that many people from different countries - and I am talking about the many stakeholders in the climate debate, not only the usual suspects (me included) that attend COPs and sessions - might have different visions and expectations on what ambitious climate commitments or action mean.

The vision of the Climate Action Network (CAN) is that ambition relates to the three goals of the Paris Agreement: the temperature goal of well below 2˚C pursuing efforts to 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels; the ability to adapt and fostering resilience and making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development. It is not only about mitigation, although it is a lot about mitigation, since the IPCC has delivered a very clear message: we need to reduce emissions by 50% by 2030 and get to near zero by 2050 to hold the temperature increase to 1.5˚C. And for us ambition is not only about what goes into NDCs and other climate plans, but also about how those plans are developed and implemented. In the 2020 round of NDCs, civil society needs to be fully and meaningfully engaged in the development and implementation of climate change policies.

And then comes 2020 and surprises us with a new challenge: the COVID-19 pandemics became a worldwide stumbling block for the survival of many and, of course, for the year to be a key milestone on the road to enhanced ambition translated in updated NDCs submitted to the UNFCCC. The health and economic crisis has been forcing us to reconsider the world and society as we know them. It has shown us how fragile our systems are to unforeseen shocks, as well as the importance of solidarity and international cooperation to address those; it has also shed light on the role of science to guide policy-making. Nothing will ever be the same and that also applies to climate ambition. We will need to repurpose the ambition vision we have been fighting for since 2015 to incorporate and respond to the consequences of the COVID crisis.

It's a fact fact that the current health emergency has inevitably slowed progress in climate policy, internationally and domestically. Correctly and understandably, tackling the emergency has become the priority of all levels of government worldwide. Many international events, including COP 26, have been postponed to 2021. When it comes to NDC enhancement, so far only 10 governments representing a small percentage of global emissions have submitted  revised NDCs. Among these, the Japanese NDC is a resubmission with no enhanced targets and the New Zealand NDC is a communication about national policies enacted in 2019, that include the establishment of an independent Climate Change Commission that should provide advice to the Government on aligning the NDC with 1.5˚C and how in early 2021. It's fair to say that now, mid-year, we are quite far from where we need to be, especially the biggest emitters who would need to lead in ambitious commitments.

The drop in emissions associated with the lockdown should bring caution and hope at the same time. Hope that it's possible to tackle the climate crisis once we are in a better place post-COVID. Caution in the sense that what we have learned from the Great Recession (2007-2009) that temporary drops are easily offset by economic rebounds.

Our vision for ambition must go beyond the three Paris goals and include a focus on directing economic recovery packages with stimulus to the right sectors: decarbonizing energy systems, enhancing the scope and finance for nature-based solutions and addressing unsustainable food production systems and deforestation, among other impactful measures. We must bring others on board to a broader perspective and discussions on climate action and ambition, such as Finance Ministers. Things will indeed never be the same post-COVID; there is room for us to build back better on every aspect, including climate, if we get this right.

Photo from Gulf Today