How to Ratchet Up Ambition

The global climate negotiations are a landscape of highly refined vocabulary, experimental ideas, acronyms and jargon. Much of the terminology can seem impenetrable, but all of it goes toward facilitating the implementation of complex solutions to complex problems. One of the key words circulating in this environment is “ratcheting”, a reference to what is called a “ratchet mechanism”.

What is a ratchet mechanism?

The answer is very simple. It’s a metaphor to describe a policy that increases the ambition of actions to reduce both threat and harm resulting from climate destabilization.

To really get a grip on the importance of this metaphorical description of a particular policy element, one needs to understand what is meant by 1) ambition, and 2) mitigation.

Reducing threat and/or harm is “mitigation”—mitigating the threat, reducing risk. If, for instance, we commit to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 26% by 2025, there is an implied decision to be made regarding how ambitious our follow-up commitment will be, after 2025. We will need to commit to a new level of reduction by 2030, and then we will need to decide on how ambitious that new commitment is.

If the rate of reduction is the same, there is no ratcheting. If the rate of reduction accelerates (as it does between the 2020 US commitment and the 2025 US commitment), then we are “ratcheting up” the ambition of our policy action.

If this is built into the structure of our policy framework, and the legally enforceable components of our plan, then those structural details are what might be called a “ratchet mechanism” and so we are “ratcheting”.

Commitment Cycles

One of the ways many propose achieving this is to shorten “commitment cycles” and require that each commitment cycle abide by the standard of “escalating ambition”. A commitment cycle is essentially the period during which a particular commitment is active, and the timeline for its renewal and replacement.

A commitment in 2020 to achieve a specific amount of mitigation by 2025 would be a 5-year commitment cycle. Many believe that the appropriate use of commitment cycles in the global agreement would work like a ratchet mechanism to ensure that whatever the level of ambition is now, it increases steadily over time, so we arrive at the needed actual mitigation in time to prevent compounded climate disruption becoming irreversible.

While the United States is arguing for a Paris outcome agreement that does not require a new treaty framework, or approval by a vote of the opposition-controlled US Senate, the White House and the US negotiating team have been calling for a ratchet mechanism of five-year commitment cycles, to act as the “teeth” in the agreement—the extra something that allows for the words on the page to become an enforceable international agreement.

Ongoing Review

Iterative commitment cycles are one approach to ratcheting. Governments and the UNFCCC Secretariat have supported commitment cycles and review periods as a viable global standard for measurng and enhancing nationally determined climate action. Civil society and private enterprise, however, have real interest in the potentially transformational standard of “ongoing review”.

Governments have been less supportive of this idea, generally insisting that review periods and policy upgrades can be costly, both in terms of financing and political capital. But the logic of ongoing review is simple and hard to refute:

If you have good information now, why would you wait to look at it? And if you look at it, and it suggests more ambition, why would you wait to implement smarter policies executed through a more capable economic and political landscape?

The question is whether the resources exist to provide robust, detailed, ongoing support for ongoing review. Can it be voluntary? Can it be done by independent non-governmental organizations and research institutions? Should that be a requirement? Do we need a policy to decide this, or can it just be done by those who would do it?

If non-governmental or commercial entities do the work of gathering information or synthesizing data, who owns the information, and what obligation is there to make it available for general application? There are many differences of opinion on this question, across the business NGO, environmental NGO, governmental and academic sectors.

Public participation

One way to tap into a vast new landscape of detailed information about what is happening to the Earth’s climate system and through the policy environment is to engage the general public. When the UN Millennium Campaign engaged more than 7 million people through the My World survey, the UN system learned that for people around the world, sustainability was a policy priority.

The global development agenda for the 2015-2030 period was then designed around 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which call for the active implementation of strategies, by all countries, in all countries, to reach 169 specific targets. All countries must make progress on eliminating poverty, achieving gender equality, and removing climate forcers from their economies.

In Uganda, and around the world, participatory anti-corruption strategies have made it difficult for corrupt officials to identify or persecute witnesses, while ensuring valuable information about systemic corruption can reach decision-makers with the power to influence the international community’s response to corrupt practices, political persecution, and acts of violence against civilians.

When the 3rd National Climate Assessment was being conducted by the US Global Change Research Program, not only was information gathered from 13 cabinet-level agencies; the NCA also took testimony from thousands of witnesses, including more than 3,000 in South Florida, alone.

A more participatory strategy for implementation of nationally determined climate action can mean millions of people “ground-truthing” Earth-observing satellites and other remote sensing instruments. There are open questions about how this could be achieved, but work is now being done to facilitate this kind of solution, whether supported within the Paris agreement or not.

Composite ratcheting

It might be that any one of these ideas on its own is not enough.

  • Merely setting a 5-year standard cycle may not achieve the desired ratcheting up of policy ambition.
  • Providing access to new and useful information at all times may not lead to action.
  • Participation of stakeholders and communities can be tokenized, if not combined with other measures.

But the Paris climate negotiations will face this fundamental question: how can an agreement that simply expresses and extends the mandate of the 1992 Convention—“to avoid dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”—bind nations to achieve that goal without mandating their specific behavior?

Composite ratcheting could be a viable option.

Consider the impact of an agreement that calls on all Parties to outline (and implement) nationally determined climate action, according to respective capabilities, and to review and replace those policies every five years. If the same agreement requires that all Parties adhere to (and facilitate others’ achievement of) a standard of escalating ambition, then ongoing review becomes a powerful tool for motivating action.

The result of making new information available at any and all times, as soon as it is ready to be shared or applied, would be a higher contrast between leaders and laggards. When new capabilities are proven and shared, and some put them to use while others fail to, the policy landscape becomes more clearly an evaluation of both good faith and competitive leadership.

Both dealing in good faith and leading by example can be rewarded in concrete ways by already existing levers of pressure inherent in global negotiating processes of all kinds, and in well-developed tools for managing bilateral relations between countries.

Since the Paris climate package (the agreement and COP decisions, the national contributions, financing, and action platforms for implementation) will likely point to the use of these tools for leverage, while requiring escalating ambition, it makes sense to provide all Parties with open access to as much information about existing and imminent capabilities.

Flexibility, actionability, & common purpose

Building open stakeholder input into a continuous global landscape of information-sharing and ongoing review then would allow for five-year commitment cycles and periodic ratcheting to have a greater likelihood of success. Both the expectation of escalating ambition and the requirement for good economic outcomes would be easier to achieve, while an atmosphere of virtuous competition (competing to lead, while sharing best practices, data, and needed resources) builds force into the active implementation of the updated framework.

The climate negotiating process has struggled always with the misperception among nation-states that leadership is costly, whereas laggardship is cost-effective. The economics of the present day are already showing this to be poor judgment, going forward.

The question has been, consistently, how to secure a new treaty that effectively replaces the Framework Convention with a series of mandated actions and active programs for direct mitigation of climate risk and harm. But effective composite ratcheting, along with a smart restructuring of incentives of all kinds, now affords the opportunity, at last, to implement the 1992 Framework Convention, by building the operational logic of ambitious climate action into already existing structures.

Instead of a new global regime to control climate disruption, a new system of incentives is being designed to ensure that all nations steadily escalate the ambition and reliability of their mitigation strategies. With ongoing review, and active stakeholder participation, it becomes possible to achieve catalytic policy upgrade cycles where no one is afraid of the burdens of leadership.

There must be room for creativity, room for ready adjustment of priorities, and room for escalating ambition. The creation of that extra room can start with a composite program allowing each nation to build its own strategy for capitalizing on this new opportunity to fashion a leadership role in the global diplomatic and economic space.


Updates on Ratcheting in the Paris Agreement

  • The Paris Agreement includes official review every 5 years
  • The starting line may move up from 2020 to 2017
  • All parties are recommended to initiate climate action immediately
  • Escalating ambition is built into the new framework
  • New principles for transparency and accountability are established
  • Carbon pricing strategies are supported in multiple articles
  • Non-state actors are recognized as way to strengthen implementation
  • The IPCC is instructed to review climate danger at 1.5ºC, which builds in a steady escalation of ambition beyond the move from 3.5ºC (INDC capability) to 2ºC (existing mandate), to action corresponding to a 1.5ºC upper limit

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About Joseph Robertson

Joseph is Global Strategy Director for the non-partisan non-profit Citizens' Climate Lobby. He coordinates the building of CCL's citizen engagement groups on 5 continents, leads the Citizens' Climate Engagement Network and represents CCL in the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, UNFCCC negotiations, and other UN processes. He is a member of the Executive Board of the UN-linked NGO Committee on Sustainable Development-NY and of the Policy and Strategy Group for the World We Want. He is also the founder of Geoversiv.net and the Geoversiv Foundation and the lead strategist supporting the high-level climate dialogue series Accelerating Progress, Advancing Innovation.