Steam rises from cooling towers at the Junliangcheng power station in Tianjin, China
Steam rises from cooling towers at the Junliangcheng power station in Tianjin, China

If people were even half as good at cutting carbon dioxide pollution as they are at talking about it, there would be no such thing as a climate change problem.

Almost every year for the past two decades, hundreds of diplomats, officials and campaigners have trooped diligently to a UN climate negotiating conference to talk about how to stop global warming.

Each meeting ends with an eloquent set of pledges to do more, usually enshrined in an agreement named after the place where the talks are held.

But the net results of the Kyoto protocol, the Bali Action Plan, the Copenhagen Accord and the Cancún Agreement have been far from impressive. Global emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas driving climate change, have risen from about 22bn tonnes a year in the early 1990s to more than 35bn tonnes today.

This year, however, is supposed to be different. In December, negotiators from nearly 200 countries are due to seal a global climate change agreement at a UN summit in Paris that will finally stop the relentless rise of carbon emissions.

Ahead of the meeting, each country has been asked to submit a plan explaining how it intends to cut its carbon emissions and by how much.

Nearly 60 countries have done so over the course of this year, including the 28 members of the EU, China, the US and Japan, along with much smaller nations, from the Marshall Islands to Morocco.

This in itself is new. The only existing global climate treaty legally requiring countries to act — the 1997 Kyoto protocol — meant large industrialised countries had to cut their emissions while fast-growing emerging economies such as China and India did not.

This may have made sense in 1997, when the US was the world’s top carbon emitter, but not in 2015 when China is the largest entity and India is the third biggest (unless the EU is counted as a single emitter, which pushes India into fourth place).

The other important aspect of the Paris agreement is that it is supposed to include rules requiring countries progressively to increase their climate actions over many years — and possibly over decades.

As the UN’s top climate official, Christiana Figueres, puts it, this is not supposed to be a “one shot deal”.

But as the Paris meeting nears, it is clear that this progressive ramping up of emissions reduction efforts is going to be vital.

Ms Figueres has repeatedly acknowledged that the initial plans that countries have published this year will not be enough to stop global temperatures rising 2°C from pre-industrial times, a level that countries have agreed in previous UN talks should not be breached.

Some analysts who have looked closely at what countries have been pledging are more critical. “One would have expected that all the new government climate targets combined to put the world on a lower emissions pathway, but they haven’t,” says Louise Jeffery of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

The institute is one of four climate research groups that have joined forces to track the actions that countries have promised to take ahead of Paris, which in UN jargon are known as INDCs: intended nationally determined contributions.

In September, the consortium released its assessment of 15 of these pledges, covering 64.5 per cent of global emissions.

Only those of Ethiopia and Morocco were deemed to be in line with what is required to meet the 2C target.

Six others were rated “medium”: China, the EU, Mexico, Norway, Switzerland and the US. That is because, although the emissions cuts they pledged could be considered fair, warming would still exceed 2°C if all governments adopted similar levels of ambition.

And seven INDCs were rated “inadequate”, meaning they could not be considered to be a fair contribution to limiting warming to 2C “from almost any perspective”, according to the researchers. These came from Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Russia.

“Most governments that have already submitted an INDC need to review their targets in light of the global goal and, in most cases, will need to strengthen them,” says Niklas Höhne of NewClimate Institute.

“Those still working on their targets need to ensure they aim as high as possible.”

Whether the others comply or not, it means any accord struck in Paris is likely to be judged harshly unless countries agree to ratchet up their pledges in future.

Still, some analysts say even the pledges countries have made so far mean the Paris deal could be transformational, with important implications for companies. “I think only a few chief executives have really seriously engaged with what’s going on in the Paris negotiations at this point,” says Jonathan Grant, climate policy specialist at PwC, the professional services provider.

“Paris will catalyse action on climate at the national level, and that’s where the rubber hits the road for businesses,” Mr Grant says.

“The national targets proposed imply a step-change in effort and legislation which could result in more regulation for carbon intensive businesses and more incentives for low carbon technologies.”

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