The tradition of setting a New Year’s resolution is thought to date all the way back to ancient Babylonia. To please the gods at the start of each year, Babylonians would promise to pay off debts and return their neighbor’s farm equipment. A few thousand years later, we are still making promises. In fact, some of the most significant New Year’s resolutions of all time are being made at this very moment.
I’m not referring to your resolution to join a gym–commendable as it is–I’m talking about international pledges to address climate change.
One of the most startling climate-based resolutions came from China, which after years of discussion reached an agreement with the United States to curb its greenhouse gas emissions. Specifically, China agreed to reach peak emissions by 2030 and to increase the percentage of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to 20% by that time. In turn, the US pledged to reduce emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025.
To understand the importance of the U.S.-China deal, I consulted Beveridge & Diamond Principal and former EPA General Counsel Scott Fulton. Scott was in Beijing at the time the accord was reached, participating in a Roundtable discussion on amendments to China’s Environmental Protection Law.
I was prepared for Scott to echo the usual criticisms waged against resolutions of any kind; they are non-binding, there’s often no clear plan for completion, and they go too far or not far enough. Instead, he told me he believed the accord is of “monumental significance.”
According to Scott, progress in China is critical to the United States consideration of any new climate deal. “The United States would never be able to do much in the international sphere without action from China,” he said. The pledge to curb emissions by 2030 makes it more difficult for other nations to point to China to justify inaction. The commitments may be non-binding, but the agreement itself is a significant step.
Further, Scott told me, both sides may be in a position to uphold their side of the deal. While it will be a “herculean lift” on China’s end, Scott emphasized that the resolve of the Chinese government is capable of producing enormous change. And, though action in the U.S. is largely dependent on who takes the White House, Scott noted that “there are forces producing change that are bigger than the political process.” In particular, the economics-based shift towards a natural gas future will by itself yield major greenhouse gas benefits —although meeting the 26-28% figure will require reductions in other spheres.
Following my meeting with Scott, climate change talks in Peru wrapped up with the resulting document, the Lima Call for Climate Action, leaving many disappointed. Few agreed with President Pulgar-Vidal’s assessment that “with it, we all win.” The final text has numerous holes and ambiguities and negotiators kicked the can down the road on many contentious issues, including climate finance and the differentiation between developed and developing countries. It is clear that the U.S.-China agreement was not enough to push all world leaders to take similar action. One step forward, a few steps back.
Resolutions, be they an agreement with your local gym or a historic climate deal, are good to make but tough to keep. Will the world’s two largest economies keep their New Year’s resolution? Will other nations push past the Lima Accord? Only time will tell. With Paris ahead of us, it should at the very least be an exciting year.