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This is why we need a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty
- Mar 24, 2023 7:51 pm GMT
This week, the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change once again made it clear: no more fossil fuel sources can be opened if the world is serious about living up to its commitments and avoiding a significantly worsening climate crisis.
Despite experts ringing the alarm on the threat of fossil fuels, governments are still approving new coal, oil and gas projects even though burning the world’s fossil fuel reserves would result in seven times more climate pollution than what is needed to keep heating below 1.5ºC.
The science is clear: To prevent the worst of the climate crisis we need to act fast by stopping new fossil fuel projects, phasing down existing polluting projects, and putting renewable energy access into hyperdrive.
What is lacking is political will that prevents us from acting boldly to reverse this crisis.
In the past month alone, we have seen the Biden administration approve the controversial Willow Project in Alaska, Prime Minister Sunak has ignored calls to ditch plans at Rosebank oil field, Prime Minister Albanese approved 116 gas wells and Prime Minister Trudeau has a new fracked gas project.
The world’s principle climate policy, the Paris Agreement excluded some tough issues, creating a major elephant in the room: fossil fuels are the main contributor to climate change, yet you won’t find them mentioned once in this landmark international agreement. Fossil fuels were finally included in the outcome document of the 2021 UN climate talks in Glasgow but it was generally considered to be a weak mention.
This omission has been receiving growing attention, from the UN Environment Programme’s annual Production Gap reports to the decades old calls from civil society groups and many of the particularly climate-vulnerable Pacific Island countries. Recently, a new wave of activists (from young people, to Indigenous Peoples, to peace groups and labour unions) have joined cities, parliamentarians, scientists and over 101 Nobel Laureates in calling for global action and cooperation on the question of fossil fuel production.
All of these experts recognise that the Paris Agreement requires a complementary mechanism to drive a global and equitable transition away from coal, oil and gas production. A unifying campaign to deliver this is the call for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The elephant in the room
In the five years since the Paris Agreement was signed, the industry has continued to expand significantly. Instead, staying on a 1.5C pathway would require global fossil fuel production to decline each year by 9.5%, 8.5% and 3.5% for coal, oil and gas, respectively, until 2030.
Yet, in several countries that are claiming to be “climate leaders”, we are still seeing governments approve new coal mines and fund new gas and oil projects using resources meant to accelerate a green recovery post-COVID but instead are exposing themselves to the risk of stranded assets.
This reinforces why we so urgently need international cooperation - the fossil fuel system underpins so much of our existing economies. If we leave this to the market alone, first the powerful vested interests will continue to thwart action, slowing the transition so we miss our targets - as they have for the last 40 years (if not more). But secondly, the transition will be disruptive for many economies, particularly for the 400 million people who live in countries highly dependent on oil sales for government revenue.
A model for international cooperation
The 1.5°C pathway is becoming increasingly narrow with the IPCC report noting that we are already at 1.2°C degrees of heating and the head of the UN telling the fossil fuel industry that “your core product is our core problem”
There is precedent for international cooperation in a time of crisis and the scale of climate disaster calls for a global solution that addresses the fossil fuel industry directly.
Fifty years ago, nations came together to face another existential global threat: nuclear weapons. They agreed to stop the new production of arms, reduce existing stockpiles and promote peaceful technologies via the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The original treaty came into effect in 1970 and is still in place today, after being ratified by 191 nations. It has been augmented by a more recent treaty, inspired by the Nobel Prize-winning International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons.
Applying this model to address the rapid proliferation of fossil fuels can serve as a complement to the Paris Agreement, a sort of dual model whereby both emissions and production can be tackled as part of a cohesive whole. The Fossil Fuel Treaty proposal rests on three pillars:
- Ending fossil fuel expansion: The first pillar (non-proliferation) has seen great momentum in the past couple months alone with the IEA finding that any new fossil fuel expansion conflicts with Paris goals, G7 members agreeing to stop financing new coal projects and many jurisdictions’ bans on new fossil fuel permits (fingers crossed for the vote in Costa Rica this week) - but there is still far to go when countries that claim climate leadership like the UK, Canada, the US, and Norway continue approving new drilling.
- Phasing out existing production: It is also widely agreed in the scientific community that we need to defuse this threat by winding down existing stockpiles and production of fossil fuels in line with the best available climate science - we will need to negotiate and agree the principles underpinning this process to make sure it’s fair and goes fast enough as well as work with first-movers such as members of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance.
- Managing a global just transition: This must be done through a process of international cooperation placing equity at the core, with wealthy producing countries leading the way and sharing the benefits and burdens of transition with poorer nations, workers and fossil-fuel dependent communities, many of whom are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change should we miss our 1.5°C temperature goal.
It is vital that the global transition towards our 1.5C temperature goal is equitable, based on countries' fair share of expected climate action, their historical contribution to climate change and their capacity to act.
This means richer countries must reduce production of fossil fuels at a faster rate than poorer countries that require greater support to transition, including through the redirection of finance and subsidies from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
A growing international movement
Momentum behind the Fossil Fuel Treaty idea is surging. Vanuatu and Tuvalu are the first two nation states to formally call for the Fossil Fuel Treaty proposal, at the UN General Assembly and COP27 respectively and have several other Pacific nations closely following suit: Tonga, Fiji, Niue and the Solomon Islands.
The three pillars of the Treaty proposal have also been endorsed by:
- The World Health Organisation
- The European Parliament
- The President of Timor-Leste despite their reliance on oil and gas revenue
- 80 cities and subnational governments including Sydney, Kolkata, Lima, London, Los Angeles and Paris
- 3,000 scientists and academics
- 600 parliamentarians from 79 countries globally
- 101 Nobel laureates
- 2,000 civil society organisations
There are very few policies that actually constrain fossil fuel production so there is a glaring gap, especially for a solution that matches the enormous scale of the problem.
This is why we need international mechanisms like the proposed Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty to end the expansion of fossil fuels while phasing out existing production, and providing the global governance required to manage this transition in a way that is fair, fast and sufficiently financed.
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