A fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty to accelerate phase-out

The world is dependent on fossil fuels and the time has come to begin the weaning phase. The burning of fossil fuels is the primary cause of climate change, but there is no binding international legal instrument to regulate it. The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty appears to be a promising initiative to achieve the goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

At the opening of COP27, the Prime Minister of Tuvalu said: ” Warming seas begin to swallow our land inch by inch. But the world’s dependence on oil, gas and coal cannot sink our dreams beneath the waves. » [1] At the same time, he announced his country’s decision to join the “Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty”. [2], a treaty that aims to phase out fossil fuels in the long term. To limit warming to a maximum of 1.5°C, fossil fuel production is expected to decrease by 6% each year by 2030 [3].

Far from hoping to limit global warming to 1.5°C

More than 425 “climate bombs” [4] is about to explode into the world [5]. Including the EACOP project [6] of Total in Uganda, but also much closer to the coal mines of Hambach and Garzweiler, near Cologne in Germany. Letting these climate bombs explode would lead to over 3°C of warming and catastrophic consequences for life on Earth.

L’The Paris Agreement
The Paris Agreement

aims for carbon neutrality as a principle, but is linked to Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that are inconsistent with this goal. Moreover, the implementation of the agreement remains insufficient, as evidenced by COP27, whose final text does not register an exit from fossil fuels, mentioning only a ” coal phasing ” and ” end of inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels. Neither the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change from 1992 nor the Paris Agreement mentions an exit from fossil fuels. To overcome this weakness, the alternative of a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty presents itself as an instrument of international law that complements existing treaties and will specifically address this question.

Global threat, global solution

Tuvalu will disappear within a few decades, swallowed by rising waters. It is in the direct threat of climate change that their leadership in this area has been forged. Since 2015, the Pacific Island countries have demanded a moratorium on the development and expansion of the fossil fuel extraction industry, particularly coal [7]. And they are not the only ones who need more regulation. In 2017, during COP23, developing countries called for increasing ambition in all countries. In the same year, academics, researchers and activists told Lofoten that the carbon content of the fuels produced exceeds acceptable limits. Today, the idea of ​​complying with such a treaty is spreading rapidly, as more than 70 cities (including Paris, London, Los Angeles, Barcelona and most recently the Brussels-Capital Region), 1,800 civil society organizations, 3,000 academics, but also states such as Tuvalu, Vanuatu , the Vatican or the European Parliament and the WHO [8] has signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty initiative.

Three basic principles of the treaty

The idea of ​​the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty is based on three basic principles: non-proliferation, phase-out and just transition.

  1. there” non-proliferation stipulates the gradual cessation of the proliferation of coal, oil and gas and the end of all new exploration and production activity. The International Energy Agency reminds us: There is the possibility of a viable future, but it requires that from today no more investment be made in new supply projects [9] “.
  2. The gradual abandonment means phasing out stocks and stopping fossil fuel production. Based on 2018 figures, it is estimated that 60% of oil and gas and 90% of coal must remain in the ground to meet climate targets [10]. The first step requires identifying reserves and limiting extraction.
    Thanks to the data collected by the companies for environmental reasons (license, administration) and profit, the amount of fuels is easier to track than the greenhouse gases.
  3. Finally is the third principle just transition which will be necessary to limit the social damage associated with the exit from fossil fuels. For workers who are active in the fossil fuel sectors that are doomed to close, it is thus necessary to be able to ensure professional transition. Moreover, the prospect of access to energy is a key issue to allow the development of the poorest countries, access to low-emission technologies will prove to be crucial. There are several financing options, including the possibility of redirecting the 700 billion in subsidies for fossil fuels [11] against the just transition.

At the source of this draft treaty, there is a parallel with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which has been in force since 1970: although the purpose is different, the two issues have similarities, such as the fact that nuclear weapons, like climate change, pose the threat of an uninhabitable world. The negotiation process is also inspiring because the treaty was concluded in an atmosphere of tension, mistrust and rivalry between the most powerful states of the time. The lack of trust between Western states on the one hand and the “G77 plus China” on the other, which brings together the countries of the South in international negotiations, limits the results of the COPs every year. That is why the parallel is inspiring: despite the unfavorable political context of the Cold War, a major agreement on the nuclear issue could still be reached in just three years. [12]. Moreover, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is based on the recognition of the need for security in all states, just as it is necessary today to recognize both the need to respect planetary boundaries and the right to development as a basis for negotiation.

First the big ones, then the others

But while the analogy with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty can be inspiring, it also has its limitations. In the case of fossil fuels, although only ten countries produce more than 75% of the climate bombs [13], every country in the world is involved in trading fossil fuels. While on the nuclear side, only nine countries possess the weapon [14]. The question of responsibility arises: historical issuers are highlighted as the first to take action, but they are not the only ones. Indeed, the Lofoten Declaration also encourages companies to take action by saying “ that it is the responsibility and moral duty of wealthy fossil fuel producers to lead by example in quickly halting the development of fossil fuels and managing the decline in current production » [15]. In particular, the countries and companies involved in the exploitation of the 425 climate bombs are the first actors who should join the initiative.

In their report is Carbon Disclosure Project shows that 100 companies are responsible for more than 70% of emissions since 1988 [16]. Among these are of course the major oil companies: Total, Shell, Exxon, but also companies owned by states such as India (Indian Coal), Saudi Arabia (Saudi Aramco) and China (PetroChina). Given the size of their population and their economy, it is crucial that these states, which are new major emitters of greenhouse gases, make the decision to join the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Fossil Fuels. Nevertheless, their plans to exit fossil fuels will be spread over a longer period than for OECD countries.

This treaty need not be universal to be effective.

If one questions the chances of success of such an initiative, it is obvious that the exit from fossil fuels is an extremely complex issue and that the negotiation of such a treaty will take time. After the stalemate in Copenhagen in 2009, however, no one believed in the conclusion of a global climate agreement six years later in Paris.

The idea of ​​this non-proliferation treaty is based on the fact that every ton of CO2 that is not allowed to be used or exploited is good to take in the hope of limiting global warming. The idea is also to establish a mutual neutralization of the major fossil players. The very essence of the idea of ​​non-proliferation is that states monitor each other to minimize the free rider problem and thus encourage regulation of the supply of fossil fuels.

The starting point for the negotiations could be coal, because it is the fuel that emits the most CO2 for the same amount of energy produced [17]. Although it is the most polluting fuel, the national plans submitted by the states to the UN for 2030 show that its production could represent almost two and a half times that compatible with a +1.5°C trajectory. [18]. However, a decision on coal does not mean that all countries must agree, as the largest producers in that order are China, India, Indonesia, the USA, Australia, Russia and the EU. In 2021, production in all these countries was 8 times higher than the rest of the world [19].The reduced number of actors will potentially facilitate the negotiations. Addressing the issue of coal would prove a gateway to regulating other fuels. However, coal is unique in that it is the energy source at the heart of development for hundreds of millions of people, mostly in Asia. Therefore, it is necessary to ensure that the piloting of an exit from coal is supported by funding for the countries whose economic impact is greatest. Indonesia has, for example, has taken the lead in striking a €20 billion deal with the G20 that will enable the country to anticipate its exit from coal and finance its energy transition with the ultimate goal of zero emissions by 2050. [20].

The IPCC recommends significantly lowering the consumption and production of fossil fuels, stopping the subsidies for these activities and disinvesting this part of the private sector [21]. The European Parliament appears to be heeding the IPCC’s recommendations and calls on national governments to ” phase out fossil fuels as soon as possible » [22].

Gas, oil and coal have hovered over our economies since the Industrial Revolution, but it is time to end this reliance on fossil fuels. The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty has the potential to begin the detoxification of our economies and move towards a just and ambitious energy transition.

[21] IPCC, 2022: Summary for Policymakers [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, E.S. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, M. Tignor, A. Alegría, M. Craig, S. Langsdorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem (eds.)]. IN: Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change {}[H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, M. Tignor, E.S. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, A. Alegría, M. Craig, S. Langsdorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem, B. Rama (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA, pp. 3-33, doi:10.1017/9781009325844.001

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