Opinion: It’s time to listen to the science, face the music and accept that all fossil fuels’ days are numbered

By Tzeporah Berman, Chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative and International Program Director at Stand.earth | November 4, 2021

In the past decade, renewable energy has become cost-competitive and pressure on governments to take climate action has only grown louder. Yet the share of fossil fuels in the world’s total energy mix is currently 80%, just as high as it was a decade ago.

Yet while our governments are regulating emissions and talking about net zero, discussion and pledges to stop fossil fuel expansion and projects are still not the norm.

Recently I was told at a climate conference that it was “a bit rude to keep talking about fossil fuels. It makes people uncomfortable”. Given the fires and floods and heatwaves sweeping the planet and taking lives and livelihoods, we should be uncomfortable.

It is time to say the F word at COP: fossil fuels.

In order to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, we need both domestic action and international cooperation to stop the expansion of fossil fuel emissions AND production.  Countries and companies have been claiming climate leadership while also supporting new coal, oil and gas projects, directly or indirectly.

In just the past decade, 86% of CO2 emissions have been caused by oil, gas and coal according to the IPCC. Despite this, governments plan to produce more than double the amount of fossil fuels consistent with a 1.5-degree trajectory by 2030, and 10% more than their own climate pledges.

Even the funnelling of pandemic recovery funds paints a concerning picture: more than half of the $372 billion in recovery funds given by G7 countries to energy-producing and consuming activities from January 2020 to March 2021 was for coal, oil and gas.

Even if fossil fuel expansion ended overnight, too many fossil fuels are already under production in existing coal mines and oil and gas wells to remain within a 1.5°C budget.

As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said earlier this week: “Our addiction to fossil fuels is pushing humanity to the brink. We face a stark choice: Either we stop it, or it stops us”.

Despite this growing pile of evidence, the fossil fuel industry continues to promote its business in its own alternative reality.

New analysis from the International Monetary Fund finds that the fossil fuel industry benefits from $11 million of subsidies every minute, a total of $5.9 trillion in 2020. A sobering statistic when the IEA’s net-zero roadmap estimated that just $5 trillion is necessary by 2030 to get us back on track towards avoiding the climate crisis.

And while these subsidies are distorting the market, the fossil fuel industry still has incredible clout, switching its tactics from blunt denial to discourses of delay. This includes running pro-fossil fuel ads that were viewed more than 431 million times on Facebook’s US platforms in 2020 alone.

Against this desperately worrying backdrop, it is crystal clear that new, transformative initiatives are needed to complement the landmark Paris Agreement.

A direct response is the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty initiative, which aims to foster a global equitable transition away from fossil fuels to clean, low-carbon energy and economies. It is built around three pillars of ending fossil fuel expansion, phasing out existing production and managing a just global transition.

The initiative also recognizes that there is a lack of public accounting for how much fossil fuels are being produced and by whom. Historic efforts to tackle global threats, including the proliferation of nuclear weapons, demonstrate that government transparency and accountability is an important foundation and precursor for broader international cooperation. So, we are also developing a Global Registry of Fossil Fuels to bolster international transparency and an accountability mechanism for fossil fuel supply.

The momentum behind the Fossil Fuel Treaty idea is surging.

Major cities such as Los Angeles, Vancouver, Barcelona and Sydney have already endorsed the Treaty and sparked a number of other municipal governments to follow suit, most recently one of the cradles of science in the UK, Cambridge. Many more are tabling motions in the coming months.

In April, 101 Nobel Laureates, including His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, called on world leaders to work for international agreement based on the same pillars as the Treaty. This was soon followed by more than 2,000 of the world’s leading scientists and academics plus 130 Parliamentarians from 25 countries who have also endorsed the call for a global treaty to address fossil fuel production

Indigenous leaders, frontline communities, youth groups, health advocates and over 800 civil society organisations are also following suit and calling for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.

So today, world leaders need to stop dancing around the harsh reality that fossil fuels are the main driver of the climate crisis and publicly endorse the need for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.

And governments can take action immediately: committing to new supply side policies, starting with moratoria on new licenses and permits for fossil fuel production; as a first mover in the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance; by considering how they can support developing governments with a globally just transition from fossil fuels; or working within existing multilateral forums such as the UNFCCC or UNGA.

COP26 needs to be more than “the COP that consigns coal power to history“. Rather, it is time to listen to the science, face the music and accept that all fossil fuels’ days are numbered.