“The window on fossil fuel investment must be rapidly closed before it is unceremoniously slammed shut, with disastrous consequences”

By Tzeporah Berman, Chair for the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty & Carroll Muffett, President and CEO for the Center for International Environmental Law | November 15, 2022

From the International Energy Agency to the High Level Expert Group on Net Zero, the international community is increasingly acknowledging what science long ago made clear: the expansion of fossil fuels is fundamentally incompatible with meeting the crucial climate targets set in the Paris Agreement.

Yet, with limited exceptions, a focus on ending that expansion and phasing out fossil fuels has been notably absent from most high-level speeches at the ongoing UN Climate talks. More alarmingly, many governments – including self-proclaimed climate leaders – continue to approve and finance new coal, oil and gas projects even though burning currently existing fossil fuel reserves would release seven times more greenhouse emissions than is compatible with keeping warming below 1.5ºC.

To have any hope of staying within this critical limit, we need international cooperation to stop the expansion of fossil fuels and manage a global, rapid and just transition away from coal, oil and gas. This is why significant momentum is building behind the call for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Just last week, the Prime Minister of Tuvalu issued a formal call at COP27 for nation-states to join that nation and Vanuatu in developing a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. This builds on broadening support in recent months including from the World Health Organisation, the Vatican and European Parliament. It also aligns with calls from other states, including Columbia, Estonia, Austria, and, most recently, India to end the narrow focus on coal and confront fossil fuels altogether.

As the treaty gains momentum, we are often asked whether it is even feasible given likely opposition from the largest fossil fuel exporters.

History shows that a treaty need not be universal to be effective or transformative. A grouping of ‘champion’ countries, including those most vulnerable to climate change, non-producers and small- and mid-level producers could exercise significant influence by committing to collaborative action between consumer and producer countries to wind down production, as well as create new international legal standards and shift norms that flow through to the finance sector, market actors, subnational governments, and ultimately domestic policy-making. Even an initial small grouping of countries committed to high ambition and real collaboration could demonstrate that rapid, meaningful progress is possible and transform global markets and the policy landscape.

The first step towards creating a Fossil Fuel Treaty is to build public support for it. This is about shifting international norms around government accountability for fossil fuels and creating the impetus for a set of countries to initiate negotiations towards a treaty.

That shifting of norms is happening now and it’s accelerating.

Last week, the city of Belém, Brazil, became the first Amazonian city to endorse the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, calling for the Amazon to be a “fossil fuel non proliferation zone.” It joins Kolkata, Sydney, London, Paris, Montreal, Los Angeles, and nearly 70 other cities worldwide to confront fossil fuels head on.

Financial flows are starting to shift, including Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurance company, adopting a new policy last month excluding oil insurance and reinsurance.

And the Prime Minister of Barbados has called for a windfall profits tax on fossil fuel companies, a strong call that could link to the loss and damage needs of developing countries and ensure that a fund that is fit for purpose is started today and not pushed off to future negotiations.

As nation-states add their voices to cities and subnational governments, intergovernmental organizations, health organizations, faith institutions, elected leaders, Nobel laureates, and civil society organizations from around the world, momentum is growing to urgently address the fossil fuels that destabilize the global economy, international society and the planetary climate. The diversity of voices, responsibilities, and perspectives joining that call is a testament to its potential, its reach, and its timeliness.

The world has done this before and can do it again. From landmines, to ozone depleting substances, to weapons of mass destruction, treaties are a proven tool in managing, restricting and phasing out dangerous substances and technologies. From fueling war in Ukraine, to fomenting instability, to destabilizing our shared climate, fossil fuels pose a present and paramount danger to global society, humankind, and our planetary home. Confronting that danger demands that leaders at every level of society join the call for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The future that we want is within reach. The world already has enough renewable energy potential to provide 100% renewable energy access to its population via solar and wind power alone. Making that transition sounds expensive out of context: an estimated $450 billion annually until 2030. But the world is set to squander $570 billion a year on new oil and gas during that same period. The costs of inaction – whether measured in dollars, in livelihoods, or in lives – are incalculable. The window on fossil fuel investment must be rapidly closed before it is unceremoniously slammed shut, with disastrous consequences.

In the Horn of Africa alone, one person is dying every 36 seconds due to climate induced drought. These deaths are inexcusable, unacceptable and, amidst a global climate emergency, far from unique. To those that say a treaty is too big, too bold or we can’t afford the time, we can only reply that we are long since out of time. What we don’t have time for is more of the same.

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