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The Paris Agreement will help fight climate change. But it’s missing a critical element

The Agreement misses out on listing fossil fuels as one of the main contributors to climate change.

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This November, 195 countries are set to gather in Glasgow, Scotland for the long-awaited COP26, the 26th annual summit of the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Together, they will work to deliver on their Paris Agreement commitments by reviewing and ratcheting up their climate plans for the upcoming decade, a critical move as extreme weather and climate action failure top the World Economic Forum’s 2021 global risk list.

But the Paris Agreement, important as it is, does not reference fossil fuels as the main contributors to climate change.

This omission has been receiving growing attention. It has been highlighted by the annual Production Gap Report, which is put together by leading research institutions and experts, in collaboration with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). Civil society groups, and many of the particularly climate-vulnerable Pacific Island countries, have also called attention to the omission.

Recently, a new wave of activists (from young people to Indigenous Peoples, 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.

They recognise that the Paris Agreement requires a complementary mechanism to drive a global and equitable transition away from coal, oil, and gas production, and are calling for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Slow transition

In the five years since the Paris Agreement was signed, the energy industry has continued to expand significantly. But to keep global warming below 1.5ºC fossil fuel production must decline every year by 9.5%, 8.5% and 3.5% for coal, oil, and gas, respectively, until 2030.

Instead of approving new coal mines and funding new gas and oil projects, governments should divert their resources to accelerate a green recovery post-COVID

This reinforces why we urgently need international action. There are two main reasons why the world needs to act fast. Firstly, the fossil fuel system underpins so much of our existing economies. If we leave this to the market alone, energy industry leaders might not act fast enough. This will slow the transition to green energy and cause countries to miss their targets.

Secondly, the transition will be disruptive for many economies, particularly for the 400 million people who live in countries that are highly dependent on oil sales for government revenue.

A model for international cooperation

The 1.5°C pathway is becoming increasingly narrow. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report notes that the globe has already warmed by 1.2°C degrees. The Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres has said that the IPCC report must “sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels before they destroy our planet”.

There is precedent for international cooperation in a time of crisis, and the current 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. However, it was recently been augmented by a new 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. Thus, 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 of months. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has found that new fossil fuel expansion conflicts with Paris goals and G7 members have agreed to stop financing new coal projects. In addition, many jurisdictions are banning new fossil fuel permits. But there is still a long way to go because some countries are still approving new drilling.

Phasing out existing production

It is also widely agreed in the scientific community that we need to defuse the fossil-fuel threat by winding down existing stockpiles and limiting the production of fossil fuels in line with the best available climate science – nations will need to negotiate and agree on the principles underpinning this process to make sure it’s fair and fast.

Managing a just global transition

This must be done through a process of international cooperation, which places equity at the core. Wealthy producing countries need to lead the way by sharing the benefits and burdens of transition with poorer nations, workers, and fossil-fuel dependent communities, many of whom will be particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change should we overshoot our 1.5°C temperature goal.

For the world to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 °C, climate action must be equitable. It must be 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 the production of fossil fuels at a faster rate than poorer countries, which require greater support to transition. It is also imperative to redirect finance and subsidies from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

A growing international movement

The momentum behind the Fossil Fuel Treaty idea is surging. Major cities such as Los Angeles, Vancouver and Barcelona, and just recently Sydney, have already endorsed the Treaty, sparking a number of other municipal governments to endorse it – including an ex-coal mining community in Derbyshire, UK.

In April 2021, 101 Nobel Laureates, including His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, called on world leaders to stop fossil fuel expansion. Hundreds of organizations, who represent millions of individuals, have also followed suit and have explicitly called for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. Amongst these are almost 1500 scientists, academics and researchers.

COP26 can be an opportunity for world leaders to go over and above commitments to limit greenhouse gas emissions and include commitments to cut down fossil fuel production. This will pave a pathway for an international framework to scale up action so that the world can move past coal, oil, and gas – fairly, fast, and forever.

Alex Rafalowicz, Director, Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative

This article was previously published in the World Economic Forum.

Also read: The last time I was so ecstatic about climate action was in 1987


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