Q&A: How a Fossil Fuel Treaty Could Support the Paris Agreement and Wind Down Production

One of the most important questions surrounding the COP28 climate summit is whether nations will finally agree to phase out fossil fuels, which are responsible for the vast majority of climate-warming pollution. Such an agreement would require a global consensus and support from the world’s largest producers of coal, oil and gas, a hurdle that has proven too high in previous rounds of negotiation.

Even if nations fail to agree, however, a parallel effort is gaining steam to build pressure from the bottom up, one that would not require unanimous support.

Over the last few years, the campaign for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, which would chart a path for a fair and equitable phase-out of fossil fuel production, has gained the support of 11 nations, the European Parliament, the World Health Organization and at least 100 cities and subnational governments. Several nations, including Colombia, one of South America’s largest fossil fuel producers, announced their support during COP28.

Inside Climate News talked with Tzeporah Berman, international program director at Stand.Earth and the chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative, about how a treaty could complement the Paris Agreement and speed a clean energy transition. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What is the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, and why do we need a treaty, specifically?

For 30 years, our governments have been negotiating emissions reduction targets, and almost behind our backs, the fossil fuel industry has been growing the production of fossil fuels. And what a lot of people don’t realize is that the Paris Agreement doesn’t even include the words oil, gas, coal or fossil fuels. We currently don’t have any agreement to wind down the production of fossil fuels in line with the world’s climate goals. So this is one of the huge missing pieces in the fight against climate change…

Tzeporah Berman. Credit: Photo Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage via Getty Images

Tzeporah Berman. Credit: Photo Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage via Getty Images

What we’re seeing here at COP28 is that fossil fuels have finally been dragged center stage, in part because of the fossil fuel treaty campaign around the world for the last three years raising awareness about the fact that we are not aligning the production of fossil fuels with Paris goals. Right now we are on track to produce 110 percent more oil, gas, and coal between now and 2030 than we can ever burn if we want to meet the goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

We need new agreements between countries on who gets to produce what fossil fuels and how much, and for how long. We need a plan that’s based on equity and fairness to align production with a global carbon budget. And we’re going to need new financial mechanisms and cooperation to support countries in, first of all, stopping the expansion of fossil fuels, and then secondly, winding down the production of fossil fuels.

There are so many countries today that are expanding the production of fossil fuels just to feed their debt. So some of the areas that are being looked at under a fossil fuel treaty include debt relief or tax agreements and trade agreements in order to make stopping the expansion and production and winding down production viable for many countries around the world.

There’s something intuitive about the notion that we should be producing less fossil fuel. But I’ve also heard well reasoned arguments that targeting supply specifically will either be ineffective, because other countries will simply increase production to meet demand, or that if it is effective and begins to crimp supply, that it would lead to energy price spikes and volatility that would undermine political support and potentially hurt developing nations the most. What’s your response to these critiques?

Trying to phase out fossil fuels by designing policy that is only to reduce demand is like trying to cut with one half of the scissors. We need to cut both supply and demand because what we build today will be what we use tomorrow. So we’ve had 30 years of climate policy and negotiations, designed just to reduce demand. And it’s not working. It’s not working fast enough to keep us safe.

Every year, we miss our climate targets. Every year, the reports come out showing that emissions are continuing to grow. Why? It’s not because renewables aren’t cheaper, because now they are. It’s not because countries aren’t escalating the development of renewables, because they are. But 10 years ago, 80 percent of the energy we use on this planet came from fossil fuels. Today, 80 percent of the energy that we use comes from fossil fuels. Because we may be increasing the good stuff, but we’re not yet cutting the bad stuff… [According to the United Kingdom-based Energy Institute, fossil fuels’ share of the world’s energy mix has declined marginally, from about 86 percent in 2012 to 82 percent last year.]

On the idea that cutting supply will just increase prices, create more volatility, what we need to remember is that the current energy system is not designed to deliver low cost energy to all. It’s already too expensive for a billion people. The fossil fuel industry has had 200 years to provide energy access and to create a system that ensures energy for all and they haven’t done it…

The price shocks that are inherent in the fossil fuel system impact the poorest the most, and they’re already pricing out the consumers when they spike and hurting the public accounts when they crater. And that’s the reason we need an accelerated and planned transition to renewables that will actually help the poorest because the fossil fuel energy system was not designed to deliver energy to people, but instead designed to deliver profit to a few.

One way that this stands out from what the world has been doing, focusing on demand, is you have to convince a country that it’s in its interest to sell less, if you’re talking to a producer country. So when you are talking to countries that are dependent on the revenue, or even if they’re not dependent, that benefit from it. What’s your case for why this is in a country’s interest?

Every country that I talk to is struggling, especially in the Global South, because of the impacts of climate change that are not only physical and affecting the environment, the air we breathe and the water we drink and a stable climate, but also having devastating economic impacts. And so I don’t think there’s a single country that I’ve met with that doesn’t know that we need to dramatically reduce fossil fuel production and emissions. But many of them are frustrated, because they’re actually being forced in a position to expand fossil fuel production. And they know that it won’t last….

What countries who are producing today know is that we’re going to use less oil in the future. But many of them, especially the wealthy nations, they want to be the last barrel sold. And that’s why they’re continuing to produce more and more even though they know we’re going to use less and less.

I think in some ways, the best answer to your question came from the minister of climate change for Colombia [Susana Muhamad]. She said to me, “our economy is 65 percent dependent on fossil fuel production, we’re the sixth largest coal exporter in the world, and that’s why we’re endorsing the fossil fuel treaty. Because every day, we’re forced to make the problem bigger for ourselves. And we know that we can’t do a transition on our own. We know that we need international cooperation in order to ensure a truly global just transition.”

Can you paint a picture of what a successful treaty might look like? What would countries be agreeing to do beyond the overarching goal of phasing out production?

We don’t yet have the text of a treaty. The growing bloc of nations that have endorsed the call for the treaty are starting now to develop the language under a treaty. But what we do have is agreement on what the three pillars of a treaty would be. And the first is ending the expansion of fossil fuels. So we’re looking at different areas of global governance, different mechanisms that can help countries alleviate the barriers to stopping that expansion, issues like debt relief, for example.

The second pillar of the treaty is managing the wind-down in a way that is equitable and fair. Who gets to produce during the transition, and how much? Right now, that’s decided by the markets. And if we leave it up to the marketplace, well, there’s no justice embedded in the marketplace, there’s no equity embedded in the marketplace. And there’s no limits. We can’t ensure that fossil fuel production stays within a global carbon budget unless it’s managed. So the second pillar of the treaty is designing mechanisms for how to manage that wind-down in an equitable way.

The third pillar of the treaty is looking at how do we fast-track the transition and solutions in a way that is fair, and in a way that’s financed. And so under that pillar of the treaty we’re looking at different mechanisms like tax agreements, like trade agreements, in order to ensure that we have good support for countries in managing the transition, but also to ensure that a treaty would be binding, that there would be repercussions for not moving forward, for continuing to expand, for example.

And that leads me to really the difference between a fossil fuel treaty and the system that we’re working with here at COP28, within the [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] system. Because of the interventions of countries like Saudi Arabia decades ago, this process is by consensus. It’s a process that is not binding. And those two issues result in rules that meet the lowest common denominator. You have to get consensus with even the countries who stand to benefit from the status quo.

If you look at other treaties, like the prohibition of nuclear weapons, or landmines, for example, you see that we have in the past created treaties that were created by a coalition of the willing, a small group of countries that commits to create rules that are binding and rules that reflect the highest level of ambition. And in some of those treaties, some of the biggest countries never signed—the U.S. and Russia, on the [Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons]. But did they keep stockpiling nuclear weapons? No. Because those treaties set a high bar, and that high bar became a new social norm. It became what is acceptable within foreign policy debates. And what we’re lacking today is that high bar, is that ambition. It’s leadership and a direction of travel.

So I do believe that the fossil fuel treaty will create new legal mechanisms, it’ll create new international cooperation and binding agreements for those who choose to sign a fossil fuel treaty. But we will also see that as a result of those frameworks being introduced into foreign policy debates, that it will create new social norms and a new bar for climate leadership.

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Can you talk about any goals that you have for the COP, and what you’re hoping to achieve or see come out of this?

It’s absolutely critical that here at COP28 countries agree to language to phase out fossil fuels, not phase down fossil fuels, not phase down unabated fossil fuels, but to phase out fossil fuels. And the pressure on countries to do that is certainly growing here. And I think that is possible.

It’s also critical that we see more countries joining the call for a fossil fuel treaty, because even if COP28 includes phase-out of fossil fuel language in the text, there is still the question of how to do that. What’s the plan for countries to cooperate in order to ensure a global phase-out of fossil fuels? Well, there is no plan. And that’s why we need a fossil fuel treaty as a companion to the Paris Agreement to help us meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

So coming out of COP28, I have no doubt that we will have more countries joining the call for the fossil fuel treaty, that we will have more interest from around the world and starting to join the bloc of countries to develop the treaty, and more awareness on this missing framework in fighting climate change. And I think that’s really exciting. 

I’ve been at this a long time, and this is the first COP where a conversation about fossil fuels is center stage. And that in itself is a testimony to the work of thousands of people around the world who have been fighting on the front lines in their homes against fossil fuel projects, who have been marching in the streets and who are now calling for a fossil fuel treaty.

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