COP28: The push for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty

7 min read
Dubai, UAE
15 December, 2023

For thirty years, the world’s nations and leaders have gathered almost annually to discuss how to address the escalating global climate crisis.

One issue has been at the heart of all negotiations: fossil fuels. Previous summits have consistently failed to adopt language committing to a calling for phase out of fossil fuels, focusing instead on commitments to reduce emissions, carbon offsetting, and scaling up renewable energy.

This year, at the 28th annual Conference of Parties hosted in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), the elephant in the room was finally confronted

After two weeks of gruelling negotiations that spilt over into Wednesday morning, more than 190 nations have agreed on a declaration calling on the world to “transition away” from fossil fuels.

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Some have praised the text as historic, while others point out that there are several glaring loopholes, namely that the declaration still fails to call for a complete “phase out” of fossil fuels.

Fossil fuels — namely oil, gas and coal — are the overwhelming drivers of climate change, responsible for approximately 86% of all greenhouse gas emissions since the Industrial Revolution.

In September, the Global Stocktake report found that the world was off track to meet the emission reduction targets needed to keep global warming under the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold set in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Current projections put the world closer to a 2.5-2.9 degree Celsius increase. 

"Developing countries have been completely left on their own... Without finance, nothing is going to happen"

It warned that the window to take decisive climate action is “rapidly narrowing”, and called for a phase out of fossil fuels.

To avoid catastrophic climate impacts, the report says, global emissions must fall by 43% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.

Despite all warnings, global emissions continue to rise, hitting record highs in 2022. Fossil fuels still account for about 80% of the world’s energy, with more expansion planned.

At this rate, countries will produce double the amount of fossil fuels needed to meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius target. 

In response to this perpetual deadlock, the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty emerged as an initiative to mobilise international cooperation and forge a new path.

Drawing on the successes and lessons of previous frameworks for landmine and nuclear non-proliferation, the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty lays out an alternative framework to transition the world to clean energy once and for all. 

“It's very clear that the process that we have under UNFCCC is going to be unable to deliver a comprehensive decision on how to phase out fossil fuels,” said Harjeet Singh, the global engagement director at the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative and head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network International.

“That's why we need a treaty, which is complementary to the Paris Agreement, and looks at those details and works out a plan,” he told The New Arab at COP28.

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The initiative has been endorsed by thousands of scientists, activists, and civil society organisations, as well as 12 governments. It claimed a big win at COP28 when Colombia, a major fossil fuel-producing country, joined the treaty.

“It’s important to send a political signal that it is the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era,” Singh said. 

A just and equitable transition

The core principle behind the non-proliferation treaty is that any realistic phase out plans must take into account a country’s wealth, its current reliance on fossil fuels, and its historical contributions to global emissions.

This country-specific approach is integral to ensuring a fair phase out, whereby nations with the capabilities and historical responsibility are required to transition fastest, climate experts say.

Poorer nations who are heavily reliant on fossil fuels must be given more time and support to make the transition, to ensure that the move to clean energy does not put jobs, communities or livelihoods at risk. 

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“We recognise that there are developing countries who are dependent on fossil fuels for energy or revenue or jobs. Now, we cannot say just to stop all the extraction today,” explained Singh. This group includes many MENA countries, like Iraq, Oman, Libya and Algeria.

“These countries need higher hand-holding support, and they are not the ones responsible for the climate crisis. Even the current model of development is not something that they started, the West promoted that model of industrialisation and now many countries are stuck with it,” he added.

A new report released last week by Civil Society Equity Review proposes a concrete timeline for a country-by-country phase out of fossil fuels.

Under the proposed dates, developing countries with economies heavily reliant on fossil fuels, such as the MENA nations mentioned above, will phase out by 2050. Wealthier nations and those with more diversified economies, such as Gulf states and the Global North, must phase out fossil fuels much sooner. 

Climate activists argue that an equitable transition away from fossil fuels is not only the right thing to do, but it is also vital to make a full phase out politically achievable, ensuring that countries stick to their plans and targets. 

No finance, no phase out

Another core principle of the treaty is that a global phase out must include financial support for Global South countries that will require additional funding to make the transition away from fossil fuels without heavy economic losses. 

These countries bear little responsibility for the climate crisis but are often the ones paying the highest price.

Climate justice activists have long argued that climate finance plays a key role in global efforts to keep global warming under dangerous levels. This includes the phase out of fossil fuels. 

In the Civil Society Equity Review report, wealthier countries that have historically emitted more and benefited greatly from fossil fuels are required to pay a proportional amount in climate financing to help transition by 2050. 

The United States, which is alone responsible for almost a quarter of historic emissions, should be responsible for almost half of global support, equivalent to $97 billion per year, according to the report’s findings. The European Union comes in second, responsible for  20% of financing, valued at $43 billion per year. 

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Shallow pockets for climate adaptation

Even by conservative estimates, $387 billion is needed to finance climate adaptation every year. 

At this year’s COP28, climate finance was high on the agenda, with a Loss and Damage fund mobilised on day one. But many wealthier and historic polluter nations have resisted the notion that they should be the ones to foot the bill for the climate crisis they created, contributing very little to funding. 

The final text adopted at the summit is vague regarding who will be required to contribute to climate financing and does not lay out a path towards a realistic and fair phase out, according to activists.

 “Developing countries have been completely left on their own,” said Singh. “Without finance, nothing is going to happen,” he asserted.

“Phase out sounds good, but that’s just it. It sounds good but then it is counterproductive if it is not equitable, if it is not funded, if it doesn't have a timeline,” said Aderonke Ige from Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa at a COP28 press conference.

These are the three core issues that the fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty has set out to answer, to provide a concrete path towards a fossil fuel-free world. But without adequate funding, this plan will struggle to even begin the long path to climate adaptation.

The New Arab will have continuous coverage of COP28 from Dubai. Click here for more

Nadine Talaat is a London-based journalist writing about Middle East politics, borders and migration, environment, and media representation. She is a Deputy Editor with The New Arab's editorial team

Follow her on Twitter: @nadine_talaat