One of the challenges of tackling a global problem like climate change is that there is no world government to oversee mandatory and equitable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
The Paris Agreement does not even mention the main culprit in climate breakdown – fossil fuels – and unlike the Montreal Protocol which mandated a global phase-out of ozone-depleting chemicals, no similar legal mechanism exists to co-ordinate an orderly phase-down of oil, coal and gas production.
Despite decades of annual Cops – conference of the parties – meetings hosted by the UN, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports and International Energy Agency scenarios, many governments are still approving new coal, oil and gas projects – threatening our chances of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees and blowing through the global carbon budget. As Prof Kevin Anderson said recently, the fossil fuel industry’s last gasp is to normalise the Orwellian logic of “we need more oil, in order for us to have less oil”. Go figure!
Recent Cop decision texts have included alarmingly vague references to fossil fuels and this year’s meeting in December under the helm of the United Arab Emirates – a major oil producer that puts over three million barrels of oil on the market every day – is unlikely to deliver a meaningful breakthrough. Many states, including the EU, have submitted that only “unabated” fossil fuels should be phased out. This vague language gives the perception of progress but in reality, it permits the continued expansion and financing of fossil fuels.
No action has been taken to remove the hundreds of fossil fuel lobbyists from the next COP in the United Arab Emirates, and Cop28 President Sultan Al Jaber has even extended an invitation to oil and gas companies to attend. There is a growing expectation that the Cop decision text will commit to a tripling of global renewable energy capacity. However, adding renewables on top of continued fossil fuel production isn’t a transition, doesn’t reduce emissions and ultimately isn’t a climate solution. The latest joint statement between the US and China does not inspire confidence either: it is completely silent on the use of coal and the future of fossil energy.
On the more hopeful side, there is now significant momentum behind the development of a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. Drawing on lessons from efforts to manage other global threats such as nuclear weapons and CFCs, it is focused on preventing the proliferation of fossil fuels by ending new production. It also prioritises a fair co-ordinated phase out of existing supply based on a just transition to zero-carbon solutions.
The proposed treaty would complement the Paris Agreement by providing the roadmap needed to manage an equitable transition away from fossil fuels to abundant, clean, and accessible renewable energy. This bloc of first-mover countries includes eight nation-states – Vanuatu, Tuvalu, Tonga, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Niue, Antigua and Barbuda, and Timor-Leste – who will come together at Cop28 in December and call on other governments to seek a negotiating mandate for such a new treaty.
It has already been backed by the WHO, the Vatican and 70 cities and subnational governments, along with thousands of civil society organisations, activists and experts. Before last year’s Cop27 the European Parliament passed a landmark resolution calling on Member States to work on developing a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty to phase out fossil fuels as soon as possible, halt all new investments in fossil fuel extraction and end fossil fuel subsidies.
Ireland is ideally placed to start the process of getting the proposed treaty initiative on the diplomatic and UN agenda. Ireland became a founding member of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA) at Cop26 in 2021, a diplomatic initiative established by Denmark and Costa Rica that aims to keep fossil fuels in the ground.
The next logical step for Ireland is to champion the treaty initiative. Not only is it a founding member of BOGA, it has real expertise thanks to leading the international agenda over many decades on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. It also has a proud tradition of support for small island states, many of whom have endorsed the treaty. One may legitimately ask – what does support for these states mean in reality if it does not prioritise ending the fossil fuels that are driving the loss of their lands?
Ultimately, it’s not enough for the Irish Government to limit diplomatic efforts to ramping up renewables. It has a historical opportunity to convene like-minded states and use the BOGA forum to build diplomatic support for a treaty and develop a UN resolution on this issue. Every year that we delay commits a further 40 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere. So if not now, then when? And if not Ireland, then who?
Sadhbh O’Neill is senior climate adviser of Friends of the Earth Ireland