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Alex Rafalowicz on the need for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty


Alex Rafalowicz,
«Die größten Produzenten fossiler Brennstoffe auf der Welt haben über Jahrzehnte mit voller Absicht den Klimawandel geleugnet.» (Alex Rafalowicz, Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative) Quelle:

Fossil fuels are the main driver of global warming, yet until 2021, they have not even been mentioned in international climate documents. The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative aims at changing this, calling for a phasing out the use of fossil fuels and support for countries in their transition. Juliane Schumacher spoke with campaign director Alex Rafalowicz about historical precedents for such a treaty, the campaign’s first achievements, and its future plans.

Alex Rafalowicz is Director of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative. He previously worked with the Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice, Climate Action Network, and

Alex, you work with the campaign for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty. How did the idea of a non-proliferation treaty for fossil fuels first come up?

It is not completely new and as an idea, it has been around in the international system for some time. In the lead-up to the Paris Agreement, there was a Suva declaration, where many nations in the Pacific called for a moratorium on fossil fuels, and several states, led by Kiribati, called for a coal mine treaty to stop extracting coal.

Obviously, that was unsuccessful back then. After the agreement in Paris was reached, many actors in civil society looked for a new direction, saying that although we’ve got the agreement now, we still have coal mines, gas extraction plans, more oil extraction plans, and pipelines. We have banks that have increased their funding to the fossil fuel system. There was a feeling that we needed a new focus on the question of fossil fuels.

Because fossil fuels are the main driver of the climate crisis?

Our members’ concerns with fossil fuels are broader than climate. There is a climate motivation, and fossil fuels present an existential risk because of their effect on the global climate. But we did a study last year looking at the Sustainable Development Goals and it revealed that fossil fuels undermine all of these development goals. Fossil fuels present a risk to water and to ecosystems and to clean air and health.

Because fossil fuel extraction is such a centralized process, it is often related to maldevelopment and corruption. It is an extremely patriarchal industry from top to bottom, and there is a lot of gender-based violence connected with fossil fuel extraction. So ,there are all of these different ways that fossil fuels have negative impacts on human societies. There are a whole range of benefits for us shifting from a fossil fuel system, and the climate is a big one, but only one of them.

How does your campaign work? Is it an organization by itself or rather a network of different groups?

It is a coalition and a directed-network campaign. It is a network, but there is a small secretariat that tries to direct the network members. The steering committee was founded by organizations from across the world, including, the Climate Action Network–International (CAN), Power Shift Africa, Asian Peoples’ Movement on Debt and Development (APMDD), the Third World Network (TWN), Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), Global Witness, and Uplift, a fossil fuel campaign in the UK, among many others.

How do you want the fossil fuel treaty to work? Are you calling to implement it through international law, or should it be a voluntary commitment?

We see ourselves playing a couple of functions.

Firstly, we want to change the conversation. We want to see much more political space to talk about fossil fuels. The exact results of this will be different from place to place, but the main point is about making it clear that if you want to act on climate change, if you want to act on health, if you want to act on economic development — then you have to act on fossil fuels.

The second piece is that we want to increase the knowledge and evidence of what people can do in this regard. We have built a tracker of policies on fossil fuel supply, so people can see what is being done in other areas. We support the partners in our network to do research so that we can show examples of people coming together and come up with alternative solutions and pathways.

The third point is that we push for an actual international agreement.

An agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the UNFCCC?

We are open to the format of the agreement, and it will ultimately be up to governments to decide that. I don’t think they will select the UNFCCC. I think the UNFCCC has some really important functions — it sets the temperature goal; it has provided an anchor for the proposals on loss and damage — but it is likely that the work on fossil fuels will be a complementary effort.

We did many studies on other international agreements. It is quite common for them to start in parallel to some existing process. For example, in the case of the landmine treaty, the process started with just the support of a few states and that helped generate the text. It was the same with some of the chemical weapons treaties — they started in parallel with the convention itself. It was the same in the case of the nuclear weapons ban treaty.

Which actors are you addressing? Civil society? Governments? Or international organizations?

Our work is mainly directed towards governments and international fora to put the issue of fossil fuels on the agenda. It’s crazy to think that there was no reference to fossil fuels in the UNFCCC until the climate conference in Glasgow in 2021. You would think that would be the first thing to mention! Our first banner, the banner we took to Glasgow, was: “Say the F-Word!” Just say “fossil fuels”! That was the minimum we asked.

There needs to be an external accountability framework asking what the shared objective is that we are trying to reach and what the means of implementation are.

So, part of our agenda is to push the topic in different settings. But our hope is that several governments from different parts of the world would come together to start negotiating the principles for a global fossil fuel phase-out. That would create pressure on those who are continuing to produce or to expand production, clearly in contradiction to what is the emerging international norm, and our understanding of the threat fossil fuels pose to the environment and human rights.

Some governments already support a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty.

Yes, Vanuatu and Tuvalu have publicly called for the negotiation of a treaty, along with six other Pacific Island states, and the minister at the time for climate change of New Zealand said that New Zealand supports the call.

In September this year, Timor-Leste, a fossil-fuel-producing country, and Antigua and Barbuda, a climate-vulnerable island nation in the Caribbean, joined the call for a fossil fuel treaty. We are hopeful that several other states will join them and then start working out what should be done in this regard, and in which form.

Is there already a draft for such a treaty?

We haven’t written a treaty. In the past, we have seen that if you get it too detailed in early stages, then not everyone can join. The governments themselves need to draft it.

But we have three principles. There are three things that it needs to do. First, ensure an agreement on no new fossil fuel infrastructure. That will give us a space to negotiate. Second, it needs to phase out existing infrastructure based on equity. And third, it needs to enable a global just transition.

Why would states join such a treaty?

There are incentives for joining the treaty. If you are a fossil fuel producer, the incentives are that you will get the structure, support, and the planning needed to help you exit. In the negotiations, parties will need to agree on what these incentives are, and if you don’t comply, what this would mean for your obligations.

What do you hope to achieve with your work for such a treaty?

Our hopes are quite simple: that we will keep enough fossil fuels in the ground to reach the 1.5-degree goal. We will create an international system that will support countries everywhere in the world to do so and that won’t leave anyone behind.

We don’t want a nightmare scenario where, in the end, we have a system where the rich countries, due to electrification and the shift to renewables, are out of the oil market, while the marginal cost producers, whether they are in Ecuador or Colombia or Nigeria, are stuck with poisonous wells and broken balance sheets, with leaking pipelines and no economic plan to get out. But we are hopeful that this will not happen and we can build an on-ramp for communities and countries to get out of fossil fuel production.

Fossil fuels also have positive impacts, many would say: they provide energy to people.

Yes, this is what people say: “But people need energy!” And I couldn't agree more — there are almost 2 billion people who don’t have enough energy. But it is interesting to note that the connection between the extraction of fossil fuels and energy access is actually weak. In areas of Colombia or Mozambique where extraction takes place, people don’t have access to energy.

Because it’s usually exported.

Right, and because it is a problem of the system. The fossil fuel system has had 200 years to provide energy to all, and it has failed. If the fossil fuel system could fulfil people’s energy needs, it would have done so already. But it wasn’t able to do so because the fossil fuel system is built on concentrated power and interests.

The solution for energy access is designing energy systems that work for people, that are controlled by people and communities and directed to their needs, rather than the interests of a few big corporations.

Many countries in the Global South will need support in their transition away from fossil fuels. There are several bilateral initiatives now to support such transitions, like the Just Energy Transition Partnerships that some Western nations, including Germany, have agreed on with countries like South Africa, Indonesia and Senegal. Is this going in the direction you are calling for?

In theory, that is the kind of cooperation we would like to catalyse. But it needs to happen outside a bilateral setting. There needs to be an external accountability framework asking what the shared objective is that we are trying to reach and what the means of implementation are.

If every country says they need to phase out fossil fuels, but only after the other country has done so, they will be the last one producing — then we will burn ourselves.

We have made some concrete suggestions in this regard — much more grant-based finance and less debt, reforming access to intellectual property, and allowing for market access reforms. There needs to be an energy access component, because these places will have energy access constraints during the transition. Finally, we need a bunch of procedural requirements around consultation and free, prior, and informed consent to make sure the rights of Indigenous communities and other communities on the ground are being protected. We need to make sure that these proposals aren’t cooked up in a ministry in Berlin or dealt with by a government that doesn’t allow for any citizens’ input, be it in Vietnam or Senegal or somewhere else.

There is a real need to have a proper model, a multilateral format for such processes. Then governments could go in and say, “We would like to have a transition partnership, these are the principles we are going to be measured against, and this is our thinking”, and then government partners could match with them.

At the moment, no such format exits.

There hasn't been much thinking around a holistic transition. In this case, the Colombian experience is quite instructive. Colombia said that they would like to transition off the extraction of fossil fuels, and the international system did not have any response to that.

Like in the case of the failed Yasuní-ITT Initiative in Ecuador in 2007. The government offered to drop plans to extract oil in the Ecuadorian rainforest if enough money was paid into a specific fund.

In that case, there was one specific mechanism. They proposed an alternative development fund that governments could pay into to compensate the country for not extracting fossil fuels.

In Colombia, they have not proposed a specific fund like that. The government just announced that their vision for the future is to offer no new contracts, and to phase down production over the next 15 years. But they have not received much response from the international community, or concrete proposals. They were welcomed into the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance recently as a friend, which was a step.

Around 15 percent of Colombia's budget currently comes from revenues from fossil fuels like oil and coal. So, over 15 years, that makes one percent less income every year. That sounds like a feasible amount to substitute. But they do need support from the international community to allow them to follow that path, and there hasn’t been any meaningful offer to do that. The only exception is the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, which Denmark and Costa Rica launched in Glasgow in 2021. They have a technical fund that doesn’t provide the money for the transition, but it provides money for technical support to prepare the plan. So, that is a first step, at least.

There has been criticism of plans to “buy out” fossil fuel producers, to pay even more money to those who have already profited from it for so long.

There is going to be a framework on how to deal with toxic assets. There are going to be real physical things in the world, like pipelines, wells, oil platforms, that will not be of use anymore at some point, and there is no clarity on what the actual owners will do. Some might go bankrupt, others will decline ownership or refuse to pay for their removal. So, we are going to need a framework on how we will deal with those assets.

This doesn’t mean bailing them out or buying them out, but it means thinking through how we control the potential harms and how we hold people liable for causing them. In the US, there is an example of orphaned wells — oil wells that are just left all over the country. They started a task force in the National Park Service where they have money to go and fix them. One of the strands of working during transition will be to deal with the huge amount of infrastructure we have in place for the fossil fuel system and repurposing it.

There will also be a lot of opposition to plans for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty.

The biggest fossil fuel producers in the world — companies and countries — have intentionally worked to deny climate change for decades. And now their strategies have shifted to delay. They want to delay action on climate change. The people who are currently enriching themselves on the destruction of the natural world and many human lives have a profit interest to keep going, and they are not going to say that next year they are going to produce [less] fossil fuels than this year.

There is a very strong interest from the industry to avoid that conversation. You see it in many different ways. They say they don’t want to talk about fossil fuels and just want to talk about the emissions. They say that all that matters in the end is the emissions, it doesn’t matter where they come from. And this is because they have structured the international climate policy of the last 30 years to hide. They don’t like being in plain sight themselves

We want to put a target on them. We know the name we have proposed for the campaign is long — fossil fuel non-proliferation. But we chose it because, in some ways, fossil fuels are like nuclear weapons. They represent a threat of mass destruction. If every country says they need to phase out fossil fuels, but only after the other country has done so, they will be the last one producing — then we will burn ourselves. That is why we need a framework that clearly says no new fossil fuels and yes to an equitable phase-out, in order to enable us to create a peaceful and just transition.