Exploring Pathways to an International Agreement to Leave Fossil Fuels in the Ground
It is increasingly recognised (even if not always in public) that the goals of the Paris Agreement will not be achieved unless limits are placed on the expansion of fossil fuel production and use. But how to do this fairly and globally is a key challenge. This post explores diplomatic and legal options for addressing the increasingly obvious need to leave large swathes of remaining fossil fuels in the ground.
Remarkably, recognition of the need to reduce fossil fuel production is entirely absent in the climate treaties we have to date. This is in spite of the fact that according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’sSixth Assessment Report, oil, gas, and coal led to a 14% increase in total anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions in the past decade, bringing the industry’s total to an enormous 86%.
1/ Support for International Cooperation to Phase out Fossil Fuels
Amid a growing chorus of support for aFossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty from states such as Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, parliamentarians and politicians, major cities such as Toronto, Paris, Amsterdam, and most recently London, activists, religious leaders, and academics, questions are being asked about how best to bring about an international agreement on how to fairly leave fossil fuels in the ground. The issue is a pressing one with the Production Gap Report revealing that governments around the world are still planning to produce 110% more fossil fuels than would be compatible with the goal of keeping warming below 1.5 degrees, enshrined in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
This means that to achieve the Paris Agreement’s temperature goal, fossil fuel production needs to undergo a managed decline. While some frontrunner countries such as Belize, Denmark, Costa Rica, Ireland and New Zealand have already begun to adopt policies and measures restricting fossil fuel supply, an outstanding question is how international cooperation in support of a managed decline of fossil fuel production could take shape to cover more countries.
Here we explore two possible pathways: the first following a club model building on initiatives such as the Powering Past Coal Alliance, as well as the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance announced at last year’s Glasgow Climate Conference; the second, an approach more akin to a multilateral environmental agreement.
2/ The Two Models
A Club Approach
On the one hand, a group of countries can come together in a like-minded alliance or “club” in which a subset of states (and other actors) forms a coalition and crafts a non-legally binding international agreement to address fossil fuel production. Such an approach offers a means for first-mover countries to proceed with a degree of flexibility in terms of the legal form and procedures to be followed, reducing the complexity of negotiations. A club approach could also engage climate-vulnerable countries that are at particular risk if other countries continue to produce fossil fuels.
The club model could also bring subnational and nonstate actors—such as cities, regions, NGOs, and businesses—into the fold. Involving subnational and nonstate actors can help move an international coalition on fossil fuel supply forward, particularly where national governments are unwilling to do so, since many have already declared support for limits on fossil fuel production and introduced bans and moratoria for example. The involvement of nonstate and subnational actors would extend cooperation to “fossil-free zones”, where all kinds of actors commit to making their own contributions to making the world free of fossil fuels.
A Multilateral Treaty
With a treaty, on the other hand, you are looking at a greater number of participants; an agreement in the form of a legally binding treaty to restrict the production and supply of fossil fuels and a high degree of institutionalization, including a decision-making body and dedicated secretariat. It would be more comprehensive and universal in scope and ambition, but for the same reason more complex and harder to negotiate. A legally binding treaty generally signals a strong commitment, as for most states it requires ratification at the domestic level, usually involving parliaments. In terms of the treaty objective, this could be explicitly linked to the Paris Agreement, for instance, restricting any fossil fuel production that is inconsistent with the temperature goal of the Paris Agreement. In this regard, as Shirleen Chin and Simon Holmström note, the treaty could serve as an “effective insurance policy to the Paris Agreement” by enabling an orderly managed phase-out of the supply of coal, oil, and gas.
The treaty would enshrine many of the key tenets and principles of international law that the Pathway to the 2022 Declarationand the Global Pact for the Environmentseek to reinforce: polluter pays, intergenerational equity, non-regression, access to justice, and so on. The emergingright to a healthy environmentis of course alsothreatenedby a global expansion on fossil fuel use and so the treaty would help to advance the aims of these other initiatives.
Building on the original proposal for a treaty byNewell and Simms, the treaty’s three key pillars of commitments would focus, first, on “non-proliferation”—limits on new production and extraction of fossil fuels; second, on “disarmament”—a managed decline of existing reserves and infrastructures; and third, on “peaceful use”—support for non–fossil fuel development, among others, through a dedicated financial mechanism. Taken together such a treaty would “provide a solution to the risk of country-specific production phase-out; it would even out the playing field and prevent less committed countries from autonomously increasing production” as Chin and Holmström put it.
3/ Assessing the Two Models
Considering the pros and cons of, and trade-offs in the two models, we conclude that the most likely scenario at this juncture is the emergence of club arrangements covering particular fossil fuel sources and groups of actors that, over time, give rise to growing calls for a more coordinated and multilateral response such as a fossil fuel treaty. While a club arrangement is more likely in the near term, to adequately address the range of key issues that need to be confronted, a multilateral treaty would be required to effectively coordinate supply-side policy responses to the climate crisis.
In between the two models lie intermediary steps, one of which has been taken already: the creation of aglobal registry of fossil fuelswhich covers 99% of fossil fuel production from 139 countries aggregated to the national level and the vast majority of emissions from coal and gas and nearly 50% of emissions from oil production. A second might be a World Commission on Fossil Fuels, modelled on the World Commission on Dams, to gather data and evidence on the social and environmental impacts of fossil fuels and propose ameliorative actions. Such processes would help sustain momentum and lend legitimacy to the growing consensus that as well as regulating emissions as the climate regime does, we need to cut the supply of the principal cause of global heating: fossil fuels.
This article was written after the publication of an article on the “Pathways to an International Agreement to Leave Fossil Fuels in the Ground written by the same authors, Ph. Harro Van Asselt and Ph. Peter Newell. Here, the authors focus on the recent adoption of the resolution on the right to a healthy environment by the UNGA and recent developments related to the article’s topic.