Today’s question: Are fossil fuels at the table when decisions under the Paris Agreement are being negotiated? And what are the best ways to promote the Fossil Fuel Non-Treaty Initiative?
With fossil fuel companies facing their last gasp, and people around the world living the climate emergency, it’s time for citizens to push their countries to ban fossil fuel proliferation—just as a previous generation of politicians did with nuclear weapons, said Tzeporah Berman, Vancouver-based chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty (FFNPT) initiative.
“A lot of people don’t realize that 86% of the emissions that are trapped in our atmosphere today come from three products: oil, gas, and coal,” Berman told The Energy Mix, in the last in a series of #COP26TinyExplainers interviews.
A generation ago, “we had weapons of mass destruction that could destroy the planet six times over, but we were still producing more and more and more and stockpiling them,” she added. “That’s what’s happening with fossil fuels today. So modelled on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, we’re calling on countries to negotiate a fossil fuel treaty that constrains the production of oil, gas, and coal.”
After 30 years of international talks and a Paris Agreement that “doesn’t even include the words oil, gas, coal, or fossil fuels,” Berman said, “we are not at all negotiating who gets to produce what fossil fuels and how much. So we’re on track to produce 110% more fossil fuels in the next decade than we can ever burn” and still hold average global warming to 1.5°C. That means the priorities are “first, to stop the expansion, then wind it down, then fast-track solutions. And to do that, we’re going to need international cooperation.”
Although the final decision at this year’s UN climate conference, COP 26, was a lot less assertive than many negotiators and observers wanted, “for the first time we started saying the F words, fossil fuels, and now we have the word “coal” and a reference to fossil fuel subsidies in the text of the Glasgow agreement,” she said. “It’s a start. We also have the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance,” a group of a dozen countries led by Denmark and Costa Rica that acknowledge the need to phase out all fossil fuels, not just coal.
Slow and incremental as that progress might be, “it’s on a growing trajectory,” Berman added. “We’re living that tipping point moment where people are starting to realize that we have enough. We have more than enough oil and gas, and existing installations are under construction to use while we transition.”
But the shift won’t happen on its own.
“Let’s be clear,” she said. “The oil and gas industry is still very, very powerful. They spend billions of dollars on advertising and lobbying to try and convince politicians that they need to keep them alive. And they’re successfully doing that. We’ve seen increased subsidies in almost every wealthy country, and they’re trying to convince the public that we can’t do without it, that we’re going to freeze in the dark.”
The reality to counter that “fear-mongering” is that “some of these companies are not going to survive,” Berman said. “They’re not made to be renewable energy companies. And the system of renewable energy and electrification for transportation and heating is not going to be controlled by five big global companies. It’s going to be controlled by millions of people. It’s going to be controlled by hundreds and thousands of governments at the municipal and state and federal levels, and the oil and gas industry doesn’t like that: it’s a transfer of power in every sense of the word power.”
“And so, they’re going to fight it.”
The Energy Mix reader Frances Deverell of British Columbia asked whether fossil fuel representatives are at the table when deals like the Paris Agreement are negotiated.
“They’re not formally at the negotiating table, but there were 100 fossil fuel companies or organizations representing fossil fuel companies at the COP, more than 500 delegates,” she said. “They were the largest single body at the COP, twice as many people as Indigenous nations globally.”
So even if fossils aren’t physically present at the table, “they’re in every room. They’re lobbying daily. I was speaking to someone recently from one of the [Canadian] provincial governments who said, ‘look, you know, you’ve got to get in here. Shell’s in here every day’.”
But “the environmental sector doesn’t have that kind of capacity. So we need our politicians to stand up to these fossil fuel companies, and we need Canadians to recognize that… what’s good for these companies is not what’s good for the public.”
Days before our interview with Berman, a British Columbia-based policy analyst in the Canadian Prime Minister’s Office tweeted from the midst of the province’s epic rains and floods that she didn’t want to hear from fossil lobbyists about why we need to slow down the transition off carbon.
“They are not going to design their own demise,” Berman said of the fossil lobby. But with their promise of “technological unicorns” like industrial carbon capture and storage, “the oil companies have gone from denial to delusion, they’re pulling our governments along with them, and we can’t afford it. Our planet is literally on fire and flooding. We are living it here in British Columbia. So many people I know are still stuck in evacuation centres or hotels, or spending days in their cars with their kids. So every tonne of carbon matters.”
Deverell asked how Canadians can support and promote the treaty initiative. “First of all, make it yours,” Berman replied. “No one owns the idea of a fossil fuel treaty.” She pointed to the campaign hub on the FFNPT website, noting that communities and organizations around the world are signing on so fast that she has trouble keeping track.