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Can an informal treaty spark the action needed to reduce the use of the World’s fossil fuels?

Thirteen (13) countries have already signed on to a treaty initiative to devise a strategy to end the expansion of fossil fuels and manage a global phase-out of coal, oil, and gas under the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. 

At the 4th Small Island Developing States (SIDS) Conference held in Antigua last week, the Marshall Islands became the latest to endorse the treaty.

Selina Leem, Micronesia Lead for the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty announces at a SIDS4 side event that the Marshall Islands have joined the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.

While the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) outcome sent an important signal on the need to transition away from fossil fuel, it failed to address the systemic and financial barriers that still prevent many countries from transitioning. This means that low income and middle-income countries have to mobilise unprecedented levels of upfront investment to transition from renewables.

As a result, the economies of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) have and will continue to be disproportionately hampered by the impacts of climate change including natural disasters which have led to environmental and socio-economic inequalities. 

“Most of this debt is as a result of having to rebuild our countries after severe disasters, hurricanes and cyclones,” said Antigua and Barbuda’s Environment Minister Sir Molwyn Joseph.

“It took 30 years to get an agreement from the polluters, the developed countries – 30 years for us to establish loss and damage [fund] which we say is a right to compensate countries” …” it took 30 years to get that. The difference between fighting for loss and damage and fighting for a non-proliferation treaty, is that we will not have 30 years. If the warming of the earth continues at its current trajectory, we will not be able to call this a home in 30 years,” he added.

Jwala Rambarran, a senior financing advisor for the Caribbean echoed the minister’s sentiments, explaining that the Caribbean region has been caught inside a “debt-climate-change trap” where a significant portion of debt has been incurred due to rebuilding efforts after disaster and where much of the borrowing has to come from international donors. 

Rambarran acknowledged that climate resilient clauses and debt swaps can help in supporting Caribbean countries but said debt cancellation is perhaps what is most needed for these countries. “Even with the best of innovative financial instruments, we need to actually start talking seriously about cancellation in the region.”

Meanwhile, Maina Talia, Minister for Home Affairs, Climate Change and the Environment for Tuvalu said governments and agencies need to do away with the bureaucracy of funding and adopt a systematic response to different crises. “We need some form of funding support that is within our hand, within our control,” he insisted.

“We have lost islands to the seas and it’s a matter of urgency and survival for our people. It’s not just a matter of just transition but it’s a matter of now … we need to do it now.”

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According to Amira Sawas, Head of Research at the Fossil Fuel Treaty, the world is witnessing the sharpest rise of global borrowing costs in four decades.  “Countries’ indebtedness tripled in recent years and there’s a widening annual investment deficit. So, basically developed countries are actually getting most of the finance for the transition.
Over 85% of the finance to subsidise fossil fuel is going to developed countries, according to the 2023 World Energy Investment (WEI) report.

How will SIDS do it?

Ralph Regenvanu, Minister of Climate Change Adaptation, Meteorology and Geohazards, Energy, Environment and Disaster Management for Vanuatu also spoke of the need for fossil fuel producing countries to come on board in support of the treaty. In addition, he said polluters must stop new projects and start phasing out existing licences and plants.

So far, most countries that have signed onto the treaty are Small Island Developing States (SIDS). But the buy-in of citizens and large polluters are what treaty members believe will drive the conversation forward into tangible change. 

“We understand that developing producer countries require more time to safely transition their economies,” Regenvanu noted.

Colombia for example, although heavily reliant on fossil fuel, has signed onto the treaty with the knowledge that they need to transition away. 

“As a developing country they’ve had less time to develop alternatives and alternate economic pathways,” he said, as he explained the reason for a fair phase out. 

“Historical producers have already secured diversified economies, but the developing country producers need support for their transition,” he added.

Racquel Moses, Chief Executive Officer of the Caribbean Climate Smart Accelerator believes fear is making countries unwilling to transition. “I think that’s what’s preventing us from making the transition. It is the unknown on the other side”.

“It is that unknown dark tunnel that we have to go through because many governments derive revenue from the taxes that they charge on the fossil fuels that they import,” she said. 

To begin to map out a fair plan, Moses said it is important for countries to have honest and open conversations about what their fears are with the transition and how to address them. 

Regenvanu is hoping to formalise the treaty once a few more members come on board.

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Tuvalu Minister for Climate Change, Ralph Regenvanu speaks on timeline to formalise the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty
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