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How a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Can Guide a Global Just Transition & Emission Cuts

StoryNovember 04, 2021
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We speak with Harjeet Singh, senior adviser with the Climate Action Network, who is at the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow. Activists like Singh are pressuring world leaders to join the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, which would supplement the Paris Agreement by directly targeting the fossil fuel industry and outlining clear actions that every country could take to drastically decrease carbon emissions. “This treaty talks about ending fossil fuel expansion, phasing out, and also just transition,” says Singh. He also speaks about his home country of India, which has only recently become one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases and has fewer resources to adapt while “rich countries have been polluting for more than 100 years.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we continue our Climate Countdown. We are here for two weeks, Glasgow and New York, bringing you comprehensive coverage inside the COP, outside on the streets, and around the world, for people who couldn’t make it to the U.N. climate summit but are active in their own communities. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we continue our coverage of negotiations at COP26 and the push to address the growing climate crisis by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and funding the transition to renewable energy.

Critics note the Paris Agreement, the legally binding international treaty from the 2015 U.N. climate summit, does not mention the words “coal,” “oil” or “gas” once. Momentum is now building for a complementary international mechanism to manage a global just transition. This is a video produced by the campaign to establish a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.

NARRATOR: The generation that grew up with nuclear weapons were told to hide under their desks in case of attack. This generation faces an even greater threat: the climate crisis. And again, they have nowhere to hide.

While citizens, cities and countries are working to reduce their emissions, behind our backs, the coal, oil and gas industry continues to rapidly expand fossil fuels, driving catastrophic warming.

Surviving the climate crisis requires a bold new idea. Introducing the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. Why a treaty? Fifty years ago, the world signed a nonproliferation treaty to avoid nuclear war. In 1987, the Montreal Protocol protected the ozone. The Paris Agreement begins to limit emissions but doesn’t mention coal, oil or gas. We need a global plan to end the proliferation of fossil fuels and fast-track solutions. A fossil fuel treaty would phase out coal, oil and gas faster, more fairly and forever, while supporting workers, communities and countries dependent on fossil fuels.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as securing money for poor nations to help cut emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change, so-called loss and damage, is a key focus at COP26. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi co-chaired an event this week to launch a fund to help small island developing states build infrastructure to cope with rising sea levels. This is Modi speaking in Glasgow.

PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI: Excellencies, the Infrastructure for Resilient Island States launch gives a new hope, a new trust, a new chance for vulnerable countries to do something.

AMY GOODMAN: India is the world’s third-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, after China and the United States.

For more, we’re joined from inside COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, by Harjeet Singh, senior adviser with Climate Action Network and with the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, based in New Delhi, India, usually, but in Glasgow now.

Welcome back, Harjeet, to Democracy Now! The fossil fuel —


AMY GOODMAN: If you can talk more about the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty? What has to be done to prevent the climate emergency from devastating the world even further?

HARJEET SINGH: Amy, this is a huge challenge here that we are talking about, cutting emissions and mitigation, but we are not putting enough focus on fossil fuel. We are not even mentioning fossil fuel in our discussions. How can you not talk about the elephant in the room, you know, the one that has caused the crisis? And the whole negotiations are just avoiding the term “coal, oil and gas.” It’s there on the outside but not in Paris Agreement. And unless you target fossil fuel industry, that continues to enjoy the taxpayers’ money as subsidies to the tune of $11 million a minute — $11 million a minute — you cannot deal with climate crisis. So we have to target fossil fuel industry head-on.

And that’s exactly what this treaty idea does. We want a treaty that is complementary to Paris Agreement, because Paris Agreement has talked about what, but very little about how. And this treaty talks about ending fossil fuel expansion, phasing out, and also just transition, which is important, because many developing countries are stuck with fossil fuel. Their economy depends on that. Their workers depend on fossil fuel industry. And how do we phase that out in a manner that also promotes social and economic justice? And that’s how the pillar that we have in this treaty initiative on just transition is an extremely important aspect, particularly for developing countries, but also for the developed world.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, one of the things, Harjeet, that the 2015 Paris accord called for was net zero emissions by 2050. Can you explain what exactly that means? And what would be required to do that? What countries have pledged to do that?

HARJEET SINGH: Well, we call it “carbon neutral” or now this fancy term of “net zero.” Technically, it means that the amount of emissions we are putting into the atmosphere are then either removed or balanced by the sinks, you know, through forests, oceans — and, of course, there’s a lot of emphasis on technology — so that the net emissions are zero.

And while technically it is a correct term, but how many rich companies and countries have started using it to delay action, because they’re talking about a net zero target of 2050 without any near-term goals on how emissions are going to be reduced or how they are going to move away from fossil fuel? And if we only look at the 2050 targets, and many countries have pledged — and U.K. government is making this as a headline thing, that if countries commit to net zero, COP26 is a success. It cannot be a success unless we look at near-term targets, because science tells us that we have to halve the emissions by 2030 — just in nine years. Where is their plan? And we don’t see their plan being discussed, except a handful of countries who are talking about near-term targets. And that’s not going to make us meet the target of Paris Agreement of staying below 1.5 degree. So, it is really concerning to put so much of emphasis on net zero, with such longer-term time plan, and not looking at near-term targets.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, you’ve also said, Harjeet — just to go to other big polluting countries now, you’ve said in another interview that there’s a lot of pressure on India to commit to a net zero target, without recognizing that comparing India and China is not fair. And if India were to commit, if it agrees to a net zero goal by a particular year, it will only be an imaginary exercise and not based on empirical studies and analysis on how it can be achieved. Explain what you mean by that.

HARJEET SINGH: Well, that’s exactly, Nermeen, the problem with net zero. You just push for a number. Yes, science has told us that we need to be carbon neutral by 2050. But when it comes to allocating targets — and that’s where the discussion of carbon budget becomes really important — you cannot expect all countries to become net zero or carbon neutral by 2050.

Yes, if you want the common finish line, you also have to go back and look at the start line. Rich countries have been polluting for more than 100 years. For 50 years they knew that climate change is going to be a problem. And whereas if you talk about a country like India, where industrialization began only in the late '90s, you want India to have a common finish line, without recognizing that 100 million people still do not have access to electricity, without realizing that a quarter of population is still poor. And comparing with China is absolutely not fair, because China's emissions and economy are four to five times of India’s. So, you have to understand, if India comes up with a target, it will need more time, unless you provide sufficient resources.

And for India, which was — until the last moment, was not agreeing to a net zero target, had to accede to the pressure, because the whole negotiations over these two weeks would have become very difficult for India. India would have, you know, just become a punching bag. So, what they have done, they have released the pressure. They have come up with a date. You know, rich countries are saying 2050, China says 2060, India says 2070. There are no empirical studies that have not been done. You know, these states have not been consulted. But I would not blame government for this particular action, because, you know, coming to this space, where there is so much of pressure, just on net zero, they had to put a finger on a particular year, and they chose 2070.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you operate inside and outside the COP, I mean, at home in India, on the streets in Glasgow now, and here you are sitting inside. I wanted to ask you about the comments of a researcher at Transnational Institute, Brid Brennan, who said, “COP26 has become a big Bonanza for the Corporate financiers and polluters — derailing a historic opportunity to achieve … CO2 emissions and disinvestment from fossil fuels. While global popular demand to governments has urged a decisive pullback from the brink of climate change disaster, corporate financiers and polluters have pursued a strategy of privatization of the U.N. system and are now positioned to derail any [substantive] disinvestment from fossil fuels … instead set to implement a big corporate greenwash Bonanza.” Harjeet Singh, can you talk about what is actually happening inside the COP, and how you can derail them?

HARJEET SINGH: Well, you know, I’ll go back to the same problem that is at its core of the negotiation, when you don’t talk about fossil fuel industry, when we don’t talk about the interests of corporations and how they have been trying to manage these negotiations. You know, until this point, they were also funding the COP process itself. And after a lot of advocacy efforts from civil society, they have been backed off, particularly for this COP. But that’s not enough.

As the comment clearly says, that they have increased their power, and now they are using those numbers of trillions of dollars just to say that they are on track. But, in reality, they are getting a lot more power. And that’s exactly the reason developing countries and civil society have been saying that we have to talk about public finance. You know, even that $100 billion, which is supposed to attract trillions, is not public finance. And if we rely on such private finance, where profit motive is at its core of their interest, then how are we going to achieve the kind of transition which should be seen as a public good?

You know, we are talking about people who are already facing climate crisis. We need to talk about the interests of workers, if we are going to move them from fossil fuel industry to clean energy industries. So, what is going to happen? How we are going to support them? Do we think this private capitalism is going to help them and take care of the interests of these workers and communities? Not at all. They are going to just make profits. And that’s the real challenge that we have right now.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Harjeet, could you talk more, explain the issue of climate finance and what’s been happening? Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon just pledged a million pounds to help developing countries deal with loss and damage. Do you expect other rich countries to follow suit? And the significance of her having done so?

HARJEET SINGH: Well, Scotland, indeed, has broken the taboo of loss and damage finance. When we talk about loss and damage finance, we mean helping people who are facing the climate crisis now, you know, who are being battered by floods and storms. And they need to rebuild their lives, and countries need to rebuild their economies. There is no stream of finance on loss and damage under this U.N. system. And we have been fighting for it, I would say, for 30 years, because the first time, it was Vanuatu in 1991 who brought up the issue of: How are we going to help countries who are being affected or who are going to be affected by climate change?

And here we are. There is no stream of funding, and the United States has been blocking it, right from the beginning, and not even allowing it to be on the agenda of even this particular COP. And due to our lobbying, and Scotland government came up, and they realized that this is a massive gap. And that’s how they have pledged 1 million pounds, which is great. You know, the amount may not be that big, but it’s a major breakthrough and puts many developed countries to shame that you should have done it. You know, people are suffering at 1.1 degree temperature rise. Millions of people are getting displaced, and they’re not getting any help. So, this should definitely put pressure on other rich countries to follow suit, and that’s exactly what we are doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Harjeet Singh, before we end, we want to address the issue of migration and its connection to climate. Kumi Naidoo, the former head of Greenpeace and Amnesty International, talks about walls as the “climate wall.” A new report from Transnational Institute finds some of the world’s most polluting countries have spent over twice as much on border enforcement than on combating the climate crisis — the worst offenders: Canada, the U.S., Australia and the U.K. — additionally, the world’s largest fossil fuel companies employing the same companies that receive government contracts to militarize their borders. Harjeet, your response?

HARJEET SINGH: Well, the reality is that people who are getting displaced because of climate change, that number is increasing. And when policymakers should be alarmed with those numbers and coming up with responses so that we can help these people, the surveillance industry, as you mentioned, Amy, has seen a business opportunity. And they are using it in a very divisive manner just to make money, whereas these people who are being displaced — and the majority of them stay in their own country, you know? A fraction of that population crosses borders, and a fraction that population then crosses international borders.

So, in those circumstances, we first need to talk about providing support to people so that they do not have to cross borders. And crossing borders means they are living in a real desperate situation. And that’s why they leave everything and cross borders and take so much of risk. So, instead of, you know —

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.

HARJEET SINGH: — this particular crisis providing opportunity to the surveillance industry to make money, we all should be coming together and showing solidarity to these people who are getting displaced, and support them so that they can rebuild their lives.

AMY GOODMAN: Harjeet Singh, we want to thank you so much, of Climate Action Network. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Stay safe.

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