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Towards fossil-free energy futures: Why (and where) we need to look beyond the UN climate regime

At the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP28) of the UN’s climate regime, most countries agreed to triple installed renewables (RE) capacity by 2030. This has been widely considered to signal the “beginning of the end” of the fossil fuel era. But the COP process, that some seek to reform, itself is not sufficient to get us there: This blog post will discuss several initiatives outside the COP process that aim to rapidly realise fossil-free energy futures.

First, the yearly COPs have not helped to end the ‘fossil era’: Sometimes mocked as ‘climate expos’, for almost 30 years discussions around fossil fuel phase-out (and Loss and Damage) were virtually absent from the official agenda. It was only in 2023 at COP28 – ironically in the oil and gas-producing United Arab Emirates (UAE) – that the term ‘phasing down’ fossil fuels was taken up in a final decision and thus went “from sidelines to headlines.” And with three petrostates (UAE, Azerbaijan and Brazil) hosting COPs in a row, chances are slim that the main culprits of the climate crisis – those countries and companies profiting from fossil fuel expansion – change their course of action. But even if they wanted to, how could they if, in the consensus-based COP process, any country could prevent an agreement about the needed fossil fuel phase-out in final decisions? For example, in 2021 India and China watered down the COP26 decision text by calling for a ‘phase down’ instead of a ‘phase out’ of coal at the last second; previously, it was mostly Saudi Arabia that prevented any references to fossil fuels, but in the future it could even be smaller countries such as Guyana that just discovered oil and gas (O&G).

In recent years, scientists increasingly call for an international norm against new fossil fuel supply projects to avoid excessive damages from global warming and reach international climate targets. I argue here that novel initiatives supplementing the COP process are imperative to achieve this: Not only can they go ahead without the strict need for consensus as for the COP process and thus create smaller or more specialised spaces for well-defined issues by like-minded countries. Initiatives outside the UN climate regime can also bring together so-called ‘non-state actors’ (including not internationally recognised countries such as Palestine) that have no formal voting power in the COP process (and the UN system more generally). In the following, I provide three examples of such initiatives.

Most prominently, the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative (‘Fossil Treaty’) has already been endorsed by over 700 elected officials from 85 countries, more than a hundred cities and subnational governments, hundreds of thousands of individuals as well as faith, health, intellectual and scientific leaders. Inspired by the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the initiative aims to foster international cooperation to accelerate a transition to RE for everyone, end the expansion of coal, O&G, and equitably phase out existing production in keeping with the best-available climate science. While the COP process is a promising avenue to set global targets for ‘low-hanging fruits’ such as RE and energy efficiency, the Fossil Treaty is designed to supplement the guiding Paris Agreement that aims to limit global heating to 1.5°C. Whether the initiative will ever lead to the development of a separate treaty or not, it already sparks crucial conversations around climate justice that are silenced by countries in the Global North all too often.

Second, the international Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA), an initiative founded in 2021 by the governments of Denmark and Costa Rica to facilitate managed phase-outs of O&G production worldwide. Today, there are already 15 core members that “commit to end new concessions, licensing or leasing rounds for oil and gas production and exploration and to set a Paris-aligned date for ending oil and gas production and exploration on the territory over which they have jurisdiction”. In addition, the alliance attracts other countries as associate members (California and New Zealand) and ‘friends’ (Chile, Colombia, Fiji, Finland, Italy, Kenya, and Luxemburg) with somewhat lower direct commitments. Among those, Colombia is the largest O&G producing country to join BOGA so far – and endorse the Fossil Treaty. That countries like Colombia and sub-national governments like California are stepping up as climate leaders does not mean that the historically biggest polluters can continue with business as usual. Rather, new and additional climate finance in the trillions of USD per year must finally be flowing to such countries in the Global South to support this transition, e.g., as part of the New Collective Quantified Goal to be agreed on at COP29 in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Third, at COP26 in Glasgow, a UK-led initiative of now 40+ signatories (mostly Western countries and financial institutions) launched the Statement on International Public Support for the Clean Energy Transition (CETP). CETP signatories committed to end new direct public support for international ‘unabated’ fossil fuels by the end of 2022, except in limited and clearly defined circumstances. This pledge alone has the potential to shift USD 28 billion into clean energy – annually. Only a few months after COP26, however, the Russian invasion of Ukraine began which shifted political leaders’ priorities: In the course of 2022, signatories shifted only USD 5.2 billion to clean energy. This illustrates a caveat of ‘side deals’ at the COP – they are not legally binding which means their implementation depends more strongly on political circumstances. Nonetheless, the CETP achieved to create a momentum among policy makers and may pave the way for a virtuous cycle of ambitions at future COPs.

To summarise, determined climate leadership outside the COP process already exists. Building on this momentum is urgently needed so that lighthouse initiatives by ‘like-minded’ countries, organisations, groups and individuals can overcome the shortcomings of the COP.

Cover picture: People chasing the sunrise on the biblical Mount Sinai on the rest day of COP27.

Credits: Max Schmidt (Egypt; 2022)

  • Max Schmidt

    Max Schmidt holds an MSc in Research for International Development from SOAS, University of London and BA degrees in political sciences and sociology. As a climate policy specialist at Perspectives Climate Group, he specializes transforming 'negative' climate finance into 'positive' climate finance, ranging from export credits, L&D (Loss and Damage), and renewable energy finance.

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