No more fuel on the fire

Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, addresses MPs in the House of Commons via videolink on Tuesday, March 8, 2022.

PA Media
A Fossil Fuel Treaty can take the heat out of war and build the grounds for peace.

Fossil fuels are, of course, their own source of conflict as we know from oil wars and petro-violence.

The crisis created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine snares the world in the geopolitics of fossil fuel dependence at the same time that it casts a long shadow of nuclear threat.

We need responses to the crisis that both enhance peace and reduce dependence on fossil fuels as the primary cause of the climate crisis.

We believe that a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty - modelled on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty aimed at averting the nuclear threat - could play a role in making sure this transition is an orderly and fair one, rather than a chaotic and unjust one, which there are clear signs it could become. 

Kremlin-controlled

Moments of crisis such as this prompt in us feelings of vulnerability and helplessness. With oil and gas prices rising, the prospect of further increases to energy bills resulting from the actions of authoritarian leaders is alarming.

By pushing prices to new highs and prompting leaders to seek energy independence from Moscow, the war in Ukraine could, however, create fresh impetus to efforts to move away from fossil fuels. 

Greater autonomy and control are vital to energy security: producing affordable, secure and sustainable energy as close to home as possible.

Currently, Russia supplies around 27 percent of Europe’s oil and 41 percent of its gas. Many global energy players are deeply embroiled with the Putin regime.

Oil giant BP has had a nearly 20 percent stake in Kremlin-controlled Rosneft, worth around $14 billion at the end of last year, while Russian LNG is central to Total's 'energy transition strategy' - making up 14 percent of its LNG portfolio, and its 20 percent ownership of Novatek.

Fossil fuels are, of course, their own source of conflict as we know from oil wars and petro-violence.

Diversification

This dependence comes at a high price. Shell looks set to take an approximately $3 billion loss from its decision to exit all joint ventures with Russia’s state-controlled Gazprom, while BP faces a potential loss of as much as $25 billion from the exit of its stake in Rosneft.

Some governments are leading the way. US president Joe Biden has banned imports of Russian oil and gas into the US, a move matched by a UK ban on Russian oil imports, while the EU unveiled a plan to cut Russian gas imports by two-thirds within a year.

These moves are significant given that Russia is the world’s largest exporter of crude and petroleum products, shipping almost eight million barrels a day to global markets at the end of last year, according to the International Energy Agency. About 60 percent of Russia’s oil exports go to Europe — including around 2 per cent to the UK — while 8 per cent go to the US.

These moves are an important reminder that even at the worst of times things can be done. Responding to the leverage given by dependence on Russian fossil fuels, a patchwork of plans, rapidly drawn up in the EU and elsewhere, demonstrate how quickly energy policy can change.

Other key bodies, like the International Energy Agency, have also called for the EU to go further in decreasing reliance on fossil fuels, including the rapid deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency measures and short-term diversification of gas supply.

Non-proliferation

Executive vice-president for the European Green Deal, Frans Timmermans said: “It is time we tackle our vulnerabilities and rapidly become more independent in our energy choices. Let's dash into renewable energy at lightning speed. Renewables are a cheap, clean, and potentially endless source of energy and instead of funding the fossil fuel industry elsewhere, they create jobs here”.

This is not uncharted terrain. The Rapid Transition Alliance has already built up an impressive suite of examples with lessons for now about how it is possible quickly to re-engineer energy systems away from oil, coal and gas. The OPEC crisis, when governments’ dependence on fossil fuels was hugely exposed, was followed by a surge of interest in energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Reactive measures will always be necessary. But rather than staggering from crisis to crisis, one of the additional benefits of the Fossil Fuel Non Proliferation Treaty that we first proposed in 2018 is that withdrawing from climate polluting fuels could be made easier and be done in a fair and orderly way.

The proposal was itself inspired by the 50th anniversary of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) - agreed in just three years at the height of the Cold War between its main protagonists. More has been learned since with the passing into international law of the more recent Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. 

The treaty would have three key pillars: non-proliferation - limit further fossil fuel production; disarmament - managed decline of existing reserves and infrastructures and; peaceful use, just transition.

Ceasefire

Firstly then, what the Fossil Treaty proposes is that when you are in a hole, it’s a good idea to stop digging.

The more there is continued oil and gas exploration and production, the deeper we dig ourselves into fossil fuel dependence, and the harder it becomes to climb out and make the necessary low carbon transition to meet international climate targets. Further locking-in fossil fuels and delaying transition also makes it easier for major oil and gas producers to hold still dependent countries hostage.

Secondly, though this implies rapid phase-outs in many countries, it would avoid a sudden, abrupt and disruptive cessation in any one particular country as we are seeing now in Russia. A fair, rules based approach that takes into account historical responsibilities, current needs and capacity to build alternatives offers a far more promising way of handling the necessary global wind down of fossil fuels. 

Fossil fuels are, of course, their own source of conflict as we know from oil wars and petro-violence. But they quickly become weaponised in other conflicts, such as by Russia in the Ukraine now.

Halting further exploration and production allows more energy and resources to flow into growing the alternatives of renewables, efficiency and investing in demand reduction, and by doing so taking the heat out of conflicts, and increasing the chances of peace. A Fossil Treaty is a way of building the grounds for a fossil fuel ceasefire.

These Authors

Andrew Simms is co-director of the New Weather Institute, coordinator of the Rapid Transition Alliance, and co-author of the original Green New Deal. He is on twitter at @AndrewSimms_uk.

Peter Newell is Research Director of the Rapid Transition Alliance. He is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex.

You can support the campaign for a Fossil Fuel Non Proliferation Treaty here.

More from this author

Donate

The Ecologist has a formidable reputation built on fifty years of investigative journalism and compelling commentary from writers across the world. Now, as we face the compound crises of climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse and social injustice, the need for rigorous, trusted and ethical journalism has never been greater. This is the moment to consolidate, connect and rise to meet the challenges of our changing world. The Ecologist is owned and published by the Resurgence Trust. Support The Resurgence Trust from as little as £1. Thank you. Donate now.