Home The Failure of Climate Change Multilateralism and its Urgent Reboot

The Failure of Climate Change Multilateralism and its Urgent Reboot

Shirleen Chin, Simon Holmström
Reading time : 7 minutes

Why is humanity still losing the war against the climate crisis despite five decades worth of international negotiations and efforts? We contend that a contributing factor to the failure of climate change multilateralism is the exclusion of the largest cause of emissions: fossil fuels. An orderly managed phase-out of the supply of coal, oil, and gas within the framework of a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty would be an effective insurance policy to the Paris Agreement.

1/ The Failure of the Existing Emission Reduction System

In the 1960s, Nobel laureate Syukuro Manabe sketched out the very first climate model with cutting-edge computing power. The work was groundbreaking and spurred an already initiated academic conversation that frightened big oil companies. Fearful of the consequences such research might have on the opinion, oil companies started investing in research on climate risks in the 70s and outright wait-and-see PR campaigns from the 80s onwards.

The global political reaction to the scientific reports took time. The relationship between humans and the environment was not addressed properly until 1972 when the United Nations (UN) opened the chapter on environmental multilateralism. The historic Stockholm Conference urged countries to be “mindful” of climate risks for the first time but fell short of charting a path towards the development of international mechanisms to combat global warming.

Twenty years later in 1992, the UN Rio Summit similarly failed to devote one single article in its Declaration to combating climate change. The Summit did however postpone these discussions by establishing the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), thanks to the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), founded a few years before. Within the UNFCCC, countries started negotiating in order to be able to convene in Kyoto in 1997.

At the time, the Kyoto Protocol with its legally binding demands on emission reductions, was seen as a major breakthrough. It was, however, lacking ambition. The emission reduction targets, that were specifically targeted at developed countries, were put well below the necessary level and the Protocol did not include other greenhouse gasses than CO2 (until changed in Doha in 2012). Surprisingly, despite these limitations, big emitters did not ratify the Protocol, leaving a great deal of global emissions out of the radar. Understandably, according to post-analysis, the Kyoto Protocol framework did not pave the way for any substantial planning and strategic climate work.

To put it bluntly, the world is losing the fight against the climate crisis.

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Following a range of futile COPs (Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC), it was not until 2015 that world leaders came together to sign the historic Paris Agreement. The overall goal of Paris is to keep “a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.” Yet, whereas Kyoto specified emissions reduction targets for specific countries, Paris only obliges all countries to “communicate” on their nationally-determined contributions (NDC) every five years – NDCs that are self-prescribed.

Published last year, the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report clearly shows that global emissions must be net-zero by 2050 if we want a chance to meet the 1.5 degree target and avoid the very worst consequences of the climate crisis. According to the science-based report Exponential Roadmap,  to reach this target, the world must halve emissions every decade from 2020 onwards. The pathway cannot be clearer.

Peculiarly, with this knowledge as a backdrop, many countries have not set sufficient NDCs up to now; rather their targets lead us into a 2.5-2.9 degree warmer planet. To put it bluntly, the world is losing the fight against the climate crisis. Thus, for a staggering 50 years post-Stockholm 1972, global efforts to tackle global warming have been widely unsuccessful. Countries began too late, their commitments remain weak and, as we will see, they miss a critical, integral aspect.

Humanity now finds itself in a situation where the global intention must be extremely precise without any wriggle room for open interpretation or counter-productive gray areas for long negotiations on technicalities.

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2/ Targeting the Missing Piece

It is easy to argue that previous efforts to curb the climate crisis have been ineffective due solely to weak political will. We like to contend that the lukewarm ambition is interlinked with the abovementioned emission target reduction obligations under Kyoto and Paris. They have unquestionably provided a smorgasbord of loopholes for climate delayers and deniers. It has opened up for a play with reference years and climate concepts, detracting attention from the underlying technical incompatibilities. For one, cutting emissions by 60% does not imply anything substantial if the reference year is placed long back in time. Another common phenomenon is muscle-flexing by policy-makers, a tendency to set higher targets whilst at closer look, those very targets rely on some kind of technological miracle such as currently non-existing large-scale carbon capture technologies. Moreover, Kyoto and Paris have sowed the seeds of creative emissions accounting and underreporting of emissions, which for instance China has been revealed of doing.

It stands to reason that the current system has been unsuccessful not only due to the lack of implementation required to meet multilateral agreements – but also due to the jerry-building upon which the implementation has been based. Humanity now finds itself in a situation where the global intention must be extremely precise without any wriggle room for open interpretation or counter-productive gray areas for long negotiations on technicalities.

Setting an end date for the production of fossil fuels provides the precision needed. The burning of fossil fuels is by far the largest contributor to the climate crisis. According to last year’s IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, oil, gas, and coal added up to a 14% increase in total anthropogenic CO2 emissions in the past decade, bringing the industry’s total to a staggering 86%. Focusing on fossil fuels would turn the tables; we would treat the disease instead of its symptoms.

3/ The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative

The latest Production Gap Report clearly underscores that the current plans for fossil fuel production are more than twice what would be in line with the 1.5 goal. Unperturbed, fossil fuel companies are still attempting to portray their business models as part of the energy transition. Profit declines during two years of a pandemic did nothing to hamper the fossil fuel industry as the Russian military invasion of Ukraine brought oil and gas prices soaring, delivering record profits for big oil. Up to 40% of public money, which should have gone to recovery packages to “build back better” in the wake of COVID-19 went instead to fossil fuels. Banks have funneled 4.6 trillion USD to fossil fuels since the Paris Agreement.

Thankfully, a new wave of civil society organisations, cities, parliamentarians, scientists, and over 101 Nobel Laureates is calling out this major discrepancy and urging for a complementary mechanism to the Paris Agreement. Inspired by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, this initiative calls for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty (the Treaty). The three priorities of the Treaty are to:

  1. End fossil fuel expansion. Terminate all exploration and licensing of new production as a first step;
  2. Phase-out existing production. Support a global “disarmament” consisting of regulating fossil fuel supply, limiting extraction, removing subsidies for production and dismantling unnecessary infrastructure; and
  3. Manage a just global transition. To manage the above, put in place a proactive plan to enable economic diversification and investment in renewable energy and other reliable, cost-effective low-carbon solutions.

The good news is that solutions needed to make a just transition from fossil fuels are already cost-effective and feasible. To meet the energy demands of a rising world population, the world already has more than enough renewable energy resources.

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The Treaty would respond to a range of current pitfalls. Most importantly, it would provide a solution to the risk of country-specific production phase-out; it would even out the playing field and prevent less committed countries from autonomously increasing production. The treaty would in so doing stabilise the global fossil fuel price. This is particularly important if we are to counteract unfavourable price mechanisms which could prove financially devastating for developing countries. To limit these kinds of downsides to the transition, it is important to note that an integral part of the third pillar would be for wealthy producing countries to lead the way.

The obvious tenet of the Treaty is that the use of fossil fuels would end at some point when production has stopped, and the supplies are depleted. This practice of setting end dates or phasing out plans is not brand new. It has already worked successfully in, for example, the fight against ozone depletion and the reduction of sulfur emissions in shipping.

The good news is that solutions needed to make a just transition from fossil fuels are already cost-effective and feasible. To meet the energy demands of a rising world population, the world already has more than enough renewable energy resources. New technological solutions which come with detaching from the dependence on fossil fuels enable cleaner, safer and more abundant jobs and economic opportunities. Furthermore, the transition will reduce risks of conflict and wars caused by, fuelled by, or funded by the production of fossil fuels.

Steps have to be undertaken already today to support the construction of such a Treaty. Good starting points would be:

  • international recognition of the risks of fossil fuels;
  • amendments of existing treaties that protect fossil fuel investors;
  • a special UN report to investigate how a treaty might take form;
  • a Global Commission on Fossil Fuels to produce authoritative evidence base on the risks of fossil fuels;
  • committing to a ban on fossil fuel production in ecologically sensitive areas, and;
  • improving transparency on historical and planned fossil fuel production through a Global Registry of Fossil Fuels.

A Treaty would undeniably reinvigorate global climate change governance. It might even be the most effective way to keep the 1.5 target alive.

4/ A Chance to Reboot Multilateralism

On June 2-3, the world will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the UN’s first conference on the environment – Stockholm+50. In the same way that the Stockholm Conference in 1972 started international cooperation on environmental issues, there are global expectations of Stockholm+50 beginning a new chapter in history.

The climate models developed by Manabe and his colleagues predicted the floods, rising sea levels, droughts and extreme weather events we are experiencing today. Up to 70 years and three large-scale world summits on climate change later, we are nowhere close to effectively stopping these existential threats.

Yet, we have all the prerequisites to do so. We now have a deep and detailed scientific basis on the causes of the climate crisis. We have established knowledge about which solutions work or not. The business sector is calling for stronger legislation. We have a large civic movement calling for ambitious action. Moreover, low carbon technologies outcompete fossil fuels in field after field.

Now is the time to reboot climate change multilateralism by endorsing a bottom-up proposal, backed by undeniable scientific evidence and championed by the people – people who now see right through big oil’s PR campaigns. Countries will have a critical role to play as they will be the players of top-down implementation.

After all, world leaders have very little room for error in the coming years of climate decision-making. The Joint Global Statement adopted by Major Groups and Stakeholders stressed that a declaration, i.e. the 2022 Declaration, will be pale in comparison to a global framework that includes, amongst others, concrete goals and means of implementation. Stockholm+50 is a critical moment and test for real action to address one of the primary causes of​​ the planetary crisis: fossil fuels. Igniting UN dialogues to take into consideration the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty would be an important start to this work.