Alex Rafalowicz, lawyer: “Fossil fuels are an existential threat like nuclear weapons” |  Climate and Environment

Alex Rafalowicz, lawyer: “Fossil fuels are an existential threat like nuclear weapons” | Climate and Environment

Alex Rafalowicz, director of the Fossil Fuel Nonproliferation Treaty Initiative.
Alex Rafalowicz, director of the Fossil Fuel Nonproliferation Treaty Initiative.ITNPCF

Similar to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in force in the world since 1970, a coalition of civil society organizations is currently promoting the creation of a treaty on the non-proliferation of fossil fuels (oil, coal and gas) to stop global warming. The director of this international initiative, the lawyer Alex Rafalowicz (37 years old, Adelaide, Australia), considers it essential to get to work on a mechanism of this style in parallel to the Paris Agreement against climate change, given the difficulties in approving any measure against fossil fuels in the framework of the United Nations climate summits, due to the blockade of oil and gas producing countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Russia or Canada. In a telephone conversation from Bogotá, where he has lived for 10 years, Rafalowicz defends the need to change strategy in international negotiations: “There have already been 27 COPs and emissions continue to rise.”

Ask. Why do we have to look for a way out of fossil fuels?

Response. The science is very clear: it is not possible to reduce the emissions that cause climate change without a rapid exit from fossil fuels. And for that we need a plan with which to organize its gradual abandonment, with considerations of equity and justice, otherwise it will be very difficult to get the support of the people and the political will to make the change. It is clear that fossil fuels must be left in the ground, since 86% of CO₂ emissions are related to oil, coal and gas.

Q. Can humanity really quickly wean ourselves off fossil fuels?

R. There is science and technology to produce energy from renewable sources, using storage systems, such as batteries. At the same time, we should change our consumption patterns. Although there are economic activities that are difficult to decarbonise, those would be the last to act on. But it is no longer just because of climate change, we are reaching a turning point where it is more interesting from an economic point of view to invest in more sustainable energy production systems. And we must not think that fossil fuels have brought progress to the whole world either: there are almost 2,000 million people on our planet who do not have enough energy for a decent life. Renewable technologies represent an opportunity to democratize access to energy

Q. Why does your proposed treaty use the same terminology as for nuclear weapons?

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R. Because fossil fuels are an existential threat like nuclear weapons. As with nuclear weapons, we need an international framework to lessen this risk. And the citizen movements against nuclear weapons also show us that it is possible to promote a new treaty on an international scale.

Q. How did this initiative come about?

R. We should have stopped the proliferation of fossil fuels a long time ago, 20 years have passed since the first call that warned that we cannot have new deposits of coal, oil or gas. Before the Paris Agreement was approved in 2015, the Pacific islands proposed a coal mine non-proliferation treaty. It was focused only on coal and did not go further at that time, but after Paris the proposal resurfaced with more force. A coalition of NGOs from all continents was formed and in September 2020 the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative was officially launched. Today the support network has grown to nearly 2,000 civil society organizations, 71 cities (including Barcelona, ​​Paris, London, Lima, Los Angeles, and Calcutta), 3,000 scientists, and 101 Nobel laureates. In September this year, the president of Vanuatu, an island in the Pacific, called on the United Nations General Assembly for countries to support this treaty. The next step would be to convene more interested governments to begin the process.

Q. The European Parliament has also supported the proposal. It is not like this?

R. Yes, the European Parliament adopted a resolution ahead of the climate summit in Egypt calling on states to work on developing a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty, which shows the level of political support the concept has in many parts of the world. This proposal also has the support of more than 1,000 professionals in the health sector and 200 health organizations around the world, including the WHO, since the burning of fossil fuels poses serious threats to human and planetary health.

Q. At the climate summit in Egypt (COP27) it was impossible to approve a reference aimed at ending the use of all fossil fuels due to the blockade of producing countries. Is it feasible to advance this at climate conferences?

R. For now, it is not a framework that serves to advance the end of fossil fuels, which is why our proposal is gaining weight. Even so, we consider our project as complementary to the Paris Agreement.

Q. At this COP27, Saudi Arabia once again defended that the negotiations talk about reducing emissions, but not about any energy in particular. What do you think?

R. Canada’s energy minister said the same thing, it’s not just Saudi Arabia. They have a line of legal argument that makes some sense, since it is true that until now it has focused on emissions. But we have to change what we are doing, there have already been 27 COPs and emissions continue to rise.

Q. Although there is a lot of talk about the blocking role of Saudi Arabia or Russia, you are especially critical of countries like Canada. Why?

R. Or Australia…. The United States says one thing in the COP plenary, but then approves new exploitation of fossil fuels. Norway has a green face and then a very different one. With the current system, emissions are accounted for where we burn the fuel, so Norway can say that their oil doesn’t count in their climate change balance, because they use it elsewhere. But the investment of financial, human, political and cultural capital in fossil fuel systems contributes to its further use, the structure of the sales chain contributes to create demand. So what we have to do is plan an outing.

Q. But producing countries are not going to support a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty either.

R. Another idea in our proposal that also comes from the anti-arms movement is to start with a group that has fewer economic interests with these energies to develop the legal framework and then have other governments join in. We don’t think the big fossil fuel producers are going to get involved at first. Will Saudi Arabia be there? No, it won’t be. Canada? No, it won’t be. Australia? Either. But there are other countries that act within the international system that will be interested. Countries that are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as islands or Bangladesh. Countries that do not benefit from the fossil fuel economy and want to advance in the renewable energy economy, such as Kenya or Morocco. Countries in Europe that are concerned about the climate crisis with a just transition vision, such as Finland, France, Spain. Or medium-sized producers more at risk from the change in demand that will come from the energy transition, such as Colombia or Malaysia.

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