Given the crisis at hand, many have criticized the annual UN climate change negotiations for being far too slow. It took 28 years of negotiations before fossil fuels, the primary driver of the climate crisis, were even referenced in a decision to come out of the conferences.

The UN system is based on consensus. In theory, it’s a system where petrostates and vulnerable countries have an equal seat at the table. That’s one reason why from COP1 in 1995 to COP28 in 2023 — when countries finally agreed to transition away from coal, oil and gas — the negotiations failed to name the elephants in the room, in particular, fossil fuels. It’s no wonder public perceptions of the talks so often slide into cynicism.

With the United Nations annual climate change summit now having secured a landmark acknowledgment that countries should transition away from fossil fuels this decade, there’s a pressing question of how climate action can be accelerated. In the coming years, global greenhouse gas emissions must be slashed 43 per cent by 2030 and 60 per cent by 2035 to avoid crossing planetary boundaries — neatly summarized in the Paris Agreement’s goal of holding global warming to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels.

That target is not the limit of safety. Rather, it’s the bare threshold to narrowly avoid catastrophic tipping points. Already the world is at least 1.1 C warmer on average than the climate that allowed human civilization to flourish, and the devastating consequences are plain to see.

This year alone, flooding in Libya has killed at least 4,000 (with tens of thousands more estimated dead), heat waves baking millions of people across Europe and China killed hundreds, and in Canada, climate-driven wildfires unlike any fires ever seen forced tens of thousands from their homes and blanketed much of the country in smoke for months on end. All these crises will worsen as long as carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases are added to the atmosphere.

In the face of these disasters and the crawling state of international negotiations, new diplomatic efforts are being built outside the UN system. Countries, regions, cities and more are forming alliances to work faster to bring an end to the fossil fuel era.

Enter the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative.

The initiative's goal is to build an alliance of climate leaders committed to stopping the expansion of fossil fuels and ratcheting down production in line with what science says is required to avert catastrophic warming. Eventually, the goal is for the initiative to be elevated to formal negotiations that can create a legally binding treaty.

Reacting to the COP28 decision that said countries should begin transitioning off fossil fuels this decade, Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty executive director Alex Rafalowicz didn’t mince words, calling the thousands of fossil fuel lobbyists at COP28 “merchants of death” who’ve “poisoned the talks.”

In the face of accelerating natural disasters and the slow state of climate negotiations, new diplomatic efforts to rein in fossil fuels are being developed. Will it be enough to avoid catastrophe?

“For 30 years, this process has failed to face up to the core driver of the climate crisis. Today that changes, but only because the people on the front lines held the line for the rest of humanity,” he said in a statement. There was a significant number of governments pushing for a science-based fossil fuel phaseout and for a true just transition package with finance and equity at the core.

The consensus-based process prevented these countries from breaking through and demonstrates the inability of the UN to deal with the urgency and source of this crisis, he said. “That is why we need a complementary, non-consensus-based process like a fossil fuel treaty that allows those countries to come together … to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels signalled in this agreement.”

Founder of the treaty initiative is prominent Canadian environmental advocate Tzeporah Berman, who says a major flaw of the Paris Agreement is there is no “mechanism” to govern the production of fossil fuels.

“So the fossil fuel treaty will be the plan,” she told Canada’s National Observer. “It will be the roadmap for how we start aligning fossil fuel production with our climate goals, and it will give countries the confidence they need to make the right decisions.”

The number of countries endorsing the treaty increased to 12 this year.

This year saw the addition of Colombia and Timor-Leste (sometimes called East Timor), two countries whose governments depend significantly on fossil fuel extraction. Timor-Leste’s government receives 85 per cent of its revenue from the Bayu-Undan field in the Timor Sea; while over half of Colombia’s exports are fossil fuels, providing an important revenue stream for its government.

Colombia President Gustavo Petro walks through the UN climate summit venue on Dec. 2, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Photo by The Canadian Press/AP Photo/Joshua A. Bickel

When Colombia endorsed the treaty at COP28, President Gustavo Petro said that as a country that depends on oil, endorsing a treaty that would end new exploration projects would leave many in his country wondering why he would endorse “economic suicide.”

“But this is not economic suicide … we are avoiding 'omnicide' on Planet Earth,” he said, referring to the risk of extinction.

Economically powerful fossil fuel interests work hard to maintain the possibility of more profit in the short term at the expense of life, he said.

“Today we face an immense confrontation between fossil capital and human life. And we must choose a side,” he said. “I have no doubt which position to take between fossil capital and life. We choose the side of life.”

The fact the treaty is gaining traction with countries that, despite their fossil fuel resources, understand the need to transition away from coal, oil and gas is a massive turning point. To date, the treaty has been endorsed by states that lack major fossil fuel resources and are most vulnerable to climate change.

As the world’s fourth largest producer of fossil fuels, Canadian policymakers should learn from the examples being set, experts and advocates told Canada’s National Observer.

How did we get here?

The first movers were small, vulnerable Pacific states. Following a summit in 2016 in the Solomon Islands, 14 countries floated the idea of a treaty to ban coal mines in line with the goal to hold warming to 1.5 C. The next year, an important negotiating bloc called the Least Developed Countries group emphasized the need for a managed phaseout of fossil fuels. Academic researchers dove into the concept too, arguing that “complementary” approaches to the Paris Agreement may be necessary to constrain fossil fuels and manage their wind down on just and equitable terms.

Since the formal launch of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative in 2019, hundreds of elected officials, nearly 100 cities and sub-national governments, hundreds of health groups including the World Health Organization, and even the Pope have endorsed the treaty.

And then last year, Vanuatu became the first country to formally endorse the treaty during a speech at the United Nations General Assembly. The reason? Fundamental human rights are being violated, young people are terrified of their future, and the cost will be measured in human lives, President Nikenike Vurobaravu explained.

Vanuatu’s Climate Change Minister Ralph Regenvanu, left, at a Commonwealth meeting in London in 2019. Photo via Flickr/ Commonwealth Secretariat (CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED)

In an interview with Canada’s National Observer in Dubai during COP28, Ralph Regenvanu — Vanuatu’s minister of climate change adaptation, meteorology and geo-hazards, energy, environment and disaster management — said that in the UN negotiations, petrostates are increasingly “rogue states” that must be reined in.

“The message from the Pacific small island developing states … is that Canada has to immediately stop any further expansion of fossil fuel production,” he said. “It has to do that now if it's going to be faithful to the science. We all know that.”

A study from Oil Change International published in September found Canada is on track to be the second-largest fossil fuel expander, behind the United States, by 2050. On its own, Canada’s planned fossil fuel expansion represents 10 per cent of the world’s expansion plans, creating the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions of 117 coal plants run for decades.

Regenvanu said beyond stopping further expansion of fossil fuels, Canada must redirect subsidies into renewable energy and build resiliency to the impacts of climate change.

“So Canada needs to do what I just said and become part of the solution,” he said. “And one way to do that, in a way that we all work together on and assist each other, is through a treaty.”