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Fossil fuels are an existential threat. Stop messing around and just ban them

Covering Climate Now: From CFCs to nuclear weapons, history has shown that the first step to eliminating a threat is to ban it, argues Thomas Nash.

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Nuclear war and the climate breakdown are the two greatest threats to humanity. Preventing them from happening should be a priority for all of us. The technologies that underpin these threats are well known.

For nuclear war the problem technology is nuclear weapons – about 16,000 warheads around the world capable of wiping out entire cities and vaporising the residents with one blast. For the climate breakdown the primary problem technology is burning fossil fuels for energy. There are other causes of climate breakdown, but fossil fuels are by far the biggest cause. We need to eliminate both of these technologies if we want to be safe on this planet.

History tells us that one of the first steps on the road to eliminating something is to ban it. This is the story of CFCs, which we banned through the Montreal Protocol in 1987. It is what happened with landmines and cluster bombs – a process that is ongoing. It’s also what happened with smoking in public places, you ban it and then you eliminate it.

This basic principle was the motivation behind the strategy adopted by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons in 2012. This strategy was very important because it represented a distinct shift in orientation. For the first part of its life ICAN had pursued a Model Nuclear Weapons Convention which would require all nuclear-armed states to come on board before it could be put in place. That strategy gave all the power to the nuclear-armed states. Their participation was required for anything to happen and they simply said no.

The strategy ICAN adopted in 2012 was to pursue a treaty banning nuclear weapons, even without the nuclear-armed states. This strategy took the power back into the hands of people who wanted to act. It was ultimately successful, the treaty was adopted in 2017 and the campaign was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. We need to do the same for fossil fuels. We cannot rely on the biggest users of fossils fuels to come on board before we establish an international legally binding instrument that prohibits fossil fuels.

There will be a chorus of naysayers, rolling their eyes at this proposal and insisting it is not possible to ban fossil fuels. That is quite normal. Every effort to make radical change is laughed out of town when it is first proposed. Often strategic shifts like this are attacked most harshly from within the community already seeking to make change. But without these radical proposals, change doesn’t happen.

So how do we get started and what does this have to do with New Zealand?

First of all, here in the Pacific we are on the front lines of climate injustice. Our neighbours on low-lying atolls like Tuvalu and Kiribati are in grave danger of losing their land, their way of life and their heritage.

Think of the Marshall Islands. This is a country whose atolls were bombed over and over again by the United States while it was testing its nuclear weapons in the 1950s. Now the country is facing devastation from sea level rise and extreme weather events caused by climate pollution.

Just as the states affected by landmines, cluster bombs and nuclear testing took leading roles in the campaigns to ban those weapons, we can expect those most vulnerable to climate injustice to take a leading role in the movement to ban fossil fuels. Indeed, in 2017 there was a proposal from Pacific states to develop a fossil fuel free zone in the region.

New Zealand should stand in solidarity with our Pacific neighbours and promote this movement to ban fossil fuels. We are in a strong position to do so, because our electricity is largely renewable and as long as we can shift our transport systems away from petrol and onto electric or hydrogen we should be able to more or less eliminate fossil fuels from our energy profile.

So if we have New Zealand and the Pacific leading the charge on this, what does this treaty look like? A useful parallel is the Montreal Protocol of 1987, which successfully banned, phased out and eliminated gases that were depleting the ozone layer – CFCs. We can also look at parallels with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The NPT has three parts: 1) countries without nuclear weapons don’t acquire them; 2) countries with nuclear weapons get rid of them over time; 3) all countries cooperate on nuclear energy.

It‘s not an exact model and the NPT isn’t working perfectly, but there are some similarities to what we could do with a treaty banning fossil fuels: 1) all countries ban new exploration and drilling and mining – NZ is already on the way to doing that; 2) all countries phase out and outlaw the use of fossil fuels over time; 3) all countries cooperate on renewable energy and electric transport.

The beauty of this approach is that it is simple and it is achievable. It doesn’t try to do everything; it is not trying to ban greenhouse gas-producing activities. It is focused on the worst offender for climate breakdown: fossil fuels. And pursuing a treaty to ban and phase out fossil fuels is achievable. That is, its achievable as long as we don’t feel beholden to the countries like the US, Australia, Saudi Arabia, who are most unlikely to join the effort.

Getting a piece of international law banning fossil fuels will be significant. Some might question the value of this. Some question the value of a treaty banning nuclear weapons. Fair enough. We won’t really know the value of the treaty banning nuclear weapons until we see the effect it has in years to come. The same will be true of a treaty to ban fossil fuels.

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But what we do know is that investors, financial institutions and their legal advisers care a lot about pieces of international law that prohibit things. When landmines and cluster bombs were banned, banks and pension funds withdrew their investment in companies involved with the weapons. So even though the US, for example, hadn’t signed these treaties, its weapons manufacturing companies were feeling the effects of their legal force.

Imagine the potential power of a ban on fossil fuels in cutting off funding for fossil fuel companies. Investment in fossil fuels is already faltering. It has been overtaken in many countries by investment in renewable energy. We can reinforce and accelerate that trend by pursuing a legal instrument that will outlaw fossil fuels and drive investment away from the very activities that are burning our planet. We should do it.

Thomas Nash is co-director of New Zealand Alternative and adjunct lecturer in politics at Massey University.


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