Pictured: Mitzi Jonelle Tan

Here's what you need to know about the Global Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty

Thirteen countries, including small but mighty nations like Vanuatu, Tonga and Fiji, have signed a treaty to end the expansion of new coal, oil and gas projects. Leading climate activist Mitzi Jonelle Tan unpacks the details and the crucial role of Pacific nations and youth climate advocates.

In late May 2024, the President of the Republic of the Marshall Islands Dr Hilda Heine opened the UN Small Island Developing States Conference with some bold, fierce words on the subject of climate change.

“Fossil fuels are at the heart of the planetary crisis that we face today. My country is resilient - war, colonialism, and nuclear testing have marked our history. We know the dangers that fossil fuels pose and the absolute necessity of addressing them as the urgent threat they are. We are proud to join the ranks of the countries supporting the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty initiative today,” Dr Heine told attendees.

The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty has now been endorsed by thirteen nations, many of who have a front row seat to rising sea levels, with Dr Heine's homeland of the Republic of the Marshall Islands being the latest country to join the movement for a global treaty to phase out fossil fuels and ensure a just transition.

“We are in a moment of truth. The truth is almost 10 years since the Paris Agreement was adopted, the target to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is hanging by a thread. The truth is the battle for 1.5 degrees will be won or lost in the 2020s under the watch of leaders today," she said.

"It all depends on the decisions those leaders take or fail to make, especially in the next 18 months... The difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees will be the difference between extinction and survival for some small island states and coastal communities, the difference between minimizing climate chaos or crossing dangerous tipping points. 1.5 degrees is not a target, it’s not a goal, it’s a physical limit.” This sentiment was emphasised by United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, in a speech on June 5, 2024, on World Environment Day at the American Museum of Natural History.

As some of the most climate-vulnerable nations, the Pacific Island Nations have long been at the forefront of climate action, but Micronesia Lead and Climate Warrior Selina Leem reminds us that “from great duress comes the strongest of warriors, and the Marshall Islands models that.” At a SIDS4 press conference, she highlighted how, in the lead-up to the 21st UN Climate Change Conference in 2015, the Marshall Islands helped secure the 1.5-degree red line in the Paris Agreement. She noted that “this (Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation) Treaty initiative is the mechanism needed for a global, just, and equitable transition away from coal, oil, and gas.”

Despite numerous studies, including this one by the International Energy Agency, stating that we need to stop fossil fuel expansion, many world leaders continue to invest in coal, oil, and gas. Decades of UN Climate Change Conferences (COP) have been too slow, with a call for a transition away from fossil fuels in a just and equitable manner only being made at COP28 last year in Dubai. However, many citizens and leaders from small island states have pointed out that this is still not enough. The text is full of loopholes and false solutions involving unproven and expensive technologies like nuclear, abatement, carbon capture and storage, and transition fuels.

At COP28, Anne Rasmussen, the Samoan representative and lead negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), expressed disappointment in the conference's outcome. She pointed out that there has only been “an incremental advancement over business as usual when what we really needed is an exponential step-change in our actions and support.” Toeolesulusulu Cedric Schuster, chair of AOSIS, stated that signing an agreement without a strong commitment to phase out fossil fuels would be akin to signing their death certificates.

If the Paris Agreement is the goal, the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty will show us the way to achieve those goals. It is a complementary mechanism to the existing agreement that prioritises a just transition and a fair phaseout. The rapid growth of endorsements for the treaty, which started with just Vanuatu and Tuvalu at the beginning of last year, is a testament to how climate-vulnerable countries have had enough of ongoing climate inaction and delays. They have stopped waiting for centralised action, taken matters into their own hands, and are paving the way for true climate leadership.

The Treaty is not just led by national leaders; it is a global campaign comprised of civil society organisations, academics, scientists, youth activists, health professionals, faith institutions, Indigenous peoples, labor unions, and hundreds of thousands of other citizens globally. This Treaty centres justice, rights, and the public good as its core values.

The growing coalition of now 13 countries, 111 cities and subnational governments, over 2,500 civil society organisations, and over a hundred thousand individuals is urging everyone to join them in seeking a mandate to negotiate a new Treaty on fossil fuels. The Treaty aims to secure an equitable transition away from oil, gas, and coal, and our chance to stay within the 1.5°C climate limit. This is a crucial step that we need to have a safe present and a safe, post-extractive future led and determined by the most marginalised, where people, economies, societies, oceans, and ecosystems can all thrive.

Note: The countries that now endorse the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty are Vanuatu, Tuvalu, Tonga, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Niue, Antigua and Barbuda, Timor-Leste, Palau, Colombia, Samoa, Nauru, and the Marshall Islands.