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Home / Journal / For a decolonial EU climate policy

Dr Amiera Sawas questions the EU’s commitment to climate action and pushes for the bloc to sign the Fossil Fuel Non Proliferation Treaty.

Aerial view of the coal mine Tagebau Hambach in Elsdorf, Germany. Germany has begun reopening coal mines in the wake of the Russia Ukraine war. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Climate-related flooding in Pakistan. Taking into account colonial times, the EU (including the UK) accounts for 18.7% of global total historical emissions, in second place after the US. Credit: Asian Development Bank via Flickr.

In November 2023 I was attending a conference in Islamabad, Pakistan, to talk about the vision of a Fossil Fuel Non Proliferation Treaty. The, soon to be elected, Federal Minister for Water and Energy in Pakistan, was on my panel. Minister Dr. Musadik Malik brilliantly laid out the case for the country to prioritise a just energy transition. He concluded with the following, which I still think about to this day:

The wild card is geopolitics… I was made to believe that the world is one big global village. We’re all interwoven into a fabric. And then, the Russia Ukraine war started. And the price of LNG went from 40 million dollars a cargo to 165 million dollars. And we looked at the same world which was telling us let’s go green, let’s go green, because we are all interwoven into one global fabric. Well we looked at the world and we said ‘what about us?’. And they said ‘what about you?’.

And in that moment we realised that we are not even a patch on that fabric. Not even a patch. So I was quite surprised when I realised that Germany had opened up its coal mines. And I said, ‘hmm interesting. Our coal was brown, what’s theirs, yellow with orange polka dots?’ So this anomaly of geopolitics can hit us any time. All the more reason why we depend more and more and more on our indigenous resources. All the more reason why we should go sustainable, why we should go green. And we should go green in our own image. Based on our own assets.

The EU wields enormous power in both global climate impacts and diplomacy. Indeed, taking into account colonial times, the EU (including the UK) accounts for 18.7% of the global total historical emissions, in second place after the US. Europe is home to some of the biggest polluters in the world, notably the fossil fuel companies BP (UK), Shell (Netherlands) and Total (France). Further, the EU has many bilateral relationships with countries across the world where climate policy is a key topic of diplomatic relations.The bloc’s importance in our climate future can not be stated enough. And yet as we approach its upcoming elections, how it is prioritising climate action is under question. In the latest leaked document on the EU’s strategic agenda for 2024-2029, climate is no longer listed as a top priority. This goes against the will of the peoples across EU member states, 93% of which in the latest survey see climate change as a serious problem and 88% thinking climate action should be a policy priority. Additionally, EIB research has shown that 61% of Europeans think a green transition will improve their lives

A decarbonised energy system is not only the right thing to do to meet citizen’s needs and mitigate runaway climate change, but it’s the smart thing to do for EU member states, in terms of jobs and growth, a policy choice which – like the US Inflation Reduction act – promotes an industry strategy for the future. Europe is very well-placed to diversify away from fossil fuels. The European Green Deal has laid the groundwork for fossil fuel phase out, politically and legally, and several member states have phase out plans. 

It has been 8 years since the historic Paris agreement built global consensus on key goals for climate action. In particular mitigating global warming to under the 1.5 degree limit and ensuring sufficient finance is allocated from historically responsible countries to those on the frontlines to adapt and mitigate losses and damage. And yet, we are close to breaching 1.5 degrees and the annual 100 billion USD goal has never been met. There is an accountability gap. Northern states are not accountable to the UNFCCC agreement, to each other, nor to their own citizens. This is fragmenting and dismantling cooperation in an increasingly polarised world. The EU must get its act together as it enters its next strategic period and be a force for good in the world. One way to do this is by promoting international cooperation and building trust between northern and southern states through a Fossil Fuel Non Proliferation Treaty.

We have entered the end of the era of oil, gas and coal. The uptake of renewables is growing exponentially and starting to make fossil fuels increasingly obsolete. There is enough clean, renewable energy potential in every region of the world to deliver safe, reliable and affordable electricity to everyone. And this is what newer generations expect of us. In research with over 6000 people under 35 across Europe in 2021/2, a large majority (81%) responded that we need a social transformation – changing our economy, how we travel, live, produce and consume – in order to tackle climate change. But, consistent with other research, they expressed scepticism about mainstream politics and distrust of political figures in delivering on the climate agenda. The undeniable reality is that later is too late. If we allow the expansion of fossil fuel extraction to continue, we lock climate, health, economic and security risks that won’t be reversible, and it will be these generations and the ones after them that suffer as a result.

“A new social norm for a comprehensive systemic change, based on equity, justice and decolonisation, is the global response we must collectively build.”

A new social norm for a comprehensive systemic change, based on equity, justice and decolonisation, is the global response we must collectively build. We can take the first steps, together, by championing a new treaty which will build trust and accountability for collective action with a clear plan to manage fossil fuel phase out and build a just transition. The proposed Fossil Fuel Treaty would transparently manage fossil fuel phase out: stopping the expansion of fossil fuel extraction and winding down existing production to safe levels. It would ensure every country in the world is able to tap into the abundant renewable energy that exists and make the shift to communities and economies free of fossil fuels by having wealthy, fossil fuel extractors commit to making the transition in their own countries and pay for their fair share of the problem by delivering financing and technical support to countries least responsible for climate change.

The call for a Fossil Fuel Treaty is based on the successes of other treaties that have fostered greater peace, justice and cooperation (see also). It unpacks the global geopolitics which have marginalised the majority of countries for too long. It is being spearheaded by twelve nations from the Pacific, Latin America, Caribbean and Southeast Asia including two fossil fuel producers, Colombia and Timor Leste. President of Colombia Dr. Petro Gustavo has called on the international community to envision a new future, through a Treaty, grounded in resilient, regenerative ‘biological wealth’ rather than destructive fossil fuel wealth; with a “change [in] the way forward. A way forward which, from my point of view, can be much more powerful, and prosperous, than the path that we would be leaving behind.”

The global network behind the call for a treaty also includes nine Peruvian Indigenous nations and more than 800 parliamentarians around the world. More than 100 local and subnational governments have joined including the State of California, Sydney, Kolkata, Lima, Vancouver, Belém, London and Warsaw as well as 2,000 plus civil society organisations, 3,000 scientists and academics, 101 Nobel Laureates, the World Health Organization and other health organizations, thousands of youth, faith and business leaders and many, many others. 

“The call for a Fossil Fuel Treaty is based on the successes of other treaties that have fostered greater peace, justice and cooperation.”

Importantly, the European Parliament has also endorsed the notion of a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. There are so many strategic advantages for EU member states to endorse and be involved in negotiating a treaty. Importantly, it would meet its historical commitments to phasing out fossil fuels in line with net zero by 2050, but doing so in a managed phase out with Just Transition at its core. It would also create a platform for more equal and trusting diplomatic relationships with countries across the global south.

Humanity has risen up many times in the past to face great challenges, using international treaties to phase out things that threaten our survival from land mines to ozone-depleting chemicals and plastics. We can and are doing it again when it comes to oil, gas and coal. And the EU can play an important and positive role. It has shown climate leadership and can refocus its efforts on being a force for a just and equitable transition and decarbonised European energy security. At COP28, the bloc supported language on “transitioning away from fossil fuels”. With its Green Deal plan laid out already, the EU can pick up the mantle of driving a global and local just transition by endorsing a treaty which builds on the deal while meeting the urgency of getting off fossil fuels highlighted by climate science. 

Dr. Amiera Sawas is Head of Research and Policy at the The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative.

She is a feminist researcher and advocate who works at the intersections of climate change, gender justice, public participation and the social contract. Amiera has almost 20 years experience working on these issues across academia, the private sector, think tanks and NGOs, with her most previous roles at Climate Outreach, ActionAid and the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College.

Amiera has a PhD on water, climate and human rights in Pakistan and is a contributing author to the IPCC sixth assessment report on gender and climate security. As a person of both Syrian and Irish heritage, with close links to Pakistan, she has lived life with an acute awareness of the impacts of colonial histories and believes passionately in the need to decolonise.