Our Burning Planet


Open Letter: Call for a UN treaty to end fossil fuels

Open Letter: Call for a UN treaty to end fossil fuels
There is an urgent need for an ‘End Fossil Fuel Treaty’ that can be added to the Paris Climate Agreement, says the writer. (Image sources: Alexander Tsang/Unsplash / Photo: Leila Dougan / Daily Maverick)

For more than 20 years, the United Nations has failed to hold fossil fuel corporations accountable. There is an urgent need for an ‘End Fossil Fuel Treaty’ that can be added to the Paris Climate Agreement and which is based on the principle of climate debt owed to all of us by fossil fuel corporations.

This is an open letter to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, General Antonio Guterres.

General Antonio Guterres,

The recent UN Climate Action Summit which you convened in New York has been a disappointment. Major carbon-emitting countries are not rising to the challenge. These governments do not have excuses given that for more than 20 years they have been informed by the UN International Panel on Climate Change about climate science and growing urgency. On the streets, climate justice movements have been doing the same.

The problems with UN Climate multilateralism have to be engaged with openly and honestly. In this regard, it is important to share with you a demand made to the UN by the children, youth and climate justice forces that took to the streets for #GlobalClimateStrike on 20 September in South Africa.

However, before I get there it is important for you to understand my orientation to the climate crisis.

I am writing to you from a society in which youth unemployment (aged between 15-24) stands at 55%. Hope for many young people has been stolen by Nelson Mandela’s party, the African National Congress (ANC). Widespread looting of state resources by many in the ANC has deprived large parts of the post-apartheid generation a place in democratic South Africa.

When I was 11 years old in 1980, my family home was surrounded by apartheid police who detained my elder brother for his anti-apartheid activism. As a child, I was terrified for what would happen to my elder brother given that many were being killed in detention. I was moved by this injustice and attempted a school boycott the next day. The boycott did not last long but it sparked an uncompromising commitment to social justice and emancipation which has stayed with me for almost four decades as an activist. I continue to feel a deep sense of inter-generational solidarity, given my politicisation at a young age. Hence, I am deeply concerned about the bleak economic future faced by our youth and these concerns are exacerbated when I think about the intersection with a worsening climate crisis. In this regard, Greta Thunberg’s powerful call for urgent action at your recent summit cannot be ignored.

Let me also be open about my ideological approach to the climate crisis. I have a climate justice perspective which has largely been excluded from the mainstream discourse in the UN system. It has had its strongest expression among movements struggling against extractivism, for climate jobs, food sovereignty, transition towns, solidarity economies, rights of nature, zero waste, socially owned renewable energy and generally, system change.

My climate justice orientation goes back 20 years when I worked on an eco-village in a township community and contributed to the Green-House project in the inner city of Johannesburg. I brought my ecological consciousness into my academic work and designed a postgraduate course on Empire and the Crisis of Civilisation, almost a decade ago. This has enabled me to expose my students to the various socio-ecological crises plaguing our world, including the climate crisis.

In 2011, I took 120 of my students to the Conference of the Parties (COP) 17 Summit in Durban. We marched for a climate justice future and handed out pamphlets to delegates going into the conference, appealing to them to ensure they take the fate of human and non-human life seriously. I also participated in the Peoples Space at the COP20 Summit in 2014 in Lima, Peru. I spent time with some of the leading climate justice activists from the Global South grappling with systemic alternatives which were not being considered inside the UN negotiations.

We knew that after the Copenhagen COP (2009) we were defeated by the fossil fuel lobbies and pro-business agendas of most governments. The high point of the first cycle of climate justice activism was the Cochabamba Peoples Summit (2010) in Peru, which the UN also disregarded.

One cannot help but wonder: if the UN listened to climate justice movements over the past two decades, where would the world be today in terms of the climate crisis?

So, ecological politics and more specifically climate crisis and justice are not new to me. On Friday, 20 September, one of our main #SAClimateStrike targets was a protest outside the corporate offices of Sasol, the 45th highest carbon emitter in the world. I was proud of the children and youth gathered at this event and about 18 other such events across South Africa.

This was historic for South Africa. Besides affirming the scientific urgency of the climate crisis, these mobilisations affirmed the democracy deficit in climate policy-making, both in South Africa and at a UN level. One of the demands made to Sasol was for a just transition plan to be developed so that the country knows how Sasol is going to ensure we achieve a net-zero emissions target while ensuring workers and affected communities benefit in this process. The South African government has failed in this regard and neither has the UN Paris Agreement compelled the likes of Sasol to put forward such a plan.

Despite South Africa being committed to the Paris Climate Agreement since 2015, according to Afro-Barometer, 54% of South Africans have not heard of climate change. This includes rural residents (63%), women (58%) and citizens without formal education (65%). The failure of the Paris Climate Agreement to engender urgency in South Africa is patently clear. Climate negotiations are elite negotiations, despite the climate crisis affecting all life forms on planet Earth. This disconnect between the UN system and local civil societies is an expression of the democracy deficit in climate negotiations and is certainly going to engender further conflict with increased planetary heating.

In South Africa, climate crisis governance is performative and made routine. South Africa has a few policies on climate change, including work being done on an adaptation strategy. These policies are not mainstreamed into governance. Moreover, the failure of the South African government’s climate policy commitments is also expressed through a failed response to our current drought (2014 to the present). The El Niño (intensified through climate change) induced drought in South Africa has been the worst in the history of the country. The ANC government only declared the drought a national emergency in early 2018, after our food system nearly collapsed.

According to climate scientists in South Africa, the entire water system that the country relies on, including the Katse Dam in the Lesotho highlands, can handle a five-year drought. We are now in the fifth year of drought, and the Katse Dam, one of the main feeders into the industrial heartland of South Africa, has levels sitting at 16.9%. This is a serious crisis with “day zero” a looming possibility for the densely populated province of Gauteng (over 12 million).

Yet the ANC government is maintaining a carbon-based development path, including building one of the largest coal-fired power stations in the world, promoting fracking, offshore gas extraction and the importation of gas from Mozambique. South Africa continues to also have oil interests in Saudi Arabia, Angola and even in conflict-ridden South Sudan. The Paris Climate Agreement is not stopping any of this.

Actually, despite the excellent science from the International Panel on Climate Change, particularly the 1.5C report of 2018 and more recent work done on the risks, costs, benefits and consequences of addressing 1.5C, the ruling elites in South Africa are afflicted with cognitive dissonance. This is more than climate denialism but actually plain insanity. From the standpoint of the urgency raised by children across South Africa, we have an irrational and irresponsible ruling elite that has not comprehended the implications of IPCC science. Despite the diplomatic narratives, self-congratulatory discourses and sensational headlines, after the Paris Agreement was put in place, the UN process to tackle the climate crisis is not efficacious and is facing a legitimacy crisis. Least of all in relation to climate justice forces on the planet.

In my view, there are three reasons for this.

First, the Paris Climate Agreement is not legally compelling for signatory countries. The principle of voluntary co-operation has completely undermined the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. There is no regulated push for nationally determined targets to be achieved, which would have tackled immediately the major carbon-based industrial powerhouses on the planet. This is the triumph of neoliberal international relations, in which states are even understood as competitive market actors and therefore have the freedom to choose whether to act on the problem or not. Ironically, this is happening at a time when the eco-fascist Donald Trump is deepening the crisis of the liberal intellectual project, including in its neoliberal incarnation.

Second, the entire UN system is founded on the primacy of nation-states. The nation-state is a product of the emergence of capitalist modernity, secular nationalism and the imposition of Western colonialism. Sovereignty has a chequered and dubious history which I do not want to get into, but just to say, the consensus among many critical international relations scholars is that the marketised neoliberal state has a functionality shaped by the sovereignty capital and is extremely weak to deal with democratic pressures arising from deep inequality.

The third wave of democratisation in the 20th century has also stalled in this context. African states that are fossil fuel (oil and gas) producers, are some of the most illiberal on the African continent and they will certainly not empower their citizens to understand, let alone shape, the climate policies and just transitions required in their countries. These countries are trapped; “resource curse” on one side, and worsening climate crisis on the other. Mozambique, Nigeria, Angola are all examples. The Paris Climate agreement with its present approach is not providing a way out for these countries.

Third, the carbon budget approach central to the COP process, while useful, merely expects countries to manage emissions through setting targets and implementing mitigation and adaptation measures. There is a huge gap in this logic. This has to do with holding nefarious fossil fuel corporations (gas, oil and coal) accountable. While divestment campaigns have attempted to put pressure on shareholder-based fossil fuel corporations, this has not gone far enough, and as long as there are profits to be made, as expressed in the global energy mix, in which coal still dominates, with gas also beginning to be included, fossil fuels will not disappear any time soon. In the Global South where about 77% of fossil fuel reserves are controlled by state corporations from Petrobras, China’s state-owned companies, as well as the fleet of India’s state corporations, divestment of shareholders will not work.

The COP negotiations have not locked in fossil fuel corporations (state and non-state) in terms of their just transition plans. Pinning down fossil fuel corporations is crucial to give momentum to decarbonisation of all other sectors in the national and global economy. This is a civilisational and intergenerational necessity. There is an urgent need for an “End Fossil Fuel Treaty” that can be added to the Paris Climate Agreement, under Article 6 of the agreement, dealing with mitigation, and particularly Article 6.9 which seeks to elaborate a framework for non-market approaches. Such a treaty has to be based on the principle of climate debt owed by fossil fuel corporations to all of us. This will go a long way to addressing the weaknesses I have identified above, the failure of the UN process to hold fossil fuel corporations accountable, for more than 20 years, and it will ensure we move with greater haste to a peaceful resolution of the climate crisis.

Of course, this might be ignored by the UN, but this is how we framed the challenge in our memorandum handed over to Sasol:

A National and Global Call to #GridlockCarbon on May 1st, 2020 – 1.5C is Not Negotiable

We will be back next year to assess progress on Sasol’s just transition plan but also to confront all other carbon corporations, investors and government institutions. Today is the start of ongoing and rolling action to #GridlockCarbon.

Hence we call on South Africa and the World to stand with us on 1 May 2020, to #GridlockCarbon corporations everywhere.

On 1 May 2020, we will stand together with workers in South Africa and the world to demand:

  1. Ambitious just transition plans from all carbon corporations and polluters so we accelerate the realisation of net-zero emissions and prevent a 1.5C overshoot;

  2. No new investments in oil, gas and coal;

  3. All governments to withdraw subsidies from fossil fuel industries and redirect this money to socially owned renewable energy transitions;

  4. The UN establish an “End Fossil Fuel Treaty” which ensures fossil fuel corporations pay the world a carbon debt for the harm they have caused, poor countries are compensated for a problem they did not create, including poor countries with fossil fuel reserves, and the oil, coal and gas industries are shut down in the next 10 years or sooner.

1.5°C is not negotiable. Our common future is in jeopardy and we are ready to fight for it. People and planet before profits.

Together with the children, youth, workers and citizens in the climate justice struggle in South Africa, we look forward to your response. DM

Dr Vishwas Satgar is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), editor of the Democratic Marxism book series, principal investigator for Emancipatory Futures Studies, Board Chairperson of the Cooperative and Policy Alternative Centre and co-founder of the #ClimateJusticeCharter process. He has been an activist for almost four decades.

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