UK councils lead international call to stem fossil fuel supply

Their endorsements will shine a spotlight on Westminster’s mixed record on stemming the flow of fossil fuels in the run-up to the COP26

Isabella Kaminski
Wednesday 31 March 2021 11:00 BST

A small town in East Sussex and an ex-coal mining community in Derbyshire have become some of the first places in the world to back an international climate campaign to end fossil fuel extraction.

On Wednesday, Amber Valley Borough Council voted to support plans for a new “fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty”, which would phase out the supply of coal, oil and gas and help the world transition to cleaner energy.

It followed Lewes Town Council, which unanimously endorsed the idea earlier in the month.

The campaign, launched in September, aims to get all countries to commit to end the extraction of fossil fuels, which are the single biggest human source of greenhouse gases. Those behind it see the threat of climate change as just as serious – if not more so – as nuclear war and want a proportionate response.

Tzeporah Berman, chair of the fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty steering group and international programme director of climate campaign, said most international discussion on the climate crisis has been focused on reducing emissions, with less thought given to their main cause, which is fossil fuels.

“There are very few mechanisms to constrain the expansion of fossil fuels within the Paris Agreement, and the words ‘oil’, ‘gas’, ‘coal’ and ‘fossil fuels’ don’t even exist in it. There’s this collective delusion that somehow we can get off fossil fuels while continuing to produce them.”

Experts agree that the vast majority of fossil fuel supplies need to be left in the ground to meet the Paris Agreement’s target of keeping global warming to “well below” 2C.

Vancouver in Canada was the first place in the world to endorse the treaty campaign followed by Barcelona in Spain. New York and Los Angeles are now vying to be next in line.

Next to those bustling cities, Amber Valley is a modestly sized borough of about 130,000 people with a landscape shaped by both coal and hydropower. In 2019, it became one of hundreds of councils across the UK to declare a climate emergency and established itself as a “frack-free zone”.

So when the council’s environment deputy Emma Monkman was contacted by the team behind the treaty campaign last year, she said it “felt like a natural fit”.

Councillor Dr Wendy Maples, who submitted the motion to Lewes Town Council, said her own council had also already declared a climate emergency but still had some way to go to being truly sustainable.

With three-quarters of the UK’s councils having now declared a climate emergency, more are expected to back the treaty campaign over the next year.

Their endorsements will shine a spotlight on Westminster’s mixed record on stemming the flow of fossil fuels in the run-up to the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow.

On Wednesday, the government refused to rule out new oil and gas exploration licences in the North Sea and has attracted huge controversy over plans to open a new coal mine in Cumbria.

Artist’s impression of the new Woodhouse Colliery near Whitehaven (West Cumbria Mining)

The UK has promised to end investment in overseas fossil fuel projects by the end of the month, having already spent billions subsidising the industry abroad. However, it also faces legal action from Friends of the Earth for spending around $1bn in financial support on a huge liquified natural gas development in Mozambique.

A key aim of the fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty campaign is to transition from fossil fuels to cleaner energy in a fair way.

That’s why the first step is to build a comprehensive global database of fossil fuel production, said Ms Berman. “Just like nuclear weapons, we have to know who’s producing what.”

That’s a lesson Amber Valley knows well. Alfreton, a town in the borough, was one of many in the UK hit hard by the coal industry’s decline, said Ms Monkman, which led to high levels of unemployment.

“One of the areas we’re looking at a solar farm is Alfreton and the reason is we want to work with the university to offer green tech jobs and degrees,” said Ms Monkman.

Ms Monkman hopes the endorsement will attract more funding for green measures within Amber Valley.

“It’s only part of the tapestry of things we need to do to get to a steady state economy,” said John Beardmore, co-founder of renewable energy firm T4 Sustainability who campaigned vociferously against a new opencast mine in the area in the 2000s.

Ms Berman said the response from cities around the world has been positive. “By banding together they can use their political and communications power, similar to what happened in nuclear non-proliferation.”

The initiative is getting strong interest from indigenous and youth groups, as well as from the burgeoning divestment movement, although Ms Berman said some people see the idea as unrealistic. “Even proposing the fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty is creating the conversation we need.”

Endorsing the treaty has certainly linked a corner of Derbyshire with like-minded communities. “We’ve been connected with the different people that have endorsed, like Barcelona,” said Ms Monkman. “You become part of the club of people sharing ideas.”

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