Why Cambodia Needs to Endorse Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty

FILE: Smoke billows from the chimney of a factory along a street, amid dense smog in the outskirts of Amritsar on December 5, 2023. Photo: AFP

The adverse effects of climate change are increasingly visible across the globe, ranging from droughts to floods to heatwaves and other extreme weather events. Small and least-developed countries suffer the most from these effects, and tragically for some these changes could make their homes uninhabitable.

Fossil fuels, such as oil, coal, and gas, are the largest contributors to the climate crisis, accounting for around 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Despite having adopted the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 to keep global temperatures well below 2 degrees, global emissions are still increasing, and many governments continue to subsidise fossil fuels. Due to this dangerous trend, the science and health professional community consistently demands that the world adopt the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty (FFNPT) to ensure the winding down of fossil fuels and prevent the future use of fossil fuels to curb temperature rise.

So far, only small island nations have pushed for global support for the treaty, and 11 countries, including Colombia, which has significant oil, gas, and coal industries, have endorsed it. Nonetheless, adopting such a critical treaty, which puts the rich countries’ benefits at risk, requires strong political momentum among states and organisations worldwide.

As a small and least-developed country, Cambodia has not yet pledged its support for the treaty. However, there are several compelling reasons why Cambodia should endorse the treaty.

First, Cambodia is highly vulnerable to the climate crisis, and reducing emissions is critical to avoid future tragedy. Being a least developed and agrarian country with around 80 percent of its population dependent on farming, the country has been adversely affected by climate change. It has recently experienced worse extreme weather events such as heatwaves, floods, and droughts. For example, it has been facing the highest temperatures in 170 years. Economically, the future seems bleaker as it predicted that the impacts of climate change could result in a reduction of almost 10 percent in Cambodia's Gross Domestic Product by the year 2050.

Besides its higher climate vulnerability, it bears a global responsibility to back the treaty. Cambodia must act decisively as fellow small nations race against time to avert climate peril.  Though small, Cambodia can still make pivotal decisions to safeguard its future and contribute to global resilience. The plight of small island developing states like Kiribati and Tuvalu, whose very existence is threatened by rising sea levels, needs to be heard. That is why solidarity among smaller nations becomes paramount in advocating for global action.

Secondly, Cambodia’s endorsement of the FFNPT will demonstrate commitment to the universal net-zero goal. To live up to its commitment to the Paris Accord, Cambodia pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 to the UNFCCC in late 2021, becoming the third least-developed country (LDC) and one of the first countries in Southeast Asia to set such an ambitious goal with a clear deadline. It aims to slash GHG emissions by 41.7 percent by 2030 and reach neutrality by 2050. Addressing emissions from land-use change, deforestation and forest degradation, transportation, and the energy system are central to the strategy.  

Though setting this goal is important, realising carbon neutrality is not just about individual targets. It is about a collective effort to have a consistent and rapid shift from fossil fuels. Paris Accord falls short of addressing the supply side of the issue, failing to limit the production of fossil fuels by discouraging or banning their extraction. Therefore, relying on the deal will not be enough to reduce emissions. On the other hand, the FFNPT is a supply-side climate policy that tackles emissions at their source, filling in the gaps left by the Paris Accord. As a signatory to the Paris Agreement, Cambodia should advocate for its adoption.

Third, embracing the FFNPT will offer Cambodia a path toward sustainable development with an effective energy transition. Aligned with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty's three pillars—prohibition, disarmament, and peaceful use—the treaty framework mandates wealthy nations to halt the expansion of fossil fuel projects and adhere to strict carbon budgets. Furthermore, they are compelled to expedite the transition to cleaner energy sources. Entitled to their historical contributions to climate change, rich nations are tasked with facilitating a just and equitable phase-out of existing fossil fuel production and supporting developing nations in their transition to cleaner energy.

Under this mechanism, least-developed countries like Cambodia stand to benefit from substantial financial and technical assistance. Tailored timelines for phasing out fossil fuels will be established for poorer nations heavily reliant on these resources. Simultaneously, advanced economies such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, and Canada are mandated to immediately halt fossil fuel extraction and provide vital financial backing to enable the transition in developing countries.

On the other hand, Cambodia’s reluctance to support the treaty could be understandable as it might initially perceive the FFNPT as a hindrance to its development trajectory. Presently, the nation heavily relies on inexpensive yet dirty energy sources like oil and coal, constituting roughly 51 percent of its total energy mix.

The government considers these sources as crucial for sustaining economic progress and prosperity. This hesitance also stems from its substantial oil reserves in the Gulf of Thailand as these revenues could bolster its economic growth. However, despite possessing six offshore oil and gas blocks, Cambodia has yet to commence significant fossil fuel production, with attempts to reap benefits from fossil fuel reserves remaining unsuccessful. The initial oil discovery in late 2020, extracted from an offshore drilling platform operated by Singapore’s KrisEnergy, was short-lived due to the company's bankruptcy.

Moreover, Cambodia also is anticipating revenue potential from oil and gas reserves in the disputed maritime area with Thailand. The two nations claim overlapping territories of 26,600 square kilometers, which are estimated to contain up to 500 million barrels of oil and gas. Despite recent efforts and consensus by the prime ministers of both countries, there are lingering concerns that resources may remain untapped. Given the global shift towards renewable energy sources and the international pressure to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, it is inevitable that Cambodia should not rely on future profits from oil extraction.

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