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Organizations call for fossil fuel ban treaty

Nearly 200 public health organizations want a "fossil fuel nonproliferation treaty" to end global dependence on carbon emissions linked to air pollution.

A ship at India's largest port in Mumbai
A ship at India's largest port in Mumbai (AN/Cyprien Hauser)

Nearly 200 public health organizations urged governments to adopt a "fossil fuel nonproliferation treaty" to end the world's dependence on carbon emissions linked to air pollution that causes millions of deaths every year.

A letter released on Wednesday demanding that governments agree to a legally binding treaty to end fossil fuel use worldwide gained the signatures of 17 global health organizations, including the World Health Organization and World Federation of Public Health Associations, along with health advocacy groups from more than 40 nations. It was initiated by the Global Climate and Health Alliance and Physicians for Social Responsibility.

By using the word "nonproliferation," a term more often associated with nuclear weapons, the treaty's proponents are intentionally drawing parallels between the existential threats of nuclear war and the climate crisis.

"The two overriding issues of our era — the climate crisis and the danger of nuclear war — are deeply intertwined," said Dr. Ira Helfand, the immediate past president of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and co-founder and past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, IPPNW’s U.S. affiliate.

"The climate crisis is leading to greater international conflict and a growing risk of nuclear war, and nuclear war will cause catastrophic, abrupt climate disruption," said Helfand, a recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. "The world must come together to prevent both of these existential threats."

Backers of the proposed fossil fuel ban treaty want governments to lay out a legally binding global plan to phase out the use of all carbon emissions from fossil fuels such as coal, bitumens, heavy oils, natural gas, oil and oil shales and tar sands.

It would be structured along the lines of WHO's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which came into force in 2005 as a response to decades of concern over the increasing death toll from tobacco use. The letter says it would be "an evidence-based international agreement" to control a category of substances well-known to be harmful to human health — and it would have the backing of the 194-nation U.N. health agency.

“The modern addiction to fossil fuels is not just an act of environmental vandalism. From the health perspective, it is an act of self-sabotage," said WHO's Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who was re-elected to a second five-year term in May.

'The science on this is clear'

WHO says virtually the entire world, or 99% of the global population, breathes air that exceeds its air quality limits and is a threat to health.

Because of this, the U.N. health agency says, it's important to curb fossil fuel use and take other "tangible steps" to reduce air pollution levels particularly for nitrogen dioxide, a common urban pollutant and precursor of particulate matter and ozone, and for particulate matter or PM2.5.

Tiny particles of solid and liquid droplets, measuring 2.5 microns across, are formed by fuel combustion and road traffic and easily inhaled, damaging lung tissue.

Four years ago, WHO called attention to the 7 million deaths a year it said are the result of simply breathing — and described it as the "new tobacco," a reference to cancer-causing chemicals and other harmful effects on public health.

“We know that emissions have to be slashed to limit warming to safe levels, we know fossil fuels are the greatest driver of emissions, and we know that phasing out fossil fuels is the only way to reap many of the health co-benefits of climate mitigation — so why then are governments permitting new drilling, new mining and new pipelines?” asked Liz Hanna, the World Federation of Public Health Associations' environmental health chair.

“The science on this is clear," she said. "New fossil fuel development is completely incompatible with a healthy climate and a healthy future."