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Time for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty

Time for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty

Home » Time for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty

Half a century ago, faced with the threat of nuclear catastrophe, the world came together and agreed the nonproliferation treaty. Andrew Simms and Peter Newell argue that we now need to take the same approach to fossil fuels.

How did government respond to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change conclusion in its special report on 1.5°C that only “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” can deliver the globally agreed target for stopping climate breakdown? In the UK, fracking for fossil fuels was given the green light, plans were announced for a huge new road in the south-east, incentives for electric vehicles withered, the expansion of Heathrow airport is still going ahead and Gatwick airport is trying to expand too by bringing a backup runway into use. It’s like seeing a sign that says “Danger: vertical cliff drop” and pulling on your best running shoes to take a flying leap.

Something isn’t working. The head of the oil company Shell responded to the new climate science warning by clarifying that “Shell’s core business is, and will be for the foreseeable future, very much in oil and gas.” BP announced new North Sea oil projects. Immediate choices are being made with blank disregard for avoiding climate breakdown.

A line in the sand

Climate negotiations and national commitments are simply not moving fast enough to meet the older 2°C climate target, let alone 1.5°C. Global demand for coal, oil and gas are all continuing to grow, with fossil fuels accounting for 81% of energy use. Worryingly, the International Energy Agency projects total fossil fuel use rising for decades still to come, smashing all climate targets.

A new line in the sand is needed to underpin the existing climate agreement, to exert influence over the immediate choices of policymakers. At the very least, the science should mandate a moratorium in rich countries on any further expansion of the fossil fuel industry, or any infrastructure dependent on it.

An international moratorium could take the form of a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty. The threat of nuclear catastrophe provides a precedent for how, quickly, to stop a bad situation getting worse. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), agreed just over 50 years ago between 1965 and 1968, was a triumph of rapid diplomacy, at the height of cold war mistrust, and in the face of serious security concerns. It provides a promising precedent in terms of the speed with which the agreement was concluded, and broadly speaking, a useful model for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty.

Two people in harnesses work on the hub of a wind turbine

National action

At the national level, there have recently been bold moves by governments to leave fossil fuels in the ground, which suggests scope for collective coordination and international oversight of further such efforts.

Examples include moratoria on new oil exploration and production announced in 2017 and 2018 by a number of countries including New Zealand, France and Belize, as well as Costa Rica, which has a moratorium on oil exploration in place that has been extended to 2021.

There are also moratoria in place on fracking in a number of jurisdictions globally such as France, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Uruguay, and hundreds of subnational jurisdictions. Other countries, such as the UK, Spain and China, have set near-term timetables for the phasing out of existing fossil fuels (especially coal).

Indeed, the ‘Powering Past Coal Alliance’, launched in November 2017, includes more than 25 nations that have pledged to phase out coal-fired power generation. Membership of the Alliance requires states to make (non-binding) public declarations that they will refrain from building new, unabated coal-fired power stations and will phase out existing ones. Norway’s sovereign wealth fund has also divested from coal stocks, while Ireland’s Parliament has voted to require its sovereign wealth fund to divest from all fossil fuel stocks.

Three pillars

The nuclear non-proliferation treaty is based on a three-pillar structure. The first of these is ‘non proliferation’ itself. Why not cut to the chase and agree to assess those fossil fuel reserves which, if burned, would carry us across the 1.5°C warming line, and monitor their non-use and any measures likely to lead to the proliferation of fossil fuels?

An overall guiding principle would have to be the percentages of each fossil fuel that need to remain in the ground to keep warming below 1.5°C, with continual revisions in line with updated climate models. This would be akin to the NPT process where five yearly reviews are undertaken, and aligns well with the stocktaking exercises proposed as part of the Paris Agreement.

Addressing non-proliferation in the nuclear case required a stock take of who had what weapons. There could be a similar global mapping and assessment of fossil fuel reserves undertaken by the International Energy Agency (IEA) or a UN body, just as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) performs that function for the NPT. This assessment would require reporting from national energy ministries on existing reserves, drawing on information held by the fossil fuel industry. As Carbon Tracker’s Mark Campanale says, “The fossil fuel industry knows with some certainty future production often decades in advance….

What we need is a global, public register setting out who controls the reserves from where the CO2 is coming.” Reporting and monitoring of supplyside measures to ensure non-proliferation should be easier than for many other climate policy tools currently in use. First, it would target a relatively small number of large, easily identifiable projects. Fossil fuel infrastructures are easily observable by satellite and so can be straightforwardly monitored by governments, international institutions and civil society organisations alike. Second, the commodities to be accounted for are not only much easier to monitor and measure than greenhouse gas emissions, but they are typically already measured by firms for existing administrative purposes.

‘Disarmament’ and ‘peaceful use’

The second pillar of the NPT is disarmament. This means rapid substitution of clean energy for fossil fuels and coordinating the managed and
accelerated decline of existing fossil fuel infrastructures. But disarmament would also be delivered not just by restricting supply, but also reducing demand. This could be achieved through better planning around energy, housing, transport and food and the construction of climate smart cities for example, all of which can and should be covered under plans to which all parties to the Paris Agreement are already committed.

The final pillar concerns the promotion of the ‘peaceful use’ of technology.

The ‘basic bargain’ in the NPT was that, in return for foregoing the acquisition of nuclear weapons, the non-nuclear weapons states secured from the nuclear states a commitment to provide them with nuclear technology suitable for the development of civil nuclear energy industries and to restrain the vertical spiral in nuclear weapon inventories.

In a climate context, that would mean massively expanding existing initiatives to compensate poorer countries for leaving fossil fuels in the ground, while ensuring access to clean energy and the technology needed for development as well as, of course, the resources needed to adapt to the climatic upheaval already locked into the system.

Funds could be redirected from the staggering $10m per minute that governments give in fossil fuel subsidies. The International Monetary Fund found, for example, that eliminating post-tax subsidies could raise government revenue by $2.9 trillion (3.6% of global GDP), cut global CO2 emissions by more than 20%, and cut premature air pollution deaths by more than half. A global carbon tax could be used to further supplement a Global Transition Fund.

Open cast Coal mine

Regulating private polluters

Fossil fuel companies would be subject to home country regulations when operating abroad, bringing them into line with the country’s obligations under a non-proliferation treaty.

This is crucial because just six of the largest listed oil and gas companies alone hold reserves that together would use up more than a quarter of the remaining 2°C budget.

Historically speaking, just 90 companies have caused two-thirds of anthropogenic global warming emissions, including OECD-based companies such as Chevron, Exxon, Shell and BP.

Approximately half of the estimated emissions were produced in the past 25 years – well past the date when governments and corporations became aware that rising GHG emissions from the burning of coal and oil were causing dangerous climate change.

Burden-sharing principles

Based on the global map and assessment of the distribution of fossil fuels proposed above, it will become clear which level of contribution a country is being expected to make by leaving reserves in the ground. Given different distributions of fossil fuels among countries, a calculation of their financial value would have to be made so that it is clear what degree of sacrifice each country is making for the common good, and so that equitable degrees of burden-sharing can be allocated.

Burden-sharing would be reflected principally through different targets and timetables for different countries. Crucially, the costs of action should be borne disproportionately by those who have the greatest ability to pay and that are best placed to redirect finance, production and technology towards lower carbon alternatives. The highest emitters of greenhouse gas emissions from the direct burning of their own fossil fuel reserves should act first, and cumulative emissions should be assessed to take adequate account of historical responsibility and use of fossil fuels to date.

Over time though, to be effective, the fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty would need to go beyond current large emitters with the greatest capacity to transition away from fossil fuels and that bear most historical responsibility for climate change, and include most UN members to ensure that poorer countries are not locked in to high carbon pathways. It would need to help finance – including through the redirection of fossil fuel subsidies as well as multilateral development bank and donor support – lower carbon infrastructures and technologies to meet the energy and other developmental needs of the world’s poor.

Transparent and fair

As far back as 1988 at the Toronto conference on the changing atmosphere, climatic upheaval was described as a threat “second only to nuclear war”, a sentiment endorsed from the CIA to MI5 and the United Nations. National efforts are crucial, but a new fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty supported by movements calling for fossil fuels to be left in the ground, would provide a transparent and fair means to stop climate breakdown.

The research paper which this article summarises is available for free download at:

About the authors

Andrew Simms is an author, political economist and campaigner. He is co-director of the NewWeather Institute and coordinator of the Rapid Transition Alliance. His last book was Cancel the Apocalypse.

Peter Newell is Professor of International Relations at the Centre for Global Political Economy, University of Sussex, and co-editor of The Politics of Green Transformations.