Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Would Draw a Lesson from Cold War
A global fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty, analogous the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty adopted in 1967, is a necessary mechanism to get greenhouse gas emissions under control in time to hold average global warming below 1.5°C, according to a post last week for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
“Just like the accumulation of nuclear weapons, the continued buildup of carbon in the atmosphere—caused largely by the burning of fossil fuels—is a clear and present danger to life on Earth,” write Canadian climate campaigner Tzeporah Berman, Sussex University climate researcher Peter Newell, and Matthew Stilwell of the Washington, DC-based Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development. But “despite the mounting evidence of the catastrophic climate change that will occur if we do not change our current trajectory, it became clear that the vast majority of national governments are in denial as the UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid sputtered to a disappointing end in December 2019.”
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The post points to the US$1.4 trillion in new oil and gas investment that major fossil producers are planning through 2024, enough to push atmospheric warming past the 1.5°C threshold and use up most of the remaining carbon budget for 2.0°.
“Faced with a growing climate emergency, action is urgently needed to tackle the proliferation of fossil fuels in modern society,” Berman, Newell, and Stilwell write. “But just as important as reducing the demand for fossil fuels—a major focus of the Paris Agreement—is reducing the supply, by curbing the expansion of oil, gas, and coal reserves and infrastructure, and phasing out existing production. Unfortunately, supply-side policies have not been incorporated into international climate negotiations or into most national government plans.”
With that legacy of “weak climate leadership” already taking a “deadly toll”, they say it’s time to learn a lesson from an earlier generation’s crisis.
“Decades ago, nuclear war was identified as a threat to our collective future,” the three authors write. “During the height of the Cold War, nations came together to scale it down. They designed and implemented a treaty to phase out weapons of mass destruction, progressively disarm existing stockpiles, and encourage the peaceful use of technology. Through a variety of efforts, the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons declined from a high of 64,449 nuclear missiles in 1986 to less than 10,000 as of the time of this writing.”
Like its predecessor, a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty would be built around three pillars: non-proliferation, disarmament, and peaceful use. “Non-proliferation would prevent new exploration and production,” protecting “investments, workers, and communities from becoming stranded,” they explain. “Disarmament would phase out existing stockpiles and production to align fossil fuel supply with internationally agreed climate goals in the Paris Agreement.” And “peaceful use of technology would fast-track the transfer of clean, renewable energy to poorer nations, enable a just transition for workers and communities, and support economic diversification in fossil fuel dependent countries.”
Much of the funding “could come through the reallocation of trillions of dollars in subsidies that wealthy countries still give to the oil and gas industry—monies which could instead be spent on efforts to keep fossil fuels in the ground.”
A treaty would raise awareness of the existential threat posed by the unabated proliferation of fossil fuels, while providing a “tangible proposal that individuals and organizations, cities and states, and national governments can rally around,” Berman, Newell, and Stilwell argue. The focus on production and supply would reinforce complementary efforts to cut fossil fuel demand, while freeing up resources for “reliable, affordable, and low-carbon solutions”. And its focus on a limited number of “actors, companies, and facilities” would make it an effective, practical approach.
“Our current path, in which we expand the production of fossil fuels, is akin to the fire department showing up with gasoline to save a planet on fire,” the three authors conclude. “It’s critical that governments both strengthen the Paris Agreement on climate change, and face the need to limit the proliferation of fossil fuel production.” Which means “it’s time to propose solutions commensurate with the scale of the challenge.”