essop1_JOHN MACDOUGALLAFP via Getty Images_fossil fuel cropped JOHN MACDOUGALLAFP via Getty Images

The Case for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty

Finding viable solutions for managing the fossil-fuel industry’s decline is now more critical than ever. A Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty offers a vision and path for what true international climate leadership and cooperation could look like.

CAPE TOWN/BERLIN – The northern summer of 2021 has brought a series of record-breaking natural disasters. The list – which includes intense flooding in China and Western Europe, heatwaves and drought in North America, extreme drought in Africa, and wildfires in the sub-Arctic and Southern Europe – is long, growing, and global.

This is the beginning of climate chaos, and it delivers a stark message: we can no longer rely on historical patterns to inform predictions of future natural disasters. Notably, the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) more clearly attributes extreme weather events to humans’ influence on the climate, pointing out that fossil fuels have caused 86% of carbon-dioxide emissions in the past decade.

For decades, a small number of extremely rich and powerful private and state-owned firms have profited greatly from selling these fuels while deceiving the public and influencing governments to forestall political action to tackle climate change. Big Oil’s strategies to preserve its business model for as long as possible are well documented. Facebook ads promoting their “climate friendliness” and “green gas” were viewed 431 million times in 2020 alone.

Such corporate deceit is especially problematic for countries in the Global South, which are striving to improve their economic security and risk locking themselves into dirty infrastructure assets that will become stranded. In fact, every region has high renewable energy potential. International collaboration and support, particularly finance from the Global North, is essential to realizing it.

The lack of an international mechanism directly addressing fossil fuels means that the industry has continued to expand significantly, even since the 2015 Paris climate agreement was signed. According to the United Nations’ Production Gap Report, planned fossil-fuel production in 2030 is currently 120% greater than would be allowed under a 1.5° Celsius carbon budget.

Implementing these plans would threaten to trigger runaway climate change. But their backers seem to be getting away with it, clearly showing that political leaders have turned a blind eye to this most obvious driver of climate chaos. Even so-called climate champions like Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Norway are approving new fossil-fuel projects while sounding the climate alarm in step with the IPCC.

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While focusing on minimizing emissions might have been a sensible approach in the early 1990s, it is clearly not enough today. We also need a complementary mechanism explicitly geared toward constraining fossil-fuel supply.

Emerging initiatives such as the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance can serve as forums that establish a new norm of climate leadership and create political space to advance discussions among first movers and vulnerable countries. But as political momentum grows, a pathway for establishing an international legal instrument needs to be worked out. One tool that is gaining global support and would help to put us on a meaningful path toward a livable climate is a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Such a treaty would emulate existing international agreements that aim to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons, landmines, ozone depletion, and other security risks. And it would be based on the three pillars of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

On the first pillar of a future treaty – non-proliferation – the world has made significant progress in the past few months. The International Energy Agency said that any new fossil-fuel development will conflict with the Paris agreement’s goals, G7 members agreed to stop financing new coal projects, and many jurisdictions banned all new fossil fuel permits.

The second pillar is a feasible phaseout. Most climate scientists agree that we need to wind down existing fossil-fuel stockpiles and production. Even without any new coal, oil, or gas projects, the world would produce 35% more oil and 69% more coal by 2030 than is consistent with a 1.5°C pathway.

Third, a new treaty should help to enable a just transition away from fossil fuels through a process of international cooperation that has equity at its core. Wealthy fossil-fuel-producing economies would lead the way and share the benefits and burdens of the transition with poorer countries, workers, and affected communities. This should include the provision of financial resources to enable policymakers to implement and sustain necessary climate policies.

Hundreds of organizations representing thousands of individuals have joined the call for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. Earlier this year, the Dalai Lama and 100 other Nobel laureates called for an end to fossil-fuel expansion, while more than 2,000 academics and scientists have signaled their support in an open letter.

We will have to live in a world in which extreme climate events become more intense and frequent. But the first rule of getting out of a hole is to stop digging. And that requires not succumbing to the power and influence of the fossil-fuel lobby and its political allies.

Finding viable solutions for managing the fossil-fuel industry’s decline is now more critical than ever. A Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty offers a vision and path for what true international climate leadership and cooperation could look like.