Phase out: Support grows for a global Fossil Fuels Non-Proliferation Treaty

With carbon emissions set to blow past limits agreed to under the 2015 Paris Agreement and most governments taking little or no action to curtail them, it’s clear new tactics to deal with the climate crisis are urgently needed. A bold new initiative seeks to establish a global Fossil Fuels Non-Proliferation treaty. Modeled after the UN’s treaty against the spread of nuclear weapons, last year Climate Breakthrough Award winner, Tzeporah Berman joined with other climate and energy activists to forge a new path towards ending the expanding volumes of climate killing coal, oil and gas still under development. Endorsed by tens of thousands of individuals, hundreds of NGOs as well as a growing list of cities worldwide – like Sydney and Toronto just this summer, lead blogger and Global Energy Transition podcaster, Michael Buchsbaum reviews the concept and what organizers plan for COP26 in Glasgow.

Fossil fuels such as coal, gas and oil still are large threads concerning global warming.

The FFnPT displays a new path towards ending the expanding usage of climate killing coal, oil and gas. (Photo by Pixabay, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Necessity of Global Cooperation

The latest IPCC report and this summer’s endless string of climate disasters clearly reveals that despite existing international agreements and the prevailing science, most politicians – particularly from the largest fossil fuel producing and consuming nations – refuse to adequately address worsening emissions levels.

And the physics couldn’t be clearer: The main cause of our climate emergency is the burning of fossil fuels. Coal, oil and gas are responsible for almost 80% of all carbon dioxide emissions since the industrial revolution.

But UN data shows that we are currently on track to produce over 120% more fossil fuels than the world can safely burn to limit warming to just 1.5C degrees.

Phasing out production combined with fast-tracking a renewable energy transition is one of the few pathways to reduce future dangerous warming.

However, what’s also clear, is that market-driven capitalism – insulated by entrenched “captured” politicians, lobbyists and bureaucrats – means the fossil fuel industry will not surrender it’s power willingly.

Knowing this, in 2020 an international group of environmental activists, scientists and other community leaders, led partially by Climate Breakthrough Project award-winner Tzeporah Berman, began advocating for an international Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty (FFnPT).

Berman and others believe that a treaty modeled after the UN’s relatively successful anti-nuclear pact, the Montreal Treaty to stop ozone depletion and the ongoing campaign to Ban Land Mines might become a powerful tactic to address this similarly intractable issue – one in which a small number of parties are placing the vast majority of the world’s population in grave danger.

Following the hottest summer in history, as wild fires blaze across the planet, the true costs of fossil fuels are piling up. Though their profits have long been privatized, their damages are almost always socialized.

When accounting for direct and indirect public subsidies along with reduced royalties, overall land and biodiversity impacts, degraded human health and rising medical bills, the true costs of burning fossil fuels are exceeding the benefits of relying on them to generate our heat, power and electricity, said Berman during a recent interview with climate and energy journalist, David Roberts on his Volts podcast treating the treaty idea.

Fossil fuels “are toxic, we’ve always known that. But now we know that the expansion of them, like nuclear weapons, is killing us,” continued Berman.

To address this, the FFnPT calls for “regulating fossil fuel supply, limiting extraction, removing subsidies for production, dismantling unnecessary infrastructure, defending the rights of Indigenous Peoples and impacted communities, and shifting support to safer alternatives.”

Treaty Addresses Supply Not Demand

Over the last 30 years, as Berman and Roberts relate, most efforts to control fossil fuels have centered on capping demand and setting higher emissions-reductions targets ten to thirty years down the road. We saw this most recently in April when several nations began floating vague mid-century net-zero goals.

But at present, activists are often playing something akin to a “whack-a-mole” game. Seemingly with each newly defeated fossil fuel megaproject, another one pops up somewhere else. A fossil fuels treaty could unite these local campaigns into a broader, shared global effort.

Fossil Fuel Registry

Anothor challenge in controlling supply is that it’s very difficult if not impossible to actually know how much fossil fuel expansion is planned, where and by which interests.

“If you want to count up who is producing today, you have to often turn to private firms as governments don’t often keep track of this themselves. Nor do they make this information available to average citizens,” nor, as Berman relates, to government ministers, either.

For this reason, ahead of COP26 in Glasgow, treaty organizers are developing a public database and “Global Registry” of all fossil fuel reserves, licensed resources and production globally.

“This will help promote accountability and transparency” by providing “the missing baseline of fossil fuels that are known, estimated and planned for extraction.” This will also enable an assessment of “the emissions these projects lock-in” against allowable carbon budgets.

Cities take the lead

Just this summer, in the face of unprecedented global heat and wildfires in mid-August, the city council of Sydney, Australia endorsed the treaty. In a press release, council members stated their vote comes after ever increasing temperatures across the nation are causing human deaths, biodiversity loss and wildfires that scientists say would have been “virtually impossible” without climate change.

Sydney’s vote follows on the heels of Toronto, Canada’s lopsided City Council vote of 22-2 to also endorse.

Both are just the latest in a growing number of cities across the globe including Barcelona, Los Angeles, and Vancouver as well as the Australian Capital Territory who are backing it.

Similar to the role played by “Nuclear Free Cities” in building momentum for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the language of Sydney’s adoption “calls on the Australian and New South Wales Governments to immediately end the expansion of new coal, oil and gas projects and phase out existing fossil fuel production in a manner that is fair and equitable. “

Beyond taking action on a city and community level, hundreds of NGOs – including the Heinrich Böll Stiftung – and other civil society groups are also endorsing the treaty initiative. The growing ranks of backers has only grown since the publishing of an open letter in April in which the Dalai Lama and 100s of Nobel Laureates and luminaries called on world leaders to end fossil fuel expansion. This is in parallel to the 1,300+ scientists and academics who have also endorsed the treaty, an act open to all readers (here).

Note: the Fossil Fuel non-Proliferation Treaty is also the first subject in the Energy Transition’s new podcast series, downloadable here.


L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende. He is also the host of The Global Energy Transition Podcast.

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