OPINION: It's time for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty

by Tzeporah Berman | Stand.Earth
Monday, 4 May 2020 09:06 GMT

An environmental activist holds a sign as he takes part in the Climate strike protest calling for action on climate change, in Nairobi, Kenya, September 20, 2019. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As governments plan COVID-19 economic stimulus, it can't be spent in ways that make us less secure. Here are the rules we need

Tzeporah Berman is an adjunct professor at York University, chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative and the international program director at Stand.Earth. 

Even while billions of us shelter in place, millions are struggling with the impacts of our changing climate; extreme weather, floods, fires, droughts and even massive locust infestations destroying thousands of acres of crops.  

Governments are planning massive stimulus efforts at an unprecedented scale. Will we be building more resilient economies? Or will governments allow the expansion of oil, gas and coal projects, making our future even less secure? 

Experts from around the world, including Fatih Birol of the International Energy Agency, are calling for a focus on green economic stimulus. But we mustn’t just speed up sustainable investments while undermining our efforts at the same time—we must commit to stopping the expansion and manage the wind down of fossil fuel production with a truly just transition. It is time for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty

Fossil fuels are the main drivers of climate change with 75% of greenhouse gas emissions to date coming from oil, gas and coal. The industry was unprofitable and in debt long before COVID-19, despite receiving trillions in government subsidies. In many regions, fossil fuel jobs were already in decline despite the continued expansion of production capacity and infrastructure. 

Government action to reduce supply is as important as efforts to tackle demand. We have a critical and monumental task to cut emissions in half by 2030 and the current mechanisms are not enough.  In 2019, carbon pollution from oil and gas expansion cancelled out all progress made from declines in coal. The existing United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change includes precious few avenues to regulate the production of fossil fuels. The Paris Agreement does not even mention the words oil, gas or coal.

Already planned expansion would result in 120% more fossil fuels than is consistent with the recommended 1.5°C pathway by 2030, and 50% more than what is consistent with a 2°C pathway, according to the Production Gap Report prepared by the Stockholm Environment Institute, the United Nation Environmental Program and other research organizations.

Producers all believe they have the “right to compete” — that they have a right to increase production as long as other countries do. Major new oil, gas and coal projects are planned in Canada, the United States, Argentina, even in some of the most biodiverse spots on Earth like the Amazon Sacred Headwaters in Ecuador and many other locations around the world.

Now with COVID-19, fossil fuel majors are lobbying hard for bailouts, investors are desperate to salvage capital while workers and fossil-fuel dependent communities are often being left behind.

This is not an “all of the above” moment. It’s time for governments to acknowledge a more ambitious international effort is needed to provide certainty for investment, stimulate low carbon solutions at scale and constrain growing emissions and production fast enough to keep us safe. 

That’s why a team of climate, policy and legal experts from around the world is proposing a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty to be developed along with a strengthened Paris accord. 

The three pillars of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — non-proliferation, global disarmament and peaceful use — provide a framework for an equitable wind down of fossil fuels: 

  • Don’t add to the problem (non-proliferation). End new exploration and expansion into new reserves.
  • Get rid of the existing threat (global disarmament). Phase out existing stockpiles and production in line with 1.5°C.
  • Accelerate an equitable transition (peaceful use). Increase access to renewable energy and other low-carbon solutions and manage a global just transition.

History teaches us rapid, dramatic transformation is possible when a handful of countries committed to high ambition decide to lead. There are many other examples beyond the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty including the Montreal Protocol which phased out ozone-depleting chemicals, bans on asbestos, and restrictions on tobacco. 

As we work to respond to the global health pandemic over the next months, let’s not aim for getting ‘back to normal’. Normal was driving us straight into another catastrophe.  It’s going to take big ideas like a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty to generate the resilience, equity and new opportunities the world needs now and for our children’s future.