Does the world need a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty?
Fixing Carbon Newsletter

Does the world need a non-proliferation treaty for fossil fuels?

At COP27, the EU is pushing a vote to make oil and gas as repugnant as nuclear weapons
November 3, 2022

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You can’t accuse Europe of not taking climate change seriously. Last month, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for a Fossil Fuels Non-Proliferation Treaty. The EU wants nation states to commit to ending expansion of fossil fuel extraction, phasing out existing production, and enabling a global just transition to renewable and sustainable fuels. It’s a bold move that references the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a 20th-century agreement dedicated to restricting the spread of nuclear weapons worldwide. But, does it now make sense to treat systems that billions rely on for food, heating, and transportation, the same as we treat apocalyptic weapons of mass destruction?

• • •

The Case for a Fossil Fuels Non Proliferation Treaty

 

1.  An idea that’s reached critical mass. The concept of a Fossil Fuel NPT has been slowly gathering momentum since it was first proposed in 2015. It has been endorsed by the Vatican, the Dalai Lama, the World Health Organization, thousands of scientists, and now the EU. They think that free markets alone can never move fast enough to solve our carbon crisis. 

2.  Planetary-scale diplomacy has paid off. Fifty years after the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the number of warheads on Earth has shrunk by 80%. And global agreements are not just for weapons. The 1987 Montreal Protocol—the only treaty ever to have been ratified by every single UN member state—has successfully reduced the level of ozone-depleting CFC gasses in the atmosphere. In 2016, the Protocol was amended to limit their replacements, HFCs. Although these don’t deplete ozone, they are powerful greenhouse gasses.

3.  Decarbonization can and should be more equitable. Developing nations are set to bear the brunt of climate change impacts, and already suffer the majority of deaths caused by fossil fuel-related air pollution – accounting for almost one in five fatalities worldwide, according to The Lancet. The EU’s plan is that developing nations will get money from Western countries to manage their transition. A two-tier system has worked before, with the Montreal Treaty granting poorer nations five extra years to wean themselves off CFCs and HFCs.  

 

• • •

The Case Against

1.  Carbon isn’t plutonium. There’s a big difference between an atomic bomb and a gas-powered hospital or a coal-fired school. Withholding the same cheap energy from developing nations that got rich countries to where they are is morally dubious, and could be practically ineffective. The air travel alone of 1 percent of the world’s population generates over twice the carbon emissions of the planet’s 29 poorest countries combined.

2.  Vastly different price tags. Giving up CFCs has been surprisingly cheap. The Montreal Protocol included a global fund to help convert manufacturing processes. Since 1991, it has paid out around $3.7 billion. The UN estimates the costs of decarbonizing the world economy to reach net zero by 2050 at $125 trillion—over 30,000 times as expensive as phasing down CFCs. 

3.  Nationalism isn’t going away. India didn’t sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in the 1960s, decrying it as neo-colonial lecturing by Western powers that would enshrine nuclear “haves” and “have-nots.” The world’s largest democracy went on to develop its own nuclear missiles. In today’s post-Cold War, post-globalized world, the tension between national and planetary interests has hardly weakened, and may even be growing stronger. 

 

• • •

What To Keep An Eye On

1.  Will the West put its money where its treaty is? Talking about supporting poorer nations to decarbonize is a lot easier than paying for it. The current level of climate-related development global financing is less than 1.5 percent of projected needs, says the World Bank, and rich nations still attract three quarters of that.

2.  A growing patchwork of moratoriums. Even without a global treaty, the ideas behind a Fossil Fuels NPT are materializing at the national level. In September, Ecuador joined Costa Rica, New Zealand, France and Belize in announcing a moratorium on new oil exploration and production. The latest UK prime minister has re-committed the country to its fracking ban, alongside Germany, France, Spain, and others.  

3.  The big stories from COP27. Sadly, there’s usually only room for one or two concepts to go mainstream from a global climate conference like COP. Will discussions around missed emissions targets, loss and damages, or greenwashing drown out calls for a fossil fuels NPT?

Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine

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