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It’s time for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty

The creators of the treaty say focusing on emissions but not stopping new fossil fuel projects is a sure recipe for escalating climate failure.

Tar sands

A Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty would stop fossil fuel drilling projects completely. Image courtesy of Climate & Capital Media.

This article was originally published by Climate & Capital Media and is reprinted with permission.

As the dust settled on COP26, NGO leaders Tzeporah Berman, international program director of Stand.Earth, and Mark Campanale, founder of Carbon Tracker, two leaders behind the global push for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty (FFNPT), said the "work is just beginning." With the global mean temperature of the earth’s atmosphere rising at the fastest pace ever, they are redoubling efforts to do something all 25 COPs have failed to do — put an end to developing new coal, oil and gas assets around the world.  

I spoke to Berman and Campanale about the building momentum for the treaty and why the United Nations climate conferences have failed to make significant headway in reducing fossil fuel development.

"It’s not an energy transition if we keep building out the problem," Berman said. "Our initiative is exposing a gap in the system. There are very few mechanisms in the Paris Accord and in conventional climate policy at domestic levels to constrain [fossil fuel] production. And yet we keep wondering why we can’t meet emissions reduction targets year after year after year."

This gaping disconnect is what triggered the FFNPT movement. When Climate & Capital first wrote about the FFNPT in 2020, it seemed little more than an interesting idea modeled after the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, which helped put the brakes on the then-headlong rush to build nuclear weapons.

Launched in 2020, support for the FFNPT is mushrooming and includes 155 parliamentarians from 31 countries, 17 cities, 101 Nobel Laureates including the Dalai Lama, 2,600 academics and more than 950 civil society organizations.

"We need a fossil fuel treaty that ends the expansion of production, winds down existing fossil fuels in keeping with the world’s climate goals and fosters international cooperation," Campanale said.

The idea is gaining traction far beyond climate NGOs. Before COP26, the historically pro-fossil fuel International Energy Agency (IEA), surprised many when they released an analysis showing that there can be no new coal, oil or gas development if the world is to reach net zero emissions by 2050. 

We need a Fossil Fuel Treaty that ends the expansion of production, winds down existing fossil fuels in keeping with the world’s climate goals and fosters international cooperation.

A failed process: 25 U.N. climate conferences have ignored fossil fuels

Other expert bodies have followed suit, Campanale and Berman said, but once again, COP26 fell far short of achieving a global agreement to stop new coal, oil and gas. 

For years, Campanale said, the COP conferences ignored the role of fossil fuels — it did not help that the largest delegations to COP were usually from the fossil fuel industry. 

"For multiple COPs, fossil fuels were invisible," Berman said. "We weren’t debating the continued production of oil, gas and coal. And it was a challenge to even get people to acknowledge and accept that that should be part of the discussion because the fossil fuel industry has been successful in making fossil fuels invisible."

COP26 was no different. Delegates, once again, failed to solidly address the need to end all new fossil fuel projects, and somehow felt it was a victory that for the first time fossil fuels were even mentioned, making a vague and unenforceable statement that nations will accelerate efforts towards the phase down of unabated coal power. 

But the issue goes far beyond the failed conferences. Whether it is the success of fossil fuel lobbying, or perhaps it’s just easier to measure progress, says Berman, "Right now, we’re only looking at energy demand in climate policy instead of looking at supply. The overall makeup of the energy system globally hasn’t changed in over a decade. It’s still over 80 percent fossil fuels."

I asked Campanale and Berman why. The issue, she said, is that while the world is producing more renewable energy, "we’ve made no progress in reducing the amount of fossil fuels that we use or produce." 

"There are a lot of people really excited about the uptake in renewables and that is important," said Berman. However, "the atmosphere doesn’t care how much clean energy we build. It cares about how many fossil fuels you’ve built and that we’re locking in." 

The inability to curb fossil fuel demand was the key reason both decided there was an urgent need for a "Plan B" —  a global movement to shift “the climate calculus." 

Berman's "a-ha" moment happened when campaigning to stop the tar sands pipeline in Canada. She realized that 30 years of climate policy had all been focused on emissions. "Meanwhile, behind our backs, the fossil fuel industry has been busy building 120 percent more fossil fuel production," Berman said. 

We’ve made no progress in reducing the amount of fossil fuels that we use or produce. 

Stepping away from the brink

The result is a global musical chairs of sorts with each fossil fuel producing country clamoring to be the last one standing, able to continue producing oil, gas and coal regardless of the climate consequences.

Efforts such as the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance and the FFNPT are aimed at rebalancing the climate equation and acting to complement the Paris Agreement, the treaty founders say. 

"With the Fossil Fuel NPT there is a critical frame here and an analogy to nuclear weapons that no one was willing to stand down first in the same way that right now, every country and every company thinks that they’re going to be the last barrel standing," Berman said.  

Want to track fossil fuel developments and reserves? You can’t

An essential step towards a treaty is increasing transparency and accountability. Currently, there is no publicly available database of fossil fuel developments and reserves. At COP26, Carbon Tracker and the Global Energy Monitor launched the prototype of a Global Registry of Fossil Fuels. This provides a foundation for plotting all of the world’s current and planned production of coal, oil and gas. Campanale said this is essential to enable international negotiations and cooperation going forward. The registry is expected to be publicly available in the new year. 

Radical transparency needed

"The Global Registry of Fossil Fuels will drive greater transparency about governments’ and companies’ plans for oil, gas and coal in the future, and, crucially, help to make governments more accountable," Campanale said. "All of the users of the registry will be able to link fossil fuel production with national climate policies." 

Campanale said he doesn’t believe governments know the scale of the problem of new fossil fuel production: "They’re just buying whatever the fossil fuel industry says and of course, they’re turning a blind eye to the implications of handing up new licenses." 

The new registry will map projects and tens of thousands of data points to look at the CO2 content of fossil fuels globally. As countries and companies take fossil fuel projects offline, the public will be about to count them and their emissions down.

"We see one of the key user groups for the registry being the finance sector. It will enable investors much more effectively to assess stranded asset risk," he said. 

Stopping fossil fuel expansion everywhere

Berman and Campanale said they already have 1,000 organizations from around the world supporting the FFNPT and that work will continue. In 2022, they expect corporations and financial institutions to start endorsing the treaty. 

"We’ll be meeting with civil society groups. We’ll be briefing nation-states. We’ll be speaking at events on fossil fuels. We’ll be holding our events to socialize people to the concept of the treaty," she said. "If we can ensure international cooperation, then it’s not about divestment of this project or stopping that project. It’s about stopping that expansion everywhere. It’s really just the beginning."

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