To Tackle Climate Change, Keep Fossil Fuels in the Ground
As oil rigs and coal plants churn on, national emissions targets grow increasingly disingenuous and infeasible. To prevent the worst implications of the climate crisis, it is time to target the supply side of the world's dirty fuel addiction.
Originally published at World Politics Review
December 9, 2021 10:57 am (EST)
- Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.
The 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change contains a curious omission: The phrase “fossil fuels,” which appears nowhere in the nearly 7,200-word document. Nor do the terms “coal,” “oil” or “natural gas,” despite these resources being responsible for most greenhouse gas emissions. That lacuna was no accident. It reflects the decision by national governments, reinforced by industry lobbyists, to focus emissions reduction efforts on reducing the demand for fossil fuels, rather than limiting fossil fuel supply by discouraging or even prohibiting their extraction in the first place.
In other words, as climate activist Tzeporah Berman points out in a powerful new TED Talk, the world has been targeting, regulating, and constraining emissions but not the production of the fuels that generate them. The results of this demand-side approach have been, frankly, underwhelming. Even accounting for the limited progress made at last month’s UN climate summit in Glasgow, average global temperatures are on track to rise at least 2.4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, far above the Paris Agreement goal of keeping warming at or below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Meanwhile, governments continue to spend trillions of dollars supporting and subsidizing a fossil fuel industry it has promised to transition away from. At its current pace, by 2030, the world will have produced double the amount of fossil fuel it should if it hopes to meet the Paris agreement’s goal.
These failures, along with the slow pace of technological innovation to hasten the post-carbon transition, have spurred a global campaign to attack climate change at its source by advocating for “fossil fuel nonproliferation.” Through a Fossil Fuel Nonproliferation Treaty, or FFNPT, advocates intend to ensure that the vast bulk of the planet’s coal, oil, and natural gas—resources that together account for 81 percent of global energy production—stays in the ground.
As its name suggests, an FFNPT would be modeled on the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, one of history’s most successful international agreements. At first glance, the analogy seems far-fetched. But despite the obvious differences between nuclear weapons and, say, gasoline, the champions of the FFNPT point to a few intriguing parallels. For one, both nuclear proliferation and fossil fuel production pose a potentially existential threat to humanity. For another, like nuclear weapons, fossil fuels can be developed, owned, and used within certain countries, and yet their deleterious effects do not recognize national borders. And crucially, any cooperative solution will need to bridge glaring, seemingly irreconcilable, global divides.
Last year, two professors at the University of Sussex, Peter Newell and Andrew Simms, made the case for an FFNPT in a landmark article in the journal Climate Policy. The treaty they envision would loosely share the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty’s three central pillars: nonproliferation, disarmament, and peaceful use. It would advance nonproliferation through a multilateral agreement to prevent “the exploitation of new fossil fuel resources.” Countries would first assess all known reserves of energies that, if burned, would contribute to global warming, and then negotiate agreed percentages for how much of each kind of fuel ought to remain in the ground, consistent with the principles of fairness, equity, and burden-sharing. In practical terms, the onus would be on wealthy countries to make the first moves in renouncing fossil fuels.
The “disarmament” pillar of the FFNPT would involve the cooperative dismantling of the existing infrastructure for fossil fuel extraction and production. Finally, the “peaceful use” provisions of the new treaty would entail “massively expanding existing initiatives” to help developing countries transition to renewable energy resources, including by providing needed funds and technologies.
A Fossil Fuel Nonproliferation Treaty may seem far-fetched, but the rationale for keeping the planet’s fossil fuel reserves untouched is unassailable.
As my fellow WPR columnist Charli Carpenter observed, the FFNPT campaign is groundbreaking for several reasons. It introduces a bracing clarity into the climate change debate by underscoring the threat climate change poses to human survival—and it does so through a civil society-led process that “represents a creative break” from the usual, lumbering UN treaty-making channels. And most importantly, it recasts the problem of climate change as the consequence of an underlying issue: humanity’s unsustainable overdependence on fossil fuels.
So an FFNPT may seem far-fetched, but the rationale for keeping the planet’s fossil fuel reserves untouched is unassailable. After all, even this supply-side approach will require drastic transformations in the energy industry. According to a major study published by Nature in September, in order to meet the Paris Agreement’s targets, “fossil fuel producers should avoid extracting at least [ninety] percent of coal reserves and [sixty] percent of oil and gas reserves by 2050.” Similarly, in an October report, the International Energy Agency found that achieving global net-zero emissions by 2050 will require governments to immediately stop approving new coal-fired power plants and oil and gas fields.
Supply-side approaches have generally been neglected, but some national governments, including New Zealand, France, Belize, and Costa Rica, have in recent years announced moratoria on new oil exploration and production. At the multilateral level, the COP26 summit in Glasgow witnessed some coordinated, albeit still tentative, supply-side action. Forty countries promised to quit coal, while twenty pledged to cease investing public funds in overseas fossil fuel projects. Costa Rica and Denmark spearheaded the formation of a new “Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance,” while two nongovernmental organizations—Climate Tracker and the Global Energy Monitor—launched a prototype for a “Global Registry of Fossil Fuels,” a vital tool for transparency in any FFNPT regime. Finally, the conference’s main product, the Glasgow Climate Pact, commits parties to “phase down”—albeit not “phase out”—coal, as well as to reduce “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.”
U.S. policy, though, has been less than consistent. As a candidate for president, Joe Biden pledged to end the leasing of U.S. public lands and waters for fossil fuel projects. In the White House, he has failed to follow through. Last month, just days after returning from Glasgow, the president induced whiplash by approving the largest sale of offshore oil and gas leases in U.S. history, allowing companies to drill across more than 1.7 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico. The Bureau of Land Management also has several onshore auctions scheduled for early 2022.
The FFNPT’s biggest sticking point relates to developing countries, which are expected to account for sixty-five percent of the world’s energy consumption by 2040. The pious decision of some wealthy countries to stop financing fossil fuel projects abroad sticks in the craws of many leaders in the Global South. This is particularly true of governments that sit on significant coal, oil, and gas reserves; that serve populations with tremendous economic needs and aspirations; and that possess a limited capacity to diversify their economies. As Vijaya Ramachandran, a scholar at the Breakthrough Institute, explained, blanket bans on foreign fossil fuel projects risk entrenching poverty in developing nations, while “doing little to reduce the world’s carbon emissions.”
Indeed, many developing countries find themselves between a rock and a hard place when it comes to decarbonization. Consider Nigeria. On the one hand, it is one of the five countries most vulnerable to climate change, with its largest city, Lagos, at risk of slipping underwater in the coming decades. On the other, it is the largest oil producer in Africa and is racing to realize its fossil fuel wealth before decarbonization truly takes hold of the global economy.
To address these countries’ concerns, Simms and Newell proposed a model in which developed nations would agree to give developing ones a longer grace period in which to wean themselves off of fossil fuels, while also providing them with massive funding to accelerate a clean energy transition. The feasibility of any future FFNPT will depend heavily on the credibility of agreements like this. But there is ample cause for skepticism here: So far, wealthy nations have failed to follow through on far more modest funding commitments.
Breaking free from fossil fuels will not be easy, nor will it happen overnight. Nevertheless, the idea of a global treaty to keep fossil fuels in the ground is a powerful idea—one likely to gain traction as the magnitude of the climate crisis hits home.