Can this fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty lead the way to phase out of oil and gas?

All you need to know about this treaty that Vancouver just became the first city to sign on.
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“Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war,” it was said at the World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere held in Toronto in June 1988.  

At the height of the cold war, most countries — barring a few exceptions — signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT) to avoid a devastating nuclear war, which was a genuine threat in the 1960s. Today, that threat is equivalent to climate change, mainly being caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Yet, the world still derives up to 81% of its energy from fossil fuels.  

In fact, one of the biggest criticisms of the Paris Agreement — which was developed to steer global climate action — has been that it doesn’t even address fossil fuels and instead only focuses on reducing carbon emissions. Thus, begging the question of how we can reduce emissions without tackling the supply-demand of fossil fuels.  

The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty has emerged as a new initiative on the supply-side by stopping fossil fuel production and winding down existing projects. It is using the strategies of the NNPT to prevent a nuclear war, much like the Green New Deal has evolved from the New Deal to address the greatest issue of our time.   

As of October 2020, Vancouver became the first city in the world to join the treaty after a motion was submitted by Green Party City Councillor Adrianne Carr, and passed unanimously by the council. She wrote: “Changes in Vancouver’s climate are already being felt through hotter, drier summers, increased exposure to wildfire smoke … and with rising sea levels. 

“Our entire community is impacted by the health and safety risks of fossil fuel expansion, particularly those who face socioeconomic and health inequities …” 

In an email interview, Christie McLeod, a policy advisor at the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Initiative, told us: “The treaty is an “opportunity to build on the work already underway by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and The Paris Agreement. But to get serious about limiting warming to 1.5ºC, we need to have a focused conversation on fossil fuels, and [this] (treaty) provides an avenue to initiate some of these necessary conversations.” 

Last week marked the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement. Five years later, however, little climate action has taken place. Overall, fossil fuel production and carbon emissions have experienced an upward trajectory — 2020 being the exception with the world more or less in lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic.  

The Paris Agreement concluded that in order to save the planet from further environmental devastation, global temperatures cannot rise above 1.5 degrees Celsius. To stay within this limit, the world needs to decrease its fossil fuel production by at least 6% every year, according to the 2020 Production Gap report. However, countries are actually projecting to increase their fossil fuel production by 2% per year and by 2030 will produce 120% more oil and gas than the 1.5 degree Celsius limit allows for.  

Many countries are still moving ahead with energy plans that would adversely impact the environment. Some recent examples:  

  1. Canada approved the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline in 2019.
  2. India’s West Bengal state government is trying to get approval from its residents, mostly Indigenous, to build the world’s second-largest coal mine.  
  3. Australia approved the construction of one of the largest coal mines in the world in Queensland.  

These decisions ignore the effects of global warming that we are already experiencing: widespread wildfires in Australia and in parts of America and South America; flooding in coastal countries like Bangladesh; and the wettest monsoon in India since 1994.  

“Governments around the world [have] recognized that we are in a global climate crisis, [but] there is still a disconnect – they’ll name the problem but fail to undertake emergency-level action,” McLeod said.  

Through its three pillars of non-proliferation, disarmament, and a just transition, the treaty is focusing on shifting the narrative on fossil fuels that are largely responsible for global warming by working with a core group of countries and cities who can commit to phasing out fossil fuels. 

Climate change is ultimately everybody’s problem. Food insecurity will rise as we experience more unpredictable cycles of droughts and floods, leading to more migration to cities. According to the Global Report on Internal Displacement 2020 report, 24.9 million new people were displaced because of disasters by the end of 2019. About 23 million of these displacements were weather-related. Thus, tackling climate change needs to happen at the grassroots, national and global levels simultaneously.  

This is where McLeod sees the treaty playing a role. She said: “the treaty can be a vehicle to engage governments in discussions about supply-side policies, such as bans on productions, removing subsidies and financing, and creating equitable transition plans for workers and communities.  

When an outright nuclear war was a formidable threat in the 1960s, Ireland took charge to push for commitments for nearly a decade until ratification by countries, barring a few, was achieved. We need countries to similarly take charge now to counter the biggest threat of our time. Thus, Vancouver signing on is a vital first step, but it’s just the start. What needs to follow is assuming a leadership role and pushing for the rest of Canada and the world to follow through on climate action.  

Below is the full interview we had with Christie McLeod, policy advisor, at the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty:  

INN24: How will the treaty ensure that countries who sign actually follow through on the three pillars outlined? As I follow, there are currently no ramifications for disobeying in place? 

Christie: The three pillars of this movement — non-proliferation, disarmament and a just transition — are part of an overarching framework to guide a global transition away from fossil fuels. 

We don’t expect major fossil fuel producers to join a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty in the near future. Right now, we’re focusing on a targeted group of “first mover” countries who can work together and change the narrative around fossil fuels. We’ve seen this shifting of norms in other successful non-proliferation movements. With the landmine ban treaty, it was really a core group of countries that mobilized international efforts to stigmatize landmines and call for countries to ban them. This all occurred before any states signed the landmine ban treaty. 

While enforcement mechanisms may form part of the treaty as it is drafted in the coming years, we believe that shifting the narrative will also increase local and national commitments embedded in domestic laws to stop fossil fuel expansion. has launched a SAFE Cities initiative, which stands for “Stand Against Fossil Fuel Expansion,” and showcases dozens of cities and counties across North America that are passing policies to phase out fossil fuels. It’s really exciting that we’re now starting to see countries like Denmark announce end dates for fossil fuel production as well. 

INN24: Can you clarify what you mean by “first mover” countries? 

Christie: By “first mover” countries, we mean countries that will take the lead in changing norms and attitudes about fossil fuels. Each of the other non-proliferation movements was led by a group of countries that were first to push the discussion forward. For example, a key early player in the nuclear non-proliferation movement was Ireland, who tabled four UN resolutions on nuclear non-proliferation in four years! These resolutions were pivotal in moving international dialogue forward and advancing the idea of nuclear non-proliferation. In the fossil fuel context, Denmark is a good example of a “first mover” country. Their recent commitment to phase out oil and gas production by 2050 shows how they are taking action to work toward the end of the fossil fuel era.  

INN24: Other than the fact that this treaty addresses fossil fuels, how is this treaty different from the Paris Agreement (PA)? Countries who have signed the PA have also not followed through on their emission reduction targets, for e.g., Canada has missed every single of its carbon emission reduction targets since the agreement began. 

Christie: We see the Treaty as an opportunity to complement and build on the work already underway by the UNFCCC and The Paris Agreement. While the international community has recognized the importance of limiting global warming to 1.5ºC, the current national commitments submitted to the UNFCCC are projected to lead to more than 3ºC of warming above pre-industrial levels by 2100. The Paris Agreement has also failed to constrain fossil fuel supply — the latest Production Gap Report noted that the planned fossil fuel supply expansion is 120% greater than the 1.5ºC budget by 2030.  

To get serious about limiting warming to 1.5ºC, we need to have a focused conversation on fossil fuels, and the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty provides an avenue to initiate some of these necessary conversations. 

INN24: This treaty is based on the nuclear NPT. Can it be argued that preventing nuclear war was enough of an incentive for countries to abide, whereas climate change devastation is slow and imperceptible — one of the reasons why globally we’ve been so slow to act on it?  

Christie: The climate emergency is already upon us, and its impacts are being felt around the world. Nearly one-third of Bangladesh was underwater earlier this year due to heavy flooding; catastrophic wildfires also occurred in Australia and California. In Canada, the melting permafrost and changing climate is increasing food insecurity in many northern Indigenous communities. Every country has felt the effects of climate change. 

These impacts have been acknowledged by Canada’s federal government and hundreds of municipalities in declaring climate emergencies. Governments around the world will recognize that we are in a global climate crisis, yet there is still a disconnect — they’ll name the problem, but fail to undertake emergency-level action. Seth Klein’s new book, “A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency,” talks about how we ought to adopt a war-like mindset to tackle the climate crisis.      

Fossil fuels are a product of mass destruction fueling the climate emergency. The carbon pollution from existing production capacity and planned expansion of fossil fuels are not accounted for in national governments’ climate action plans, undermining efforts to reduce emissions. If left unchecked, they may lock in more than 1.5ºC of warming. 

INN24: Are there any clear short- to long-term goals that the treaty states countries have to achieve? In the absence of goals, how can we ensure action? 

Christie: The treaty campaign ultimately seeks to provide a framework and mechanism for a global, coordinated effort to limit fossil fuel production through the adoption of supply-side policies.  

While the transition away from fossil fuels is inevitable if we want to achieve global climate goals, it’s pivotal that we ensure no one is left behind by creating a just transition for every worker, community and country. 

That’s why the journey toward building the treaty really matters. To kickstart the treaty process, we need to continue building a global grassroots campaign that demands action on climate emergency motions by pressuring industry and governments, calling for increased accountability and transparency, and bringing about a narrative shift that further increases risk to the fossil fuel industry.  

We see a role at every level to help scale down production. At the local level, the treaty provides a focus for action similar to nuclear-free zone cities. At the national level, the treaty can be a vehicle to engage governments in discussions about supply-side policies, such as bans on productions, removing subsidies and financing, and creating equitable transition plans for workers and communities. And in the international community, the treaty provides context for a club of “first mover” countries. The transition away from fossil fuels will require wealthier, more diversified countries to act first because they can better absorb the transitional impacts. The costs of a just transition should be borne by those most able to bear it, and the benefits of transition ought to be shared with poorer nations, workers and fossil-fuel dependent communities.

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