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  • Eleanor Beevor

Why a Labour government should spearhead a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty


By Eleanor Beevor


The fossil fuel deposits that are already under production, if all burned, could increase global temperature by 2°C more than pre-industrial levels. This means that any new oil and gas developments are completely incompatible with a 2°C future, let alone the 1.5°C limit that the Paris Agreement aims for. Yet the world’s governments are currently planning to extract more than twice the amount of oil, coal and gas that is compatible with a 1.5°C world.


In the UK and Europe alone in 2022, we have seen extreme droughts, wildfires and abnormal temperatures. These are compounding the economic crises we are already facing, to say nothing of the risks to life and health. Drought in 2022 played a role in pushing up both energy and commodity prices, making the cost of living crisis worse. Yet we are still privileged by comparison, given horrifying events elsewhere in the world. Devastating floods in Pakistan, and prolonged drought and hunger in the Horn of Africa occurred this year, and each of these has been worsened by climate shocks.


This is happening before we have reached 1.5°C, a limit we will probably pass in the next decade. This begs the question of what disasters could befall us even within a supposedly safe limit. The risk of vast crop failure, international water shortages and extreme weather events within this decade are all distinctly possible, if not highly probable.


In short, there is a very strong chance that events in the next decade or two will force us to confront the facts that we already know - that new fossil fuel production is incompatible with a safe and liveable world. Right now, it looks like it will take utterly devastating events to end the “cake-ism” of current governments, who hope to continue extracting their own fossil fuel reserves and somehow meet climate goals. This wishful thinking takes many forms. Perhaps technological solutions such as carbon capture will save us at some point, despite a consistent failure to prove this is even possible at scale. If not, presumably they hope that it is other countries who will sacrifice developing their own fossil fuel reserves.


It is a case of when, rather than if, events force an end to this denialism. The question is how bad those events will be, what costs will we sink, and whose lives and prospects we will risk in the meantime. If new fossil fuel exploration and development persists, more and more countries will be structuring their economies around assets that will inevitably be stranded. This includes countries that simply cannot afford these risks. What currently look like fossil fuel bonanzas will turn into hugely expensive financial black holes. This is especially so given that the cheapest oil and gas producers will still be the most desirable sources for the fossil fuels needed during a transition. New oil and gas is not a path to sustainable development for poorer countries – it is an inconceivably risky development strategy.


There is an alternative to denialism followed by disaster. Given that the Conference of Parties (COP) summits have all failed to address the supply side of fossil fuels, a new multilateral framework is needed. A campaign for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty (FFNPT) has gathered incredible steam over the past two years. Nation-states, major cities (including London), politicians, the World Health Organization, experts and activists have endorsed the initiative. A Labour government, looking to give Britain a leading role in facing the climate crisis and promoting global security, should spearhead turning the FFNPT into a reality.


The FFNPT is modelled on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, drawn up during the Cold War to limit the creation of nuclear weapons around the world. Like the NPT, the FFNPT has three core pillars. In the NPT, these were non-proliferation, disarmament and peaceful use. The first asked signatory states who did not already have nuclear weapons not to acquire them. The second said that nuclear armed states should disarm at some point in the future. The third pledged assistance for countries wishing to develop nuclear power for peaceful uses. It aimed to facilitate the transfer of technology and knowledge from (armed) nuclear states for civil purposes – an incentive for setting voluntary limits on their nuclear capabilities.


In the FFNPT, the first pillar would be the non-proliferation of fossil fuels. Countries would pledge to end exploration and development of new reserves. The second pillar, the equivalent of “disarmament”, would be the phasing out of the existing reserves. The third pillar of an FFNPT is a commitment to a just transition.


The just transition, a well-known concept in the climate justice movement, is an acknowledgement of an unequal world. It is a pledge to ensure that those with the greater means, and the greater historical responsibility for the climate crisis, duly assist and compensate countries who are set to lose out from possible income from fossil fuels, and from the loss and damage they will face because of climate change. In the context of an FFNPT, this would mean that richer countries, and those who have benefitted the most from burning fossil fuels, assist countries who voluntarily give up developing their own reserves, with developing sustainable energy systems.


To do this, a “burnable budget” of fossil fuels would need to be allocated between states. This would therefore not be a matter of ending fossil fuel use overnight, but about balancing what remains of the “burnable budget” between states, based on need, capacity to transition to alternative energy, historical responsibility, and so on. For allocating this, we would have to carefully track which countries are burning what, and which countries have which reserves. Fortunately, the tools to do this are already in place, in the form of the Global Fossil Fuel Registry.


To many readers, this proposition will sound impossible. Yet many would have found it equally impossible at the start of the Cold War that 138 states, including the two competing global superpowers of the time, would have developed and acceded to a treaty that voluntarily set limits on nuclear acquisition by the time the Cold War ended. Today, 191 countries are members of the NPT, and nuclear non-proliferation is one of the strongest, most enduring norms in international relations.


Naturally, the NPT has its shortcomings, and its critics. Disarmament remains unfulfilled as a pillar, and there are still non-signatories, agitators and dishonest actors. But this does not change the fact that the treaty vastly limited the number of nuclear weapons that might otherwise have been in existence today. In doing so, it has undeniably made us safer. An FFNPT might not solve the climate crisis on its own. But it could still keep us much, much safer.


 

Eleanor Beevor is a senior analyst at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime. She has a PhD from the University of Oxford.

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