Friday, July 12, 2019

Climate Change: We need a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty

In the 1960's, humanity faced a terrible threat: global thermonuclear war. Nuclear weapons were uniquely destructive and dangerous, and if more countries got them, the logic of MAD and the pre-emptive strike would put us on a hair-trigger to destruction. So, we did the sensible thing, talked it out ("jaw-jaw is always better than war-war", as Churchill said), and came up with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, in which we basicly agreed that we were all going to cooperate to ensure that there weren't going to be any more nuclear-armed states. And while its had high-profile failures - Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea - the NPT has generally been an overwhelming success. Australia doesn't have nuclear weapons, or Japan, or Brazil, or Germany - and its not like these countries don't have the capability or feel threatened by others.

Now, humanity faces a new threat: climate change. If we are to avoid making the earth uninhabitable, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to practically nothing over the next decade. The biggest source of such emissions is fossil fuels - or, to put it another way, the fossil fuel industry is the biggest threat to the global climate and our continued wellbeing (if not survival). If things continue as they are, the fossil-fuel industry's climate disruptions are going to kill hundreds of millions of people by the end of the century.

The NPT suggests a possible answer: a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty. First floated in the Guardian last year, there's an article about it today in Climate Change News:

In a paper in Climate Policy, we make the case for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty (NPT). Taking its cue from the non-proliferation treaty for nuclear weapons concluded after just three years in 1968, a fossil fuel version could have three pillars.

These parallel those of the nuclear NPT: non-proliferation (an agreement not to exploit new reserves), disarmament (the managed decline of existing fossil fuel infrastructure) and peaceful use (the financing of low carbon alternatives through a global transition fund).

A process towards this end could start with an assessment of existing reserves, as well as agreement on the principles for the sequencing of production phase-down targets across countries and fuel types, with the aim of aligning fossil fuel use with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C warming threshold.

The paper cites NZ's offshore oil exploration ban as an example of the first step, and we are already a member of the Powering Past Coal Alliance, a group of countries committed to phasing out coal-fired power stations (easy for NZ - we only have one). But if the government really wanted to act like climate change is "my generations nuclear-free moment", then taking a lead role in negotiating an NPT for fossil fuels (and backing it up at home with domestic bans and phasedowns) would be a good start.