A ‘polluter pays’ treaty to control global fossil carbon extraction – a big idea for COP26 to get talking about now

by Hugh Richards

In a little reported development, MPs from at least four parties have now expressed support for some form of ‘non-proliferation treaty’ for ‘supply-side’ control of the global extraction of fossil fuels, to complement the ‘demand-side’ approach of the Paris Agreement.

In December 2018 Sir Ed Davey (Lib Dem, now party leader) spoke in favour of the idea at the parliamentary launch of the Rapid Transition Alliance (briefly, 3 mins 40 seconds in). On 10 March 2021, during the COP26 debate in parliament, those to speak in favour of it were Sir Bernard Jenkin (Conservative), Caroline Lucas (Green) and Matthew Pennycook (Labour).

The generic concept of a ‘supply-side’ treaty on fossil carbon extraction was explored by a group of Norwegian academics in an article in Science Magazine in 2019 1 , while at the same time a UK-originated set of proposals for a “fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty” (FF-NPT) was published in the journal Climate Policy 2. The FF-NPT proposals have now become the focus of an international campaign to gather support from civil society , with a focus on cities and other local authorities, and was recently highlighted in an article in The Guardian. Already signed up are City of Barcelona, City of Vancouver, Canada, Amber Valley Borough Council, UK and Lewes Town Council, UK, while Cities of New York and Los Angeles “are currently considering motions to endorse”.

Meanwhile, another supply-side approach known as ‘Carbon Takeback Obligation’ (CTBO) has been launched, developing the ‘SAFE-carbon’ concept developed by the leading Oxford climate scientist Myles Allen and colleagues back in 2009. This proposes a country-by-country approach to imposing ‘extended producer responsibility’ on domestic producers and importers of fossil fuels. A case study for the Netherlands has been developed with funding from the Dutch government and various companies including the Norwegian energy company Equinor (formerly Statoil).

The advocates of CTBO propose it as “the ideal ‘big idea’ for the UK to lead with at COP26”. It could potentially be a mechanism within a globally effective supply-side treaty, which might include elements of the FF-NPT proposals.

On Wednesday 21 April (13:45), CTBO will be the subject of a Radio 4 programme in the series “39 Ways to Save the Planet”, entitled “Polluter Pays”, subsequently available as a podcast on BBC Sounds.

The supply-side approach to getting the global extraction of fossil carbon under control has been called “the road less taken” in a recent paper co-authored by Myles Allen 3. Starting to talk about it within climate campaigning circles and in dialogue with political representatives would make it less likely that it will be “the road never explored”, and hence “the road not taken”.

There is a very short window of opportunity to get such ideas debated and into the discourse before COP26. With cross-party support to point to in the UK, now is the time to start engaging with political representatives, for example by advocating that local authorities should follow the lead of Amber Valley and Lewes in endorsing the FF-NPT proposals.

In my opinion, the FF-NPT proposals are not without problems, as I have written in the post-script to a previous blog. However, if there is widespread support among GlosCAN Supporters, it would only help raise the profile of the supply-side approach if GlosCAN were to join Mary Robinson, 350.org and a multitude of activist organisations in adding its endorsement. So, if you want to see that happen, please let Vaughan the Secretary know at info@gloscan.org.

If this seems all a bit dry and policy wonk-ish, try watching Myles Allen’s TED Talk on the homepage of Carbon Takeback. You don’t have to agree with everything he says to get the point that we need to be talking about how to control how much fossil carbon comes out of the ground, rather than just hoping that falling demand will do the trick for us.

There is clearly a diversity of attitudes to fossil fuel corporations among proponents of supply-side approaches, with the authors of the Guardian article promoting the FF-NPT proposals attacking the industry, while Myles Allen’s recent co-authors of the paper mentioned above include Shell’s David Hone. Where I think they do agree is that massive afforestation projects offered as a path to “net zero” by fossil carbon extraction industries are no substitute for secure geo-sequestration of CO2 (i.e. injecting it into deep geological formations where it will remain forever, as far as the future of humanity is concerned). As a geologist, I think the “like-for-like” principle should apply to fossil carbon: the end-game for fossil carbon industries needs to be global net zero transfer of fossil carbon from the geosphere to the atmosphere, without involving the biosphere.

If globally-effective geo-sequestration turns out to be unfeasible for reasons of practicality or cost, an effective supply-side treaty would mean that less fossil carbon can be extracted than the relevant corporations and countries currently hope. Meanwhile, afforestation should be pursued in ways that promote biodiversity and not be focused purely on near-term carbon uptake.

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Notes:

(Links to the articles are also in the text above.)

1. G. B. Asheim, T. Fæhn, K. Nyborg, M. Greaker, C. Hagem, B. Harstad, M. O. Hoel, D. Lund, K. E. Rosendahl, The case for a supply-side climate treaty, Science 26 Jul 2019 : 325-327

2. Peter Newell & Andrew Simms (2020) Towards a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty, Climate Policy, 20:8, 1043-1054, DOI: 10.1080/14693062.2019.1636759

3. Paul D. Zakkour, Wolfgang Heidug, Andrew Howard, R. Stuart Haszeldine, Myles R. Allen & David Hone (2021) Progressive supply-side policy under the Paris Agreement to enhance geological carbon storage, Climate Policy, 21:1, 63-77, DOI: 10.1080/14693062.2020.1803039

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(Please note: posts on these blog pages are the personal views of the authors only and are not intended to represent any agreed or general view on the part of GlosCAN.org.)

One thought on “A ‘polluter pays’ treaty to control global fossil carbon extraction – a big idea for COP26 to get talking about now

  1. Many thanks Hugh – most important to tackle emissions with some form of a ‘Top Down’ control of the global extraction of fossil fuels.

    (Though we might differ where I suggest all thermal power gen needs be curtailed for a myriad reasons as an important adjunct to climate resolution; particularly where they incur localised thermal problems, suffering, social inequality & needless complexity (a big source of emissions and the ongoing terminal problems in our economy), as these all do.)

    We do also need support and promote the wholly alternative ‘Bottom Up’ approach for the longer term – as we also have underway in Gloucs. We have lost two key local proponents of this approach during the past year; their lives and work is illustrative of the alternatives and should be celebrated.

    The Rev. John Papworth aged 98, founder of Resurgence magazine, and close collaborator with E F Schumacher (Small is Beautiful, 1972) and Leopold Kohr, meeting regularly in Slad over 50 years ago, where John is now buried – to outline viable ways and importantly, the scale of sustainable living that enable the most relevant solutions to climate; wholly different in scale and methods to those sectors responsible for thermal pollution.

    Also in July, we lost Osman (Ossie) Goring aged 81 – a ‘Small is Beautiful practitioner par excellence’. Ossie’s tiny water mill near Stroud demonstrating the diverse wealth, (economic & ecological) abundance associated with a 100% renewable energy supply (which Gloucestershire can provide several times over to cover our entire carbon footprint: GCC, Entec Report, 2011).

    The best ‘least true cost’ solutions, applied at the small scale, go way beyond renewables & re-forestation, which you give only a cursory consideration. These solutions do it appears, as both John & Ossie extolled in their own individual ways, require a highly diligent, if not actually sacred, application and recognition to succeed. Principles that are substantially lost in our society – perhaps these also need better understanding.

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