The world needs an international fossil carbon control agency (and other thoughts)

by Hugh Richards

14 October 2022

I recently had the privilege of participating in the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty (FF-NPT) initiative’s first international symposium, held in person at the University of Westminster on 29-30 September. The perspective I was invited to bring is summarised in the abstract I submitted to the symposium, which is appended to this blog-post (as Addendum 1). It develops some suggestions I made in a letter to The Guardian shortly after the FF-NPT concept was first proposed in October 2018. I hope to make symposium participants aware of this blog-post, and it may be of interest to other readers.

At the symposium I provided a handout with a set of points outlining the functions that a treaty-sponsored international fossil carbon (control) agency (IFCA) might have. As these points were not included in the pre-symposium documentation, and the symposium was held under conditions of full transparency, I am setting them out here, along with some additional explanatory notes on the context in which some functions of an IFCA could apply (see Addendum 2 below).

The need for some form of IFCA (analogous to the International Atomic Energy Agency) was recognised in the paper in Climate Policy by Peter Newell and Andrew Simms that led to the FF-NPT initiative, but it was not a topic much discussed at the symposium.

I have also appended below a table (Addendum 3) that compares some published ideas for a supply-side fossil carbon control treaty. I prepared this at the suggestion of Patrick Portolano for an event in Paris that he helped to organise on 28 September, and I also included it in my handout for the FF-NPT symposium.

[Update 31 October. A full recording of the Paris event is now available online.  Although the event was mostly in French, the session I contributed to (on “Responsabilizing Fossil Fuel Producers”, focusing on “Geological Net Zero”) was in English and chaired by Professor Myles Allen of Oxford University.  It starts 1 hour 21 minutes (1:21) into the recording, and features presentations by Myles Allen (from 1:22), Patrick Portolano (from 1:28), Margriet Kuijper (from 1:36) and Hugh Richards (from 1:46), followed by a discussion and Q&A (from 1:56) and a concluding “concrete proposal” (2:15).  On behalf of the hosting organisation (ACP Energies) Patrick Portolano has since prepared a document “Six Recommendations for COP27” (in French and English versions) arising from the event’s “concrete proposals”.]

During the FF-NPT symposium, it was evident that many participants were very sceptical about the potential for what can variously be referred to as geological carbon sequestration, carbon capture and storage and geological carbon disposal (see my previous blog-post, which formed the basis of my contributory note to the symposium).  Some participants made reference to a recently published report on carbon capture by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), which has a broadly negative view of the effectiveness of and potential for such technologies.  However, I have since found a brief rebuttal of the report’s conclusions by Stuart Haszeldine, Professor of Carbon Capture and Storage at the University of Edinburgh.  As a scientist, I tend to favour the perspective of an expert scientist over that of an “investment analyst, fund manager and professional investor” (as the IEEFA report’s lead author Bruce Robertson is described), but others may have different biases.

I appreciate that the subject matter of this blog-post may seem a bit niche and/or far-fetched to many readers. However, the concept of a fossil fuel control treaty (until recently itself a niche idea) seems to be gathering some momentum, particularly with the recent endorsement of the World Health Organisation.  Four years ago, when the treaty idea first emerged, I could not have imagined being involved in something like the recent symposium, or co-authoring (with Patrick Portolano) a paper on “Geological Net Zero” that has now had over 400 reads on ResearchGate. 

None of these opportunities that have come my way would have arisen without the GlosCAN website being there as a platform for my writing. I encourage anyone who wants to promote a sane but so far little-known idea about how to tackle the climate emergency to write a blog-post about it. You never know who may pick it up.

Addendum 1: My abstract for the FF-NPT symposium, London, 29-30 September 2022:

Abstract title: “Peaceful use” of fossil fuels: a “grand bargain” for the Fossil Fuel Non-proliferation Treaty?  

  • Goals and Principles:

The nuclear NPT sought peaceful use of nuclear technology. “Peaceful use” of fossil fuels (FF) should mean a rapid transition to geological net zero (GNZ): for every amount of fossil carbon extracted, the extracting or importing entity funds an equivalent amount of geological-timescale carbon storage/sequestration (GCS; including but not limited to “CCS”).

  • Institutional procedures and modalities:

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) administers international nuclear safeguards, including oversight of nuclear materials accounting. An international fossil carbon (control) agency (IFCA) should be charged with fossil carbon safeguards, including global carbon budget oversight.

  • Supporting just transitions:

The nuclear NPT enabled equal access to peaceful nuclear technology, regardless of states’ existing nuclear development status.  The FF treaty should provide a formula for fair allocation of the remaining global fossil carbon budget among all states, e.g. by allocation as tradable units in proportion to populations, regardless of existing FF production, reserves or resources.

  • Compliance, implementation and incentives for cooperation:

The IFCA’s safeguards role should include oversight and verification of states’ FF extraction licensing regimes and (especially) robust verification of GCS. States’ imposition of FF producer and importer responsibilities (e.g. carbon takeback obligation; CTBO) could be an attractive tool for achieving GNZ for both non-FF and FF states, giving the latter greater control of their transitions than merely responding to declining FF demand or pursuing bad faith free-riding.

[Note: The sub-headings reflect the guidelines to abstract authors on symposium themes.]

Addendum 2: Some ideas for potential functions of an international fossil carbon agency (IFCA)

  1. To hold the authoritative publicly accessible register of fossil fuel reserves and resources
  2. To maintain and keep under review the authoritative global fossil carbon extraction budget
  3. To maintain the authoritative global fossil carbon accounting system, including both debits (extractions) and credits (geological carbon sequestration: GCS)
  4. To oversee, audit and inspect countries’ systems for the issuing and surrender of permits/licences for extraction of fossil carbon, denominated in carbon extraction units (CEUs)
  5. To issue certificates for implemented GCS, denominated in carbon sequestration/storage units (CSUs)
  6. To administer global trade in CEUs and CSUs
  7. To set standards for GCS, including scrutiny and accreditation of valid innovative GCS techniques
  8. To audit and inspect GCS schemes, including installation of tamper-proof monitoring equipment
  9. To be able to freeze CEUs and CSUs held by entities failing to comply with treaty commitments
  10. To report any persistent non-compliances with treaty commitments to the UN
  11. To oversee implementation of any more stringent treaty-mandated sanctions

[Note: the need for some such functions would depend on treaty design – e.g. whether carbon takeback obligation is adopted.]

Explanatory notes on the first six of the above points:

  1. Work on a global register of fossil fuel emissions and reserves has already begun and is being taken forward by Carbon Tracker, with data support from Global Energy Monitor.
  2. The global fossil carbon net extraction budget is a contested quantity, but some forms of treaty (e.g. as advocated in a paper by Sir Bernard Jenkin MP) would need it to be defined. [I have sympathy with voices at the symposium that argued that it should really be referred to as a carbon debt rather than a carbon budget.]
  3. A global fossil carbon accounting system could be modelled on the nuclear materials accounting systems overseen by the IAEA.
  4. This proposed approach to licensing of future extraction of fossil fuels was proposed by a group of Norwegian economists in 2019 and taken up in Bernard Jenkin’s paper, which proposed the term “carbon extraction units” (CEUs, which would most likely be expressed in tonnes of CO2 generated by full combustion of the extracted fossil carbon).
  5. The idea of tradable certificates for geological carbon sequestration (in CSUs) has been proposed by various authors including a 2020 paper in Climate Policy by Paul Zakkour and colleagues.
  6. The idea of equivalence of tradable CEUs and CSUs was suggested in Bernard Jenkin’s paper.

I hope the remaining points (7 to 11) do not need further elaboration.

Addendum 3: Comparison of some published ideas for a supply-side FF control treaty

References mentioned in this blog-post without links being provided are cited (with links) in the paper I co-authored with Patrick Portolano earlier this year: “Geological Net Zero” (Geological Carbon Neutrality) – How could we get there? (

(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

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