By Hugh Richards, 16 August 2019
(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.)
The graphic below illustrates the brutal reality of the challenge the world faces in bringing the fossil fuel age to an end quickly enough to avert disastrous global heating.
Since 2014 I have become increasingly convinced that the necessary dramatic reductions in fossil carbon emissions could never be achieved by reducing global demand for fossil fuels, whether by carbon taxes, reducing the costs of renewable energy, emissions trading, ethical consumer choices or anything else. Surely the threats from burning fossil fuels should be limited by controlling their supply.
My ‘light-bulb moment’ on this came from reading the following statement in the book The Burning Question by Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark:
‘… for all the talk about finite resources and peak oil, scarcity is resoundingly not the problem. From the climate’s perspective, there is far too much fossil fuel. The problem, in fact, is abundance.’
So, how could legitimately burnable fossil fuels become a finite and increasingly scarce global resource?
Partly because of my employment in the nuclear industry, I saw potential parallels with the way that global stocks of fissile nuclear material are monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency in order to limit the threats from nuclear weapons, while allowing (for better or worse) civil nuclear power to develop. I developed these thoughts in a short note entitled (perhaps unwisely) Fantasy Climate Control, not holding out much hope that such ideas were gaining any ground. In my March 2018 blog-post Carbon Bombs – A Slow-Burn Narrative I concluded by writing: ‘The notion of carbon bombs is not new … but perhaps its time has not yet come.’
I was therefore delighted when, in October 2018, Andrew Simms and Peter Newell used a Guardian Online article to float the idea of a ‘Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty’ (FF-NPT) along the lines of the 1968 nuclear NPT, and a number of major figures wrote a letter to The Guardian supporting the idea. I was furthermore pleasantly surprised when The Guardian published a letter of my own (my only one to date) also supporting the idea and adding some perspectives drawn from Fantasy Climate Control. I am grateful to Richard House (GlosCAN Steering Group member) for coordinating the multi-signatory letter to The Guardian supporting Extinction Rebellion that I was able to refer to in my letter and thus increase its chances of publication.
I got in touch with Peter Newell (Professor of International Relations, University of Sussex) and in early July 2019 he sent me the link to a published peer-reviewed paper Towards a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty in the journal Climate Policy. Personal circumstances allowed me to write some fairly detailed (hand-written) notes in response to the paper, H-Richards-reponse-to-paper-Towards-a-FF-NPT-by-Newell-and-Simms, which I have shared with its authors, and which Vaughan Webber has also kindly uploaded to the GlosCAN website with some background, under the Bigger Picture web-pages.
Despite being hand-written (for reasons given in their Addendum), I hope these notes will stimulate discussion among people who may be engaged in developing or promoting their or other ‘supply side’ ideas about how fossil fuels could be controlled at source.
Having been encouraged to write this blog-post by Vaughan Webber (who also typed it up), my hope is that it will lead to these kinds of ideas being discussed more widely in the climate activist community. As I say in my notes on the paper, I am not sure that the phrase ‘Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty’ is the best available. Given that the acronym ‘LINGO’ has been coined (www.leave-it-in-the-ground.org), perhaps we might soon hear:
What do we want?
A LINGO treaty!
When do we want it?
This blog-post was originally published on 16 August 2019. It has since come to my attention that the ‘LINGO’ organisation have proposed a “Transition Treaty” (leave-it-in-the-ground.org› transition-treaty). However, I agree with Newell and Simms that there are major problems with one of LINGO’s key proposals, namely compensating potential fossil fuel producers (e.g. Ecuador in the Yasuni case) for lost revenues if reserves remain in the ground. One senior politician who has responded to my blog-post incorrectly assumed that I was advocating such a compensation scheme, and questioned how the large sums involved could be better spent. Perhaps I have been unwise in suggesting the phrase ‘LINGO Treaty’.
In fact, one of my main criticisms of the Newell and Simms proposals is their emphasis on the perceived need for what they call a ‘Global Transition Fund’. No such huge supra-national financing arrangements are needed for the control of fissile nuclear material (and hence nuclear weapons proliferation), so I do not see why they should be needed to control extraction of fossil fuels.
(Note: post-script added 31 Oct 2019.)