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Towards a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty

Peter Newell and Andrew Simms (2020)

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Against the backdrop of growing demand for fossil fuels, despite evidence that most fossil fuels cannot be burned to meet the 2°C Paris temperature target, this article advocates for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty (‘Treaty’). The Treaty would ensure fossil fuels are left in the ground.  

The article notes the benefits of supply-side policies, the emergence of anti-fossil fuel norms, and importantly, the growing efforts of states to implement such policies (e.g. national moratoria on fossil fuel extraction), suggesting collective action at the international level may now be achievable. It looks to international law to provide such collective action, drawing on examples of such moratoria e.g. for mining projects in Antarctica.  

The article proposes a regime based on the international nuclear non-proliferation treaty (‘Nuclear Treaty’), which it hails as a “triumph of rapid diplomacy”, gaining widespread membership and implementation. It suggests the concerns over nuclear weapons that brought about the Nuclear Treaty are analogous to concerns over climate change in that they are already recognised by actors at international law. It suggests a multilateral response such as the Nuclear Treaty would be attractive in its ability to ensure other states do not “free-ride” on commitments to cease fossil fuel extraction. Specifically, the article suggests that a new Treaty should be based on the three-pillar structure of the Nuclear Treaty.  

First, the obligation of non-proliferation would ban the exploitation of new fossil fuel reserves, guided by models based on the Paris Agreement's temperature targets. It suggests reporting and monitoring the implementation of this first limb would be relatively easy (when compared with other policy tools), as the Treaty would target a small number of actors, and fossil fuel infrastructure is easily detectible and generally goes through an administrative process that can detect its existence. 

Second, the Nuclear Treaty requires disarmament, which in the fossil fuel context, the authors argue by analogy would mean that a Treaty would coordinate the phase out of existing fossil fuel infrastructure and also reduce demand.  

Third, the Treaty would promote the “peaceful” use of technology i.e. expanding initiatives to assist poorer countries with their energy transitions.


With respect to burden-sharing, the paper suggests assessing the financial value of each reserve to adequately consider the sacrifice each country is making. The article proposes differentiated targets and timetables for halting and phasing out fossil fuel production, so costs are borne by those who are best placed to pay, the greatest emitters, and the greatest historical contributors to emissions. First-movers would thus include OECD countries and the Russian Federation, followed by non-OECD large emitters, eventually incorporating most UN members. Funding arrangements could be utilised to ensure transition is just.  

To trigger negotiations on the Treaty, the paper suggests leadership by a subset of states is needed, which will reinforce anti-fossil fuel norms and trigger wider action through social pressure from those norms. 

This paper demonstrates the importance of banning new fossil fuel extraction and phasing out fossil fuel infrastructure globally. It also reflects the efforts being made in relation to developing further international law to ensure fossil fuels are addressed at the supply-side and at a global scale. It reinforces the power of rejecting fossil fuel projects on strengthening anti-fossil fuel norms, which underpin future efforts to meet climate change targets through supply-side policies. 

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