To Tackle Climate Change, Keep Fossil Fuels in the Ground

To Tackle Climate Change, Keep Fossil Fuels in the Ground
Oil derricks are busy pumping as the moon rises near the La Paloma Generating Station in McKittrick, Calif, June 8, 2017 (AP photo by Gary Kazanjian).

The 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change contains a curious omission: The phrase “fossil fuels,” which appears nowhere in the nearly 7,200-word document. Nor do the terms “coal,” “oil” or “natural gas,” despite these resources being responsible for most greenhouse gas emissions. That lacuna was no accident. It reflects the decision by national governments, reinforced by industry lobbyists, to focus emissions reduction efforts on reducing the demand for fossil fuels, rather than limiting fossil fuel supply by discouraging or even prohibiting their extraction in the first place. 

In other words, as climate activist Tzeporah Berman points out in a powerful new TED talk, the world has been targeting, regulating and constraining emissions but not the production of the fuels that generate them. The results of this demand-side approach have been, frankly, underwhelming. Even accounting for the limited progress made at last month’s U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, average global temperatures are on track to rise at least 2.4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, far above the Paris Agreement goal of keeping warming at or below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Meanwhile, governments continue to spend trillions of dollars supporting and subsidizing a fossil fuel industry it has promised to transition away from. At its current pace, by 2030, the world will have produced double the amount of fossil fuel it should if it hopes to meet the Paris agreement’s goal.

These failures, along with the slow pace of technological innovation to hasten the post-carbon transition, have spurred a global campaign to attack climate change at its source by advocating for “fossil fuel nonproliferation.” Through a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, or FFNPT, advocates intend to ensure that the vast bulk of the planet’s coal, oil and natural gas—resources that together account for 81 percent of global energy production—stays in the ground. 

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