Canada, it's time to endorse a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty

Tzeporah Berman
Tzeporah Berman

October 28th 2020

I am old enough to remember when, in the 1970s, upon entering a city almost anywhere in the world, you would see a sign that said: “Nuclear-free city.”

At the time, the greatest and most likely threat to humanity was nuclear weapons. Today, the World Economic Forum identifies the greatest and most likely threat to humanity to be our failure to mitigate climate change.

This summer, many of us on the West Coast sat inside for weeks as smoke from wildfires made the air quality too hazardous to go outside. Tens of thousands of others who were not as lucky fled the fires, some losing their homes, others their lives. The harmful, costly and disruptive impacts of climate change unfortunately rage on, as Canadians and people around the world struggle with the pandemic and economic downturn.

Knowing the role cities played in encouraging governments to work together to create the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, I find great hope in my own city of Vancouver becoming the first city in the world to endorse a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty. Vancouver could be followed by the city of New York, where council is voting on a similar motion.

We need a new plan to deliver prosperity, health and climate security. In Canada, climate commitments have been made and billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on stimulus, yet the pieces don’t add up.

To address the climate emergency, the federal government and province of B.C. have committed to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. At the same time, they continue approving and funding oil and gas expansion at levels that make it impossible to meet these goals. The United Nations Environment Program made it clear in its Production Gap report that national government plans for fossil fuel expansion would lock in 120 times more emissions than what is needed to stay to 1.5 C.

Last week, U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden had the courage to name the elephant in the room — the astounding, continued growth of oil and gas development in North America (85 per cent of planned global oil and gas development is in North America) despite the reality that 80 per cent of climate warming emissions come from oil, gas and coal.

Biden went on to commit to wind down the oil industry by 2050. The idea that this was a shocking statement illustrates the fallacy of current climate leadership and policy, where the majority of the world’s countries, including our own, commit to the Paris Agreement to keep warming to below 2 C and even “net-zero by 2050,” while continuing under the fallacy that fossil fuel production can increase at the same time.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Canada has sunk close to 10 times more money per capita into fossil fuels than any other G20 nation ($340 per capita in Canada versus $220 in the U.S.). In addition to ignoring climate change, and the opinion of the majority of Canadians, who want strong action on climate to continue during the pandemic and economic recovery, this approach flies in the face of market signals.

Deutsche Bank, Norway’s sovereign fund and other major investors, as well as insurers, are pulling out of Canada’s energy sector. Recent forecasts from the International Energy Agency, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and oil major BP show demand for fossil fuels down and unlikely to return given the pandemic, growth and affordability of renewable energy and adoption of climate policies.

Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of Canada and the current United Nations Special Envoy on Climate Action and Finance commented just last week at an online conference hosted by Queen’s University's Institute for Sustainable Finance that a multitrillion-dollar realignment is taking place as the world of business joins the battle against climate change, with once-valuable assets such as pipelines being reconsidered.

Relying on #fossilfuels has run its course. Canada and the world must carve a new path forward for the sake of our economy, health and climate, Tzeporah Berman writes. @fossiltreaty

There is no way to achieve climate goals and a strong economy without a winding down of fossil fuels, yet we are ignoring the conversation because no one country or province can — or wants to — make this energy transition happen alone.

Early in his first term, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in fact beat Biden in acknowledging the need to wind down the oil industry, but walked it back quickly as soon as the oil industry and Alberta politicians attacked. Politically, acknowledging the basic math — the need to wind down production and emissions to get to zero — is considered toxic, in large part because we don’t have a plan for workers and their families, or to plan for the economic impacts of reduced oil exports.

It’s also hard for leaders such as Trudeau because no country wants to be put in an uncompetitive position. This won’t change until we address production of fossil fuels in international agreements.

Unfortunately, no mechanism currently exists within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to develop a global agreement to phase out fossil fuels and fast-track a fair energy transition that leaves no one behind. The Paris Agreement doesn’t even mention the words oil, gas or coal.

That’s why myself and government, civil society, academic, business and youth leaders around the world are calling for Canada and other nations to endorse the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative to spur international co-operation to align fossil fuel with the 1.5 C limit and fast-track an equitable transition to clean energy and low-carbon solutions.

The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative uses an approach similar to banning weapons of mass destruction, with action moving forward under three pillars:

Non-proliferation — Don’t add to the problem

End any plans for the expansion into new reserves of coal, oil and natural gas to limit warming to the 1.5 C threshold established in the Paris Agreement.

Global disarmament — Get rid of the existing threat

Phase out existing oil and gas fields and coal mines, which alone contain enough carbon to push us past 1.5 C.

Peaceful transition — Accelerate an equitable transition

Accelerate the expansion of clean, low-carbon solutions while incorporating the needs of workers, communities and countries dependent on fossil fuels.

The global call for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty is growing. Vancouver’s endorsement on Oct. 15, with a unanimous city council vote, sent a strong message — we need to stop expanding fossil fuels and work together on solutions.

This idea is in its infancy, but already hundreds of organizations and individuals have endorsed the treaty as well, including Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, Wilderness Committee, Communities Protecting Our Coast,, World Future Council, and Friends of the Earth, and more are joining every day.

It’s time for our provincial and federal governments to have the courage to name the need to stop expansion of fossil fuels, plan for a phase-out of fossil fuels and fast-track clean energy solutions that create jobs and economic and health benefits for Canadians.

We also have a responsibility to be part of an international response. The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative provides an opportunity for Canada to join with other nations to develop a multilateral agreement to phase out fossil fuels and fast-track clean energy solutions where everyone contributes their fair share and countries, communities and workers are not left behind.

Canada has a track record of stepping up when humanity is at threat to do the right thing. Phasing out ozone-depleting chemicals, asbestos and coal are just a few examples. We know we can’t stop expanding fossil fuels on our own. We also know that we can’t build the future we want if we are focusing our political, financial and intellectual capital on expanding the products we know we need to phase out.

Yes, we will as a society use oil and gas for years to come, but the world already has enough under development to use during the phase-out and transition to clean energy. The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative will provide the basis for an end to expansion everywhere — faster and fairly — in a way that simply relying on the markets will not.

The world is moving away from fossil fuels and towards efficiency, electrification of transport and renewable energy. Pretending it's not happening will mean that as a nation we will be constantly scrambling to manage lost revenue, contracts, low price and decreasing demand.

The world is moving to a low-carbon economy, and we will move with it by design or default. Allowing it to happen by default will be more painful, and oil and gas workers and their families deserve better planning than that. We now share a lived experience of listening to the science to try to bend the curve — in order to do that on climate, we need courage, international co-operation and big, new, bold ideas.

I grew up being told that the threat we faced of nuclear war was real, and if we heard the sirens we should hide under our desks. This generation is growing up being told that the climate threat is real, but they have nowhere to hide. It’s time for all of us to stop avoiding the hard stuff and work together to plan to wind down fossil fuel production and encourage our government to pursue a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty.

Tzeporah Berman is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at York University, chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative and the international program director at

[Top photo: Canada must endorse the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative to spur international co-operation and fast-track an equitable transition to clean energy, Tzeporah Berman writes. Photo by Kris Krug​]