A new open access journal article by international environmental lawyer Harro van Asselt and the Alliance’s Peter Newell explores diplomatic and legal options for addressing the increasingly obvious need to leave large swathes of remaining fossil fuels in the ground.

Remarkably, recognition of the need to reduce fossil fuel production is entirely absent in the climate treaties we have to date, despite the fact that fossil fuels make up over 90% of CO2 emissions.

Leaving Fossil Fuels in the Ground

This article explores two possible pathways—one following a club model and the other more akin to a multilateral environmental agreement. The most likely scenario at this juncture is the emergence of club arrangements covering particular fossil fuel sources and groups of actors that, over time, give rise to growing calls for a more coordinated and multilateral response.

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Generating international cooperation to phase out fossil fuels

Amid a growing chorus of support for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty from politicians, major cities such as Toronto, Paris, Amsterdam and most recently London, activists, religious leaders and academics, questions are being asked about how best to bring about international agreement on how to fairly leave fossil fuels in the ground. The issue is a pressing one with the Production Gap Report revealing that governments around the world are still planning to produce 120% more fossil fuels than would be compatible with keeping warming below 1.5 degrees, the goal of the Paris Agreement.

This means that to achieve the Paris Agreement’s temperature goal, fossil fuel production needs to undergo a managed decline. While some frontrunner countries such as Denmark, Costa Rica, Ireland and New Zealand have already begun to adopt policies and measures restricting fossil fuel supply, an outstanding question is how international cooperation in support of a managed decline of fossil fuel production could take shape to cover more countries.

This article explores two possible pathways—the first following a club model building on the Powering Past Coal Alliance and the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance announced at last year’s Glasgow COP, and secondly, an approach more akin to a multilateral environmental agreement. We discuss the participants in an international agreement; the forum through which cooperation will take place; the modalities, principles, and procedures underpinning the agreement; and the incentives to induce cooperation.

A Club approach

On the one hand, a group of countries coming together in a like-minded alliance, referred as a club arrangement is already emerging in which a subset of states (and other actors) forms a coalition and crafts a non–legally binding international agreement to address fossil fuel production. Such an approach offers a means for first-mover countries to proceed with a degree of flexibility in terms of the legal form and procedures to be followed, reducing the complexity of negotiations. A club approach could also engage climate-vulnerable countries that are at particular risk if other countries continue to produce fossil fuels.

The club model could also bring subnational and nonstate actors—such as cities, regions, NGOs, and businesses—into the fold. Involving subnational and nonstate actors can help move an international coalition on fossil fuel supply forward, particularly where national governments are unwilling to do, so since many have already declared support for limits on fossil fuel production and introduced bans and moratoria for example. The involvement of nonstate and subnational actors would extend cooperation to “fossil-free zones,” where all kinds of actors commit to making their own contributions to making the world free of fossil fuels.

A multilateral treaty

With a treaty on the other hand, you are looking at a greater number of participants; an agreement in the form of a legally binding treaty to restrict the production and supply of fossil fuels and a high degree of institutionalization, including a decision-making body and dedicated secretariat. It would be more comprehensive and universal in scope and ambition, but for the same reason more complex and harder to negotiate. A legally binding treaty generally signals a strong commitment, as for most states it requires ratification at the domestic level, usually involving parliaments. In terms of the treaty objective, this could be explicitly linked to the Paris Agreement, for instance, restricting any fossil fuel production that is inconsistent with the temperature goal of the Paris Agreement. Building on an article by Newell and Simms from the alliance, the article explores three key pillars of commitments first on, “non-proliferation”—limits on new production and extraction of fossil fuels; second, “disarmament”—a managed decline of existing reserves and infrastructures; and third, “peaceful use”—support for non–fossil fuel development, among others, through a dedicated financial mechanism.

Assessing the two models

Considering the pros and cons of, and trade-offs in the two models, we conclude that the most likely scenario at this juncture is the emergence of club arrangements covering particular fossil fuel sources and groups of actors that, over time, give rise to growing calls for a more coordinated and multilateral response such as a fossil fuel treaty. While a club arrangement is more likely in the near term, to adequately address the range of key issues that need to be confronted, a multilateral treaty would be required to effectively coordinate supply-side policy responses to the climate crisis.


Peter Newell

Peter Newell is Research Director of the Rapid Transition Alliance. He is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex. His research focuses on the political economy of low carbon energy transitions and global climate change politics. He is currently an ISRF Political Economy Research Fellow and is on the Board of Directors of Greenpeace UK and Carbon Market Watch in Brussels. His books include Climate for Change, Governing Climate Change, Climate Capitalism and The Politics of Green Transformations.

Harro van Asselt

Harro van Asselt, PhD, is a professor of Climate Law and Policy with the University of Eastern Finland (UEF) Law School, Visiting Research Fellow with the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development at Utrecht University, and Affiliated Researcher with the Stockholm Environment Institute. He has 20 years of research experience, and is an expert on interactions between international climate change governance and other fields of international governance.