The Current

Fossil fuels should be treated as 'today's weapons of mass destruction,' says environmentalist

Environmentalist Tzeporah Berman wants the world's governments to move away from fossil fuels, in the same way they once agreed to curb the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Tzeporah Berman’s Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty aims to curb fossil fuels

A pumpjack works at a well head on an oil and gas installation near Cremona, Alta. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

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Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled Our Changing Planet to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.

Long-time environmentalist Tzeporah Berman wants the world's governments to adopt a treaty signalling a move away from fossil fuels, in the same way they once agreed to curb the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

"The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty is built on the idea that we need to treat fossil fuels as today's weapons of mass destruction," said Berman, who has advised B.C.'s and Alberta's governments on cutting emissions.

The climate change spurred by those fossil fuels is "the greatest threat to humanity," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"It's finally a proposal that is commensurate with the scale of the problem we have"​​-Tzeporah Berman

Berman's proposal is modelled on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), signed in 1968. More than half a century later, she is chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative, which aims to address fossil fuel exploration, expansion and production. It has been endorsed by scientists, researchers and even some major cities like Vancouver and Toronto, but no national governments have yet signed on.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), climatic changes can cause extreme weather conditions, changes in temperature and rainfall conditions, and new patterns in food production (which could contribute to malnutrition.)

WHO estimates that climate change will cause about 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050.

"At this point, we will continue to see the impacts of climate change, and so we need to prepare for that," Berman said. "We need to push our governments to put more money into emergency measures and adaptation so that people are safe."

Most major world leaders, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, are currently meeting in Glasgow for the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). There, countries are expected to present their updated plans to reduce carbon emissions, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).

WATCH | Trudeau challenged for lack of action on COP26 promises:

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Canada's updated NDC is to reduce emissions by 40 to 45 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. This is an upgrade to their original goal to cut emissions by 30 per cent.

"We'll cap oil and gas sector emissions today and ensure they decrease tomorrow at a pace and scale needed to reach net-zero by 2050," Trudeau said on Monday.

  • Have questions about COP26 or climate science, policy or politics? Email us: Your input helps inform our coverage.

The transition

Berman said the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty follows similar principles to the treaty pushing for nuclear disarmament: "non-proliferation, phase out and then fast-tracking solutions."

The first step of the plan is to acknowledge the need for a production decline, and to set dates and a timeline for a wind-down, she said.

Tzeporah Berman says her Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty is 'built on the idea that we need to treat fossil fuels as today's weapons of mass destruction.' (

"Then that allows us to have [the] certainty to assess who is it going to impact [and] how do we create both economic diversification and retraining programmes so that no one's left behind," she said. 

According to Berman, energy needs would also be reduced by making homes and buildings more fuel efficient, as well as building better public transport systems that reduce reliance on single-occupancy cars. 

She added that new, renewable energy infrastructure is needed, which is where public investment can play a role. 

"We also need to be using battery storage when the wind doesn't blow, when the sun doesn't shine," she said. "And there's been so many leaps and bounds in the technology of battery storage that we know that a lot more is possible today than it has been."

Emissions vs. productions

But Berman's proposal isn't just about reducing emissions; it's also about stopping the expansion of new production.

She believes that by just talking about reducing emissions, but not halting production or expansion as well, companies are being detrimental to the fight against fossil fuels.

"By factoring in ... unrealistic expectations of how much we can increase the production of fossil fuels as long as we plant more trees, or start to introduce carbon storage and sequestration … they're justifying an expansion of the problem," she said.

This is where Martha Hall Findlay, the chief sustainability officer at Suncor Energy and a former Liberal MP, disagrees. 

"The realities out there are that there is still a huge amount of demand globally for fossil fuels," she said.

As investors in clean technology, Martha Hall Findlay says oil and gas companies like Suncor Energy must be part of the discourse around renewable energy sources. (Canadian Press)

Hall Findlay says Suncor Energy has been part of the effort to reduce emissions for decades. This includes creating an "electric highway" across Canada by installing fast chargers at various Petro-Canada locations.

"Building that electric highway at Petro-Canada stations was very much an effort to help us work with our customers to allow them choices that are part of the energy transition we want," she said.

Hall Findlay said the oil and gas industry is a large investor in clean technology in Canada. Given that, she said it's frustrating when organizations such as the University of Toronto commit to divesting from fossil fuel companies, largely because it doesn't have a practical effect.

What we do today and every tonne of carbon that we save from going into the atmosphere, it'll save lives-Berman

"If our businesses can't invest in the future of energy, not sure how they think [clean tech is] going to happen," she said.

Berman said some fossil fuels will still be used in the future. But she believed there's "enough fossil fuels already above ground or under production to use between now and 2050 while we make the transition."

She added that some oil and gas companies are not set up to become renewable energy companies at the moment, and they must do more than just technological fixes in order to address climate issues.

A common goal

Hall Findlay believes both environmentalists and fossil fuel companies have an equally important role to play in reducing emissions.

"My hope, frankly, is that we move away from the ideological black and white … to figuring out the solutions," she said.

Berman agreed. She said neither side has time to waste on polarization, and it's important they take action as soon as possible.

"What we do today, and every tonne of carbon that we save from going into the atmosphere, it'll save lives," she said 

It's for these reasons that Berman has faith in the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.

"It's finally a proposal that is commensurate with the scale of the problem we have," she said. "We can't just keep fiddling at the edges or moving the deck chairs on the Titanic."

Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Julie Crysler and Ellis Choe.

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