A Simple Proposal: A Coal Power Non-Proliferation Treaty

[I said that the winner of the explain-why-Roger-Pielke-is-wrong contest would get the chance to blog weekly here. Here is the first post by Ken Levenson, who blogs at checklisttowardzerocarbon. Relatedly, the Center for American Progress has proposed an “Emission Performance Standard for New Coal-Fired Power Plants,” which would require that “new coal capacity be built to meet a CO2 emissions standard achievable with the best available CCS technology.”]

By Ken Levenson

While the world is awakening to the horrific ramifications of climate change, our progress in combating it is dangerously slow – retarded by an inertia composed of mighty fossil fuel interests, our wanton personal habits, an indifferent press and short sighted political leadership. We await the promise of a new American administration but precious days are passing. What can be done before November, to stack the deck, so that the new administration can’t just do “the right thing” wink, wink – but is compelled to do everything that needs to be done? It is as they say, a defining moment.

In his new slide show Al Gore speaks passionately to the predicament and possibilities of this extraordinary time. Along with his smart and well funded “we” branding strategy — Al Gore for many Americans is the face of global warming. History will treat Al Gore well, yet at this moment he’s unjustly trapped in the warped prism of Bush/Cheney World — and so his message is lost on too many fence sitting Americans.

But there is another leader right now: the conservative, mid-westerner James Hansen. Level-headed and firm, he has embarked on what seems to be a one man quest from another era; to stop the construction of new coal power plants. Hansen rightly defines the issue in terms of security — our existential security. He’s written letters to the heads of Britain and Australia, testified at public hearings and harangued energy officials in his effort to stop new plants.

Hansen sees the politicians as intractably beholden to fossil fuel interests and is increasingly stating that the only way to break the log jam is through the courts. He may be right.

Yet his clear insistence that coal plant construction be halted and that all existing coal plants be shut down – last year by 2050 and now ominously he says by by 2030. Hansen calls for a moratorium on coal as do others, including leading Democrats. A moratorium is the result we require. Yet the mechanism for getting such a moratorium at the requisite global scale remains nebulous and consequently ineffectual. A strong and clear mechanism to achieve a global moratorium on coal power plants is absolutely required. I believe the clear mechanism missing is a Coal Power Non-Proliferation Treaty.

As the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty unambiguously defined humanity’s primary existential threat, this new treaty would unambiguously define humanity’s current threat. And as the pillars of nuclear non-proliferation do, the coal power treaty should not only halt the construction of new coal power plants but create the framework for disarmament – the dismantling of existing plants by 2030.

Ireland proposed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968 — might they brush it off and put it to adaptive reuse in 2008? Could a “great power” do it? Germany? Britain? Japan?

If* done right, such a treaty would afford many unique opportunities and qualities:

  1. It can link the climate fight to the most popular vestige of the Cold War – a treaty whose clear military, national security and humanitarian interests were paramount, and by association, conveying to the climate crisis struggle those same attributes into today’s popular imagination.
  2. By rhetorically linking to the Cold War era treaty, it can reach outside party politics and traditional international alignments — allowing for the possibility of entirely new and positive dynamics.
  3. It kick-starts a national and international debate focused at the heart of the problem while decoupling it from the highly complex and esoteric negotiations of Kyoto and Bali.
  4. It provides a clear and powerful mechanism to pressure all countries – most importantly the US, China and India to get on board.
  5. It provides a concrete reference point, easy for all to understand and then work from. Because if you agree you can’t build another coal plant — what are you going to do?

What are we going to do? There’s a multitude of actions that must accelerate like an avalanche if we are to save ourselves. It’s my thought that such a “simple” act as this treaty might do a bit toward uncorking the bottle on our way to the next inauguration.

Come’on Ireland, the world again awaits your leadership!

* a big if.

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13 Responses to A Simple Proposal: A Coal Power Non-Proliferation Treaty

  1. john says:


    Great idea. Should definitely be tied into the next round of climate talks aimed at coming up with a new framework by 2012.

  2. Luke says:

    It seems to me that China is extremely unlikely to sign on to such a treaty or to accept any framework that requires them to “freeze” emitting activity at a per-capita rate below that of developed nations.

  3. Robert says:

    It’s certainly what’s needed, although I think you would want to frame it as a total ban on coal mining, not just coal fired electricity generation. The goal has to be to leave as much as possible of the remaining coal underground forever (in human timescales).

    As Luke says, China would not accept it as their per-capita emissions are so low compared to the US (see page 8 of this letter by James Hansen).

    Equally, would the US be prepared to contract to current Chinese levels, never mind post-coal Chinese levels (i.e. far lower than today). Not a chance.

  4. Ken Levenson says:

    Thanks John!

    Robert and Luke,

    First, agreed that an end to coal mining must be part of non-proliferation. If you agree to stop building coal plants, it seems one then should’nt be allowed to export coal to countries that haven’t.

    Regarding China and US: we must believe that the Chinese leadership will stop growing coal emissions at a much lower per capita level than developed nations and that the US, China and all nations will reduce coal emissions to near zero in the next twenty years. If we don’t believe it’s possible we’re wasting our time and we might as well just book our joy ride on Virgin Galactic along with James Lovelock.

    The Chinese leadership is rational and it is very possible that they will do what’s necessary – but the garden must be properly cultivated. Many tools must be utilized to help it happen.

    Hansen is smartly pushing at the “soft-points” – to get sympathetic leaders to take bold action and lead – potentially breaking the log jam.

    My suggestion is in some way to universalize that opportunity – let small, advanced countries take a stand first – those with the least to lose. Then pressure can be applied to the next batch of “attainable countries” and so on. It could build momentum, and those countries on board can lead in decarbonizing the power supply.

    At the same time China will surely soon become the dominant leader in clean technology production (like the production of everything) and I believe they will have the means to make the switch (they have the means to do just about anything, they just need to want it) when it’s convinced the rest of the world is taking serious steps. I might add with trepidation: while a short term humanitarian disaster – the fact that the Communist Party retains monopoly control means that such drastic change is not only possible but realistic – and as disturbing as it is, the ability of central control, properly asserted from Beijing may save humanity in the end.

  5. Robert says:

    It’s not just a case of not exporting coal. We would also need to stop importing goods from countries that use coal, otherwise we’re just exporting the problem a different way. And it is not enough to ban coal fired power stations, otherwise you leave open the door to CTL, etc.

    The bottom line is that coal mining needs to become as unacceptable as asbestos or cocaine – worldwide. Perhaps permit its use as a chemical feedstock, but never a fuel.

    It’s not going to happen is it? See you on the Virgin Galactic.

  6. Ken Levenson says:

    Agreed, CTL needs to be included in any such treaty.

    But I don’t agree that you need to initially ban goods from coal users – it will be a multi-step process (if accelerated). While we can move much production to China, we can’t actually export our coal power based homes/communities to China.

    My sense is that making coal power unacceptable will lead to coal mining being unacceptable – with allot of effort of course. I think asbestos and cocaine, while on the right track aren’t unacceptable enough and why coupling it with nuclear oblivion – through the non-proliferation frame – seems a much stronger propaganda tool.

  7. Norm says:

    China is being heavily influenced by the embarrassment of the air quality for the Olympics. It is a “shame” culture, and it is very sensitive to the criticism it is receiving. Note, also, that China has an investment in solar greater than ours and a favorable place to site solar collectors. China could surprise us all.

  8. Robert says:

    Ken – I was hoping for a response from Joe. Your line of thought very much coincides with mine but is 180 degrees away from the way Joe thinks.

  9. Jay Alt says:

    So much energy goes into buildings. Why not ban construction of new homes that aren’t net zero energy efficient? Require the same standard of all buildings by 2050, or even 2030. Our builders and contractors can do that now. Then if balky people won’t retrofitted to meet those standards, just bulldoze them in their homes.

    That would really show the utilities and China we mean business. They’d rush out and apply the ‘best available’ CCS technology. Which would be? Well, ‘meaningless.‘ We have no idea what it would be since no power station on Earth uses it. And it won’t be learned until stations with different Carbon Capture methods are built, tested, ‘costed’ and modified for a 2nd try. By about 2025 the power industry expects to have a good idea which CCS technology(s) would work best.

    In the meantime, we can trash any project or firm that tries to bring CCS online. . . Or the Bush Administration can kill a promising long-term project (FutureGen) that might have been first. Possibly since IGCC it is an expensive (and efficient) option (with little retrofit potential). But also because Bush has been so good at dragging his feet, IGCC might have become the ‘best available’ technology, by default.

    Anyway, utilities will want clear signals on what the rules will be. I’m still looking for such a proposal.

  10. Ken Levenson says:

    Really? I haven’t gotten that sense from reading Joe’s stuff. Of course I’m eager to read his upcoming proposals for “solving the crisis” and it’ll be interesting to see how my thinking differs, or not.

    Jay Alt,
    I agree about the building code issues (I’m an architect) – Although I’d prefer to leave the former Gaza home clearance methods out of it. ;) ) The building codes are part of the avalanche of actions that must be taken in short order. But the “nut of the matter” as Lincoln might say, is what Hansen is driving at – we must leave as much coal in the ground as possible. To get a handful of countries to agree to start on the path with such a treaty and expand seems like a potentially organic global approach.

  11. Robert says:

    Ken – I just get no sense from Joe’s posts that he in any way admits the scale of the problem. Halting CO2 at 450ppm is about as likely as me flying to Mars. For example, it would mean reducing global emissions to zero within about 30 years. This is absolutely not going to happen unless we have WW3 and wipe out civilisation.

    You have only got to look at China – double digit growth – consumer of over half the world’s cement and apparently now the biggest CO2 polluter. Does this look like a country that is about to change course and suddenly stop emissiting CO2 just because Joe says they ought to?

    If there was some sort of catastrophic event that really brought home to people the gravity of climate change (without actually killing everyone) then the required masive global political shift might occur. In the meantime we will suffer the fate of the slowly boiled frog.

  12. Robert says:

    “…the projected annual increase in China alone over the next several years is greater than the current emissions produced by either Great Britain or Germany.”

  13. Ken Levenson says:

    I think it simply boils down to wanting to remain optimistic. I don’t think Joe underestimates the difficulty of whats required at all – he’s just not going to give up, while trying to balance realism etc… If I may ask – do you have small children? I have a 19 month old and I believe Joe has a one year old. With their future’s in the balance you can’t give up on hope. Since we haven’t yet started to fight it is far too early to throw in the towel!!!! In some way it feels to me like we’re in Russia just before the Nazis invade. Not a good feeling – but doesn’t mean we can’t pull it out in the end.