G20 Leaders Signal an End to Free Ride for Fossil Fuels


On one or two occasions, friends of mine have complained about renewable energies because they have to be subsidized to survive. (Yeah, I know. Fun party conversation.) My response is always to point out that we've been subsidizing fossil fuel production for decades. I never go into any details, mainly because I don't really want to have long conversations about subsidies. Maybe next time I will just point them to this blog post in which David Roberts of Grist succinctly makes the case...with a nice graphic to boot. (For a more exhaustive explanation of the myriad ways in which we prop up spent dinosaurs in a vain attempt to get them to pull our carts, you can peruse this paper, Federal Fossil Fuel Subsidies and Greenhouse Gas Emissions: A Case Study of Increasing Transparency for Fiscal Policy. Go on. Memorize it. Be the life of the party.)


So I was happy to see that the G20 leaders in Pittsburgh agreed to phase out subsidies for fossil fuels. About time.  According to a Rueters report, “Global subsidies for fossil fuels are in the neighborhood of $300 billion annually.”  (That, needless to say, is a pretty tony neighborhood.) Eliminating these subsidies by 2020--the time frame proposed--could cut global greenhouse gas emissions by about 10% by 2050, according to the G20 leaders. Not enough. But a necessary step if we are ever to cast aside this particular crutch. It could even be good for the economy, according to a UN report published last year.


The point for me is, no matter what the most untethered free marketers say, we’ve always subsidized things we consider societal goods and penalized things we considered societal bads. Always.  Though I wouldn’t say the history of fossil fuel production is replete with actors pure of motive (for the latest unclean hands example, visit the Niger Delta), I do understand that in a more innocent time, oil and gas production was considered a societal good, and was therefore propped up by the government.  For decades, the wheels of industrial society have been greased with oil.


That was then. This is now. With climate change upon us, fossil fuel production is no longer seen as such a good. In fact, it would be mighty good to find some other way to fuel our needs. Like, say, renewable energy.


Hey, I’ve got an idea.  Let’s subsidize renewable energy production.


Of course, fossil power enthusiasts balk at that idea, and complain about the meager renewable energy subsidies already in place. But for them to say we must stop the game now, and not subsidize renewables in the name of preserving the “free market” is, well, cheating. It’s like calling on the police to preserve a little law and order and protect your fortune after you robbed the bank.


It's not only time to bury fossil fuel subsidies. Now is the time to give renewable energy the same leg up we gave coal and oil.  In any society, fashions change.  So does--on occasion--our understanding of what is truly a "good."  Maybe in today's world, solar and wind power can come fully into fashion, and be the new black (gold).



Tags: Carbon, Climate, Climate change, Consumption, Economy, Environment, Global warming, Policy

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