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Subsidies should be switched

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The debate should not be between subsidy and no subsidy, but between subsidy for low carbon energy and energy efficiency and subsidy for high carbon energy.

Low carbon energy sources – renewables, CCS and nuclear – all require public financial support. In the UK, the new government has said that there will be no subsidy for new nuclear power stations. Without financial support, no new nuclear stations will be built. Nor will any renewables or CCS – offshore wind and CCS are, in the view of many, going to be even more expensive than nuclear. Energy policy will not be left entirely to the market – an Emissions Performance Standard, which will prevent any new dirty coal stations, is promised. Without subsidy, this regulated market will lead only to another ‘dash for gas’. In places lacking an Emissions Performance Standard, an unsubsidised market will lead to an expansion of filthy coal.

The notion of energy subsidies may offend free marketeers, but they are nevertheless very large, in both developed and developing countries. Annual subsidies to fossil fuels in developed countries have been estimated by one study to be $67 billion (see Oil Change International: Redirecting Public Subsidies for Fossil Fuels in and from Annex 1 Countries). According to a study by the International Energy Agency (IEA), reported in today’s FT, 37 large developing countries spend more than $550bn in energy subsidies a year, about 75% more than previously thought. The 37 countries surveyed spent, on average, about 2% of their GDP on energy subsidies. Most of the subsidy goes to fossil fuels, and most of that to schemes without CCS. Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India and China top the ranking.

Last year, the G20 agreed to phase out subsidy, though this has yet to lead to any significant progress. The IEA report will be discussed at this month’s G20 summit in Toronto. Developing countries such as India argue, correctly, that energy subsidy is needed for development and poverty reduction. Therefore, the debate should not be between subsidy and no subsidy, but between subsidy for low carbon energy and energy efficiency and subsidy for high carbon energy.

UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, summed up this scandal very well last year:

“Continuing to pour trillions of dollars into fossil-fuel subsidies is like investing in sub-prime real estate. Our carbon-based infrastructure is like a toxic asset that threatens the entire portfolio of global goods – from public health to food security. We must direct investment away from dirty energy industries.”

The G20 meeting in Toronto must direct the investment instead into cleaner energy industries.

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Climate change is the most serious issue ever to have faced humanity. Rightly, it is now high on the public, political, media and business agendas. However, too much of the discussion is still about what we should not be doing or what we should be against. There is not enough discussion or information on solutions - what we can and should do to minimise dangerous climate change, and what should be done to make us not only safer and more secure, but also richer and happier.

Stephen Tindale photoStephen Tindale (29 March 1963 – 1 July 2017) was a British environmentalist who was Executive Director of Greenpeace UK from 2000 to 2005. He was Director of The Alvin Weinberg Foundation, co-founder of the organisation Climate Answers, Associate Fellow at the Centre for European Reform and co-author of Repowering Communities with Prashant Vaze.