Energy Subsidies: The Case for a Level Playing Field

Energy Subsidies: The Case for a Level Playing Field | 02/02/15
by John Brian Shannon John Brian Shannon

By now, we’re all aware of the threat to the well-being of life on this planet posed by our massive use of fossil fuels and the various ways we might attempt to reduce the rate of CO2 increase in our atmosphere.

Divestment in fossil fuels is under discussion — as one way to lower our massive carbon emissions

The case for divestment generally flows along these lines;
By making investment in fossil fuels seem unethical, investors will gradually move away from fossil fuels into other investments, leaving behind a smaller, but hardcore cohort of fossil fuel investors.

Resulting (in theory) in a gradual decline in the total global investment in fossil fuels, thereby lowering consumption and CO2 additions to the atmosphere. So the thinking goes.

It worked well in the case of tobacco, a few decades back. Over time, fewer people wanted their names or fund associated with the tobacco industry — so that the tobacco industry is now a shadow of its former self.

Interestingly, Solaris (a hybridized tobacco plant) is being grown and processed into biofuel to power South African Airways (SAA) jets. They expect all flights to be fully powered by tobacco biofuel within a few years, cutting their CO2 emissions in half. Read more about that here.

Another way to curtail carbon emissions is to remove the massive fossil fuel subsidies

In 2014, the total global fossil fuel subsidy amounted to $548 billion dollars according to the IISD (International Institute for Sustainable Development) although it was projected to hit $600 billion before the oil price crash began in September. The global fossil fuel subsidy amount totalled $550 billion dollars in 2013. For 2012, it totalled $525 billion dollars. (These aren’t secret numbers, they’re easily viewed at the IEA and major news sites such as Reuters and Bloomberg)

Yes, removing those subsidies would do much to lower our carbon emissions as many oil and gas wells, pipelines, refineries and port facilities would suddenly become hugely uneconomic.

We don’t recognize them for the white elephants they are, because they are obscured by mountains of cash.

And there are powerful lobby groups dedicated to keeping those massive subsidies in place. Ergo, those subsidies likely aren’t going away, anytime soon.

Reducing our CO2 footprint via a carbon tax scheme

But for all of the talk… not much has happened.

The fossil fuel industry will spin this for decades, trying to get the world to come to contretemps on the *exact dollar amount* of fossil fuel damage to the environment.

Long before any agreement is reached we will be as lobsters in a pot due to global warming.

And know that there are powerful lobby groups dedicated to keeping a carbon tax from ever seeing the light of day.

The Third Option: Levelling the Subsidy Playing Field

  • Continue fossil fuel subsidies at the same level and not institute a carbon tax.
  • Quickly ramp-up renewable energy subsidies to match existing fossil fuel subsidies.

Both divestment in fossil fuels and reducing fossil fuel subsidies attempt to lower our total CO2 emissions by (1) reducing fossil fuel industry revenues while (2) a carbon tax attempts to lower our total CO2 use/emissions by increasing spending for the fossil fuel industry

I prefer (3) a revenue-neutral and spending-neutral solution (from the oil company’s perspective) to lower our CO2 use/emissions.

So far, there are no (known) powerful fossil fuel lobby groups dedicated to preventing renewable energy from receiving the same annual subsidy levels as the fossil fuel industry.

Imagine how hypocritical the fossil fuel industry would look if it attempted to block renewable energy subsidies set to the same level as fossil fuel subsidies.

Renewable energy received 1/4 of the total global subsidy amount enjoyed by fossil fuel (2014)

Global Energy Subsidies (2014, in billions USD). Image courtesy of IISD.
Global Energy Subsidies 2014. (billions USD). Image courtesy of IISD.

Were governments to decide that renewable energy could receive the same global, annual subsidy as the fossil fuel industry, a number of things would begin to happen;

  • Say goodbye to high unemployment.
  • Say goodbye to the dirtiest fossil projects.
  • Immediate lowering of CO2 emissions.
  • Less imported foreign oil.
  • Cleaner air in cities.
  • Sharp decline in healthcare costs.
  • Democratization of energy through all socio-economic groups.

Summary

Even discounting the global externality cost of fossil fuel (which some commentators have placed at up to $2 trillion per year) the global, annual $548 billion fossil fuel subsidy promotes an unfair marketplace advantage.

But instead of punishing the fossil fuel industry for supplying us with reliable energy for decades (by taking away ‘their’ subsidies) or by placing on them the burden of a huge carbon tax (one that reflects the true cost of the fossil fuel externality) I suggest that we simply match the renewable energy subsidy to the fossil subsidy… and let both compete on a level playing field in the international marketplace.

Assuming a level playing field; May the best competitor win!

By matching renewable energy subsidies to fossil fuel subsidies, ‘Energy Darwinism’ will reward the better energy solution

My opinion is that renewable energy will win hands down and that we will exceed our clean air goals over time — and stop global warming in its tracks.

Not only that, but we will create hundreds of thousands of clean energy jobs and accrue other benefits during the transition to renewable energy. We will also lower healthcare spending, agricultural damage, and lower damage to steel and concrete infrastructure from acid rain.

In the best-case future: ‘Oil & Gas companies’ will simply become known as ‘Energy companies’

Investors will simply migrate from fossil fuel energy stock, to renewable energy stock, within the same energy company or group of energy companies.

At the advent of scheduled airline transportation nearly a century ago, the smart railway companies bought existing airlines (or created their own airlines) and kept their traditional investors and gained new ones.

Likewise, smart oil and gas companies, should now buy existing renewable energy companies (or create their own renewable energy companies) and keep their traditional investors and gain new ones.

Related Articles:

Global Fossil Fuel Subsidies At Record Highs

Originally published on DeSmogBlog by Ben Jervey.

Global Fossil Fuel Energy Consumption
Global Fossil Fuel Energy Consumption

The exact worth of massive global fossil fuel subsidies is incredibly hard to figure. There’s no real consistency in the definitions of subsidies, or how they should be calculated. As a result, estimates of global subsidy support for fossil fuels vary widely.

According to a new analysis by the Worldwatch Institute, these estimates range from $523 billion to over $1.9 trillion, depending on what is considered a “subsidy” and how exactly they are tallied.

Worldwatch Institute research fellow Philipp Tagwerker, who authored the brief, explains:

The lack of a clear definition of “subsidy” makes it hard to compare the different methods used to value support for fossil fuels, but the varying approaches nevertheless illustrate global trends. Fossil fuel subsidies declined in 2009, increased in 2010, and then in 2011 reached almost the same level as in 2008. The decrease in subsidies was due almost entirely to fluctuations in fuel prices rather than to policy changes.

In other words, though the estimates vary widely, they all agree that fossil fuel subsidies are back up to the record levels they were at in 2008, before the financial crisis caused a temporary dip. So while world leaders, including President Obama, talk about ending subsidies that benefit one of the world’s richest industries, there hasn’t been any actual reduction.

Why such difficulty calculating the subsidies? For starters, subsidies typically fall into two broadly different categories: production subsidies and consumption subsidies. Production subsidies are what you think of when you hear about special tax rates for oil companies or grants or loan guarantees to “clean coal” projects. Basically, they include anything that lowers the cost of energy production — through tax advantages, loan assistance, grants, or anything else.

Consumption subsidies refer to any financial mechanisms that lower the cost of energy for the end consumers. Think of the artificially low gasoline prices in Venezuela, or even something such as tax breaks for home heating fuel.

According to Tagwerker, production subsidies are most common in wealthier, industrialized countries, while consumption subsidies are more common in developing countries with populations struggling to afford fossil fuels.

The $523 billion number above — standing as the bottom boundary of the range of global fossil fuel subsidies — represents only the consumption subsidies for coal, electricity, oil and, natural gas in 38 developing countries, as estimated by the International Energy Agency (IEA). It doesn’t include any production subsidies at all.

Production subsidies are often quoted at $100 billion a year, a number that comes from a June 2010 report to the G-20 leaders from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the IEA, the World Bank, and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). But that doesn’t include so-called “support measures” like:

  • export credit agencies (estimated at $50-100 billion annually)
  • cost of securing fossil fuel shipping routes (estimated at $20-500 billion/year)

Then there’s the issue of externalities. Tagwerker argues that external costs — like those associated with resource scarcity, environmental degradation, and human health — should be considered in subsidy calculations, as their absence artificially lowers the true cost of fossil fuel energy.

“Without factoring in such considerations, renewable subsidies cost between 1.7¢ and 15¢ per kilowatt-hour (kWh), higher than the estimated 0.1–0.7¢ per kWh for fossil fuels,” writes Tagwerker. “If externalities were included, however, estimates indicate fossil fuels would cost 23.8¢ more per kWh, while renewables would cost around 0.5¢ more per kWh.”

A recent report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) took a unique approach to subsidy calculations, lumping them into pre-tax and post-tax groupings rather than production and consumption.

The IMF then tacked on a modest $25-per-ton carbon tax to capture the external costs of climate pollution. After tallying up all the various subsidies, the IMF came up with a whopping $1.9 trillion every year, or roughly 2.5-percent of the global GDP in 2012.

Finally, Tagwerker considers the entire subsidy through the lens of climate pollution. “From an emissions perspective, 15 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions receive $110 per ton in support, while only 8 percent are subject to a carbon price, effectively nullifying carbon market contributions as a measure to reduce emissions.”

Image Credit: Subsidies via Shutterstock.

This article, Fossil Fuel Subsidies Are Back Up To 2008 Levels, is syndicated from Clean Technica and is posted here with permission.

About the Author

The DeSmogBlog ProjectDeSmog Blog The DeSmogBlog Project began in January 2006 and quickly became the world’s number one source for accurate, fact based information regarding global warming misinformation campaigns. TIME Magazine named DeSmogBlog in its “25 Best Blogs of 2011” list. Our articles and stories are routinely highlighted in the world’s most popular news outlets and blogs: New York Times DotEarth, Huffington Post, Daily Kos, ThinkProgress, and Treehugger, to name a few. DeSmogBlog has won the Canadian Public Relation Society’s Leadership in Communication award, and was voted Canada’s “Best Group Blog” by their peers.

Clean Trillion Campaign pushes for $36 Trillion of Clean Energy

by Tina Casey

Oh, the irony. With the devastating coal-related West Virginia chemical spill barely a week behind us, hundreds of leading investment and financial executives gathered at the United Nations for the Investor Summit on Climate Risk on January 15, to focus on the opposite of that: a $36 trillion effort called the Clean Trillion Campaign, to transition the global economy out of fossil fuel dependency and onto a more safe and sustainable path.

The Clean Trillion Campaign is the brainchild of Ceres, the not-for-profit sustainable investor organization which also hosted the Investor Summit on Climate Risk.

CleanTechnica was invited to come along. So here are some of our takeaways, through the lens of the West Virginia episode.

US Currency (cropped) by (401) K 2013.
Hundreds of leading investment and financial executives gathered at the United Nations for the Investor Summit on Climate Risk on January 15, to focus on a $36 trillion effort called the Clean Trillion Campaign, to transition the global economy out of fossil fuel dependency and onto a more safe and sustainable path. US Currency (cropped) by (401) K 2013.

Adapting Business To Address Climate Change

New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who spoke at the event, singled out the US coal industry’s current woes to illustrate how business strategies that are “based on trying to preserve the status quo” are heading into deep trouble, and he urged the fossil fuel industry to “be proactive and adapt.”

Those are lessons apparently yet to be learned both by the company responsible for the spill, Freedom Industries, and the private water supplier affected by the spill, West Virginia American.

To recap the West Virginia spill briefly, last week the chemical Crude MCHM, a foaming agent used to wash coal and other minerals, entered the West Virginia American’s intakes on the Elk River, making its way into homes, businesses, and everything else with plumbing across a nine-county area with 300,000 residents.

The economic damage is still being totaled up, but in the meantime it’s clear that long running gaps in federal oversight combined with weak state regulations to form a perfect platform for the Keystone Cops-esque response of the two companies involved, both of which fell far short in the categories of emergency prevention, preparedness, response, and communications (tip: follow Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward, Jr. for updates at @Kenwardjr).

Investor Summit On Climate Risk

If the West Virginia debacle represents the status quo, the question is how to get the ball rolling in the other direction. From the investor perspective, that means there has to be a clear path and a level playing field for clean energy investments, which of course translates into legislative action.

Given the political obstacles to hurdle, this is where the Ceres summit could make a real difference.

Former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and investor/activist Tom Steyer kicked things off by urging the attendees to think and act like they are the agents of change. Simply put, they asked investors to start talking about climate change to everyone with whom they come into contact, including their elected representatives.

Rubin noted that although more people understand the facts about climate change, they haven’t internalized that information to the point where it translates into action, namely, into political pressure.

Considering the force of the climate change denial movement in the US Congress, we think that’s a bit of an optimistic assessment. Be that as it may,  Rubin asserted that business can play a key role in creating pressure for change, as business leaders are members of the “chattering class,” the people who get face time with elected officials and who have a direct impact on policymaking.

Steyer, who is also founder of the organization NextGen, made a complimentary point about reaching individual voters by zeroing in on local issues where their votes have a direct impact on local elected officials and on their US House of Representatives members, “grinding it out on the ground” as he puts it. In his experience, elected officials will respond to calls for change if and only if they think that the change involved is the votes of their constituents.

That’s where business can play a role, by reaching people with their concerns about local issues. As Steyer puts it, “we should ask people in this room to deal in the reality of where we are now and realize the power of business in this conversation.”

The Clean Trillion Campaign

The Clean Trillion Campaign name refers to closing the gap that Ceres has identified between the $36 trillion in transformative investments needed by 2050 to prevent catastrophic climate change, and where we are now.

The campaign provides investors with tools for managing climate risks in their portfolios and investing in clean energy opportunities, while encouraging them to engage with companies on climate change.

Specifically, the campaign contains ten key rallying points:

1. Develop capacity to boost clean energy investments and consider setting a goal such as 5 percent portfolio-wide clean energy investments
2. Elevate scrutiny of fossil fuel companies’ potential carbon asset risk exposure
3. Engage portfolio companies on the business case for energy efficiency and renewable energy sourcing, as well as on financing vehicles to support such efforts
4. Support efforts to standardize and quantify clean energy investment data and products to improve market transparency
5. Encourage “green banking” to maximize private capital flows into clean energy
6. Support issuances of asset-backed securities to expand debt financing for clean energy projects
7. Support development bank finance and technical assistance for emerging economies
8. Support regulatory reforms to electric utility business models to accelerate deployment of clean energy sources and technologies
9. Support government policies that result in a strong price on carbon pollution from fossil fuels and phase out fossil fuel subsidies
10. Support policies to de-risk deployment of clean energy sources and technologies

You can find out more about the Clean Trillion Campaign at ceres.org/cleantrillion,  and be sure to check out Ceres’s BICEP campaign, too.

Follow me on Twitter and Google+.

Psst, wanna keep up with all the latest clean tech news from CleanTechnica? Subscribe to our newsletter.

Repost.Us - Republish This Article

This article, $36 Trillion Push For Clean Energy Investment, is syndicated from Clean Technica and is posted here with permission.

About the Author

Tina CaseyTina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

Europe Exits Fossil Fuel, will hit 30% Renewables by 2017

by Zachary Shahan

Following up on a Credit Suisse report stating that ~85% of US energy demand growth would come from renewables by 2025, we thought it would be good to take a look at the energy trends in Europe as well.

Actually, one of our readers pitched this idea prior to the publishing of that article, and did most of the research for this piece. I then had the pleasure of putting it together to create the primarily positive (with one notable hiccup) non-fiction story below. Enjoy!

Let’s start with the broad overview. UBS analysts in 2013 reported that utilities in Europe need to shut down 30% of their gas, coal, and oil-fed power capacity by 2017 — not necessarily to fight global warming, cut pollution, or cut fuel imports, but because the renewable energy revolution is pushing fossil fuels off the grid.

In other words, increasingly cheap and fast-growing renewables are killing fossil fuels in Europe

“Producers must close 49 gigawatts of capacity to stabilize profits at 2012 levels, analysts led by Paris-based Per Lekander wrote in an e-mailed report,” according to Rachel Morison of Bloomberg.

“That includes 24 gigawatts of ‘mainly cashflow positive capacity’ on top of the 7 gigawatts that utilities already plan to shut and an additional 18 gigawatts of closures expected to be announced.”

“The most important driver has undoubtedly been the remarkable increase of renewable capacity, and in particular solar, mainly in Germany,” Per Lekander said.

Image Credit: Nuclear Energy Agency and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development, via @SamHamels
Image Credit: Nuclear Energy Agency and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development, via @SamHamels

Unfortunately, the most closures are projected to be of natural gas power plants. Coal power’s big exit is projected to get rolling in 2015.

However, that’s not to say no coal power plants are being closed or kept off the grid until 2015. Back in August 2013, it was announced that a coal power plant in Finland would shut down due to its failing competitiveness.

“Finland’s largest utility, Fortum, is closing a coal-fired power plant in Inkoo, west of Helsinki,” yle wrote.

“Built in the mid-1970s, the 750 MW plant has rarely been used in recent years, only supplying backup power to the Nordic grid during periods of peak demand. It has long been a loss-maker. This is partly due to falling electricity prices in Europe, driven by Germany’s shift toward renewable energy.”

The Finnish government, in the meantime, has committed itself to transitioning to a clean, renewable energy future — only logical, right?

And in the center of much of the clean energy revolution, Germany, dozens of coal power plants have been canceled or closed in recent years.

In Germany, dozens of coal power plants have been canceled or closed in recent years, with others 'walking the plank'.
In Germany, dozens of coal power plants have been canceled or closed in recent years, with others ‘walking the plank’.

It’s true that coal power production increased in Germany in 2012, but you have to put that into some context to understand why. What many people don’t know is that many coal power plants were previously planned for Germany.

The renewable energy revolution hasn’t increased the need for coal power plants, as many misinformers would have you believe, but has resulted in the majority being dropped. Closing of nuclear power plants, combined with high natural gas prices in Europe, however, did result in a slight rise in coal power production.

Natural gas is clearly the fossil fuel getting hit hardest in Europe at the moment. As Tino Andresen and Tara Patel of Bloomberg wrote in March 2013.

“Three years ago, Germany’s largest utility spent 400 million euros ($523 million) building a natural gas-fired power station. Later this month, the company may close the plant because it’s losing so much money.”

EON’s Irsching-5, the power plant in discussion, only operated 25% of the time in 2012!

The factors for the quick death of such an expensive plant were varied, though: “As Europe’s weak economy holds back electricity demand, cheaper coal, requirements to buy renewable energy and the collapsing cost of carbon permits are undercutting gas-fired plants.”

But it’s not only happening in Germany

“Gas-fired plants are stopped three days out of four,” Gerard Mestrallet, chief executive officer of GDF Suez, France’s former gas monopoly, said at a briefing on Feb. 28.

“The thermal industry is in crisis. There is overcapacity.”

The story is essentially the same in the Netherlands, Spain, the Czech Republic, and other European countries.

In the end, the story is actually rather simple: as more renewable energy comes on line, something has to go off line.

Aside from nuclear power plants that are being shuttered due to old age and citizen demand, the big loser at the moment is natural gas. However, coal is on its way out too, just a bit more slowly. Of course, if there was a higher price on carbon, or other fossil fuel market dynamics changed, we could see those two switch places on their way out the door.

Anything more you’d like to add? Chime in below.

Keep up to date with the hottest cleantech news by subscribing to our main cleantech newsletter, or by stalking our homepage. We’re not Kim Kardashian’s Twitter feed, but I think we’re more interesting.

This article, Europe’s Fossil Fuel Exit — 30% Of Fossil Fuel Power Capacity To Close By 2017, UBS Analysts Project, is syndicated from Clean Technica and is posted here with permission.

About the Author

Zachary ShahanZachary Shahan is the director of CleanTechnica, the most popular cleantech-focused website in the world, and Planetsave, a world-leading green and science news site. He has been covering green news of various sorts since 2008, and he has been especially focused on solar energy, electric vehicles, and wind energy for the past four years or so. Aside from his work on CleanTechnica and Planetsave, he’s the Network Manager for their parent organization – Important Media – and he’s the Owner/Founder of Solar Love, EV Obsession, and Bikocity. To connect with Zach on some of your favorite social networks, go to ZacharyShahan.com and click on the relevant buttons.