The Madness of Fossil Fuel Subsidies

A system worried about global warming and the health impacts of air pollution should stop aiding companies that produce those public threats, writes Niklas Hagelberg.

 By Niklas Hagelberg
in NAIROBI, Kenya
Inter Press Service

Fossil fuels — oil, gas, coal and their derivatives — pollute the atmosphere and emit the greenhouse gases that are ramping up global heating to dangerous levels. And governments around the world are subsidizing this pollution.

Historically, governments used fossil fuel subsidies for a variety of reasons, including to promote energy independence, encourage industry and cushion the poorest in society.

But they never took sufficient account of what economists call “externalities” such as air pollution and the resulting impacts on our health.

There is a special kind of madness in a system that funds the healthcare burden from asthma, respiratory diseases and lung cancer, and at the same time funds companies that pollute the air and contribute towards these health issues in the first place.

Canvassing against fossil fuel subsidies in suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, 2013.
(Takver via Flickr)

Ordinary people pay the price three times over — taxes for healthcare, taxes to support fossil fuel subsidies and then the ultimate price of compromises to their health. Air pollution claims the lives of 1-in-9 every year and is the single biggest health risk facing people across the world. Fossil fuel subsidies often fail to benefit targeted groups and are a significant drain on national budgets.

Redirecting Resources

Global fossil fuel subsidies cost taxpayers about $400 billion. Imagine if these public resources were directed to finance sustainable development, clean energy and climate action.

Fossil fuel subsidies disproportionately benefit the top oil majors, help their profit margins and serve as a powerful disincentive to develop renewable energy. They also reduce the available pot of resources for investment in renewables.

Countries that heavily subsidize these fuels of the past are stifling the current and future business and economic opportunities that renewable energy provides.

Redirecting the money used for fossil fuel subsidies has the potential to accelerate our ability to address the global climate crisis, and ensure a just decarbonization. The additional resources could also be used for other development priorities such as health, education or infrastructure.

The planet can no longer afford these subsidies. We should move to scrap them as soon as possible and make the switch to a green economy.

Changing Energy Landscape 

Solar farm in California desert. (Bureau of Land Management via Flickr)

The energy transition is happening now, all around us. The growth rate of renewables is three times faster than fossil and nuclear fuel, with record growth rates in solar and wind power. 

However, despite the rapid pace of change, the bulk of all our power for heating, lighting, cooking, transport and industry still comes from fossil fuels.

A major way to reduce air pollution — which exceeds World Health Organization safety levels in many cities around the world — is to switch more quickly away from fossil fuels. We should eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, except for liquefied petroleum gas cooking programs.

UN Environment, in collaboration with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the International Institute for Sustainable Development Global Service Initiative, has developed a methodology to measure fossil fuel subsidies, providing comparable data to allow the tracking of national and global trends.

The report helps governments to understand the extent of the problem (for example what percentage of their Gross Domestic Product they spend on fossil fuel subsidies) and take action to reduce or abolish these subsidies.

Niklas Hagelberg is coordinator of the Climate Change Programme at UN Environment.

This article is from Inter Press Service.

39 comments for “The Madness of Fossil Fuel Subsidies

  1. Branimir
    June 10, 2019 at 02:35

    What a stupid article.

  2. Brian James
    June 9, 2019 at 10:40

    Mar 14, 2017 Japan to build 45 coal power plants. Why? Renewables are failing

    Japan tried to move forward with solar and wind energy, but found it to be expensive and unreliable. Thus, Japan hopes to get over 30% of their electricity from coal by 2040. Could the U.S. learn a thing or two from our ally?

    • Joe
      June 10, 2019 at 13:55

      The US could learn to accelerate the coming extinction event by burning more fossil fuels.
      All the human species requires is solar power source. We did just fine with it for millions of years.
      If the same investments had been in solar that have been made in fossil fuels and nuclear we could have been solely on solar today.
      The reason investments were and continue to be made in fossil fuels and nuclear is the ability to control the power source and turn a profit. The man does not care about the Earth or you. All he cares about is lining his pockets with cash.

  3. Brian James
    June 9, 2019 at 10:36

    Mar 1, 2017 Green energy is eating its own tail – Roger Helmer MEP

    Dec 3, 2018 Green lobby folly reduces food production – Stuart Agnew MEP

    08/13/15 The Dark Side of Renewable Energy: Negative Impacts of Renewables on the Environment

    What scientists, engineers, companies, and nations expanding their power capacities need to focus on, is implementing solutions that keep negative impacts of renewables in check.

  4. PeterSapo
    June 9, 2019 at 10:32

    CN should verify facts before publishing such propaganda pieces from the United Nations.

    The UK did not operate on 100% renewables for 100 days as stated in this article. Such a statement is completely ridiculous and an obvious lie. The Independent suggests the UK recently went 100 hours, or just over 4 days without coal. They achieved this through increased gas powered electricity generation. Why was n’t such a blatant lie picked up by the editor(s)?

    Why would the author suggest that liquid petroleum gas should have subsidies ended for all purposes except cooking? Do they have something against electrical hot plates?

    About the only thing that I can agree with in this article is the need for clean air. If you live in a crowded city or near a coal fired power plant, you’d want to know that carcinogenic particulates and lung irritants/acid rain agents such nitrous oxides are being captured and appropriately treated/processed via various traps and catalytic scrubbers as the human and environmental implications are massive if they aren’t.

    Since evidence free sweeping conclusions are the go in this article, I’ll wrap up my comment concluding that if we diverted the alleged 400 billion in fossil fuel subsidies into nuclear fusion research, then all our energy problems will be solved. If we also take the trillions in renewable energy subsidies to divert to the same purpose, then they could have been solved yesterday.

    • dean 1000
      June 10, 2019 at 08:12

      Diverting 400 billion in fossil fuel subsidies into nuclear fusion research won’t do anything to solve the energy problem. Nuclear fusion research has been a sink hole.
      How many nuclear fusion powered cars are on the road right now? There are more electric cars on the road everyday.
      The government has subsidized industry and research decade after decade after decade. Only electric subsidies have panned out. Subsidies are now losers. Make the conversion to clean, efficient energy Now by using all energy subsidies to fund lotteries that give away electric cars and roof top hybrid systems. The Dept of Energy will do the lotteries.

      • PeterSapo
        June 12, 2019 at 09:01

        Thank you dean 1000 for such an entertaining reply.

  5. Brian Burry
    June 8, 2019 at 23:04

    You can go back to horse and buggies and I will enjoy my Hummer as I have everyday for 16 years of functional bliss:))

    • Yahweh
      June 9, 2019 at 18:37

      Typical mindset of the Americans….burn baby burn !! Life is a party until it isn’t, right Brian. What do you get maybe 4 to 5 mpg…..a fool and his wealth soon part ways…..Party!!!!

      • Josep
        June 10, 2019 at 22:29

        I know, right? Some Americans seem to justify continued (over)use of oil by saying that God put it all there for us to use. I can’t put my finger on why, but it just seems fallacious; didn’t that same God (a.k.a. Yahweh or Jehovah) also give us the brains to research and develop something better?

        And while we’re at the American mindset, let’s not forget this article from PJMedia: With these neocons (judging from their slavish support for Israel and NATO), size and consumption are cherished at the expense of resource efficiency.

  6. mike k
    June 8, 2019 at 17:56

    How can any citizen of the US not see that their government is dangerously insane? Only if those citizens were insane themselves would they not be able to see this simple fact.

    • CitizenOne
      June 8, 2019 at 20:23

      Only if those citizens were completely propagandized would they not be able to see this simple fact.

  7. Ed
    June 8, 2019 at 12:53

    Ending these subsidies won’t hurt the industry, they will just pass the cost to consumers. This will end up hurting the working poor the most. The uber, lift, and taxi drivers.
    We cant just end subsidizing oil and gas and just use the money to invest in renewables. You still need to help the working poor deal with the increase burden we just gave them.

    • yahweh
      June 9, 2019 at 18:39

      Very true !!!

  8. Bob In Portland
    June 8, 2019 at 12:27

    Regarding the cost of fossil fuel: When calculating how much fossil fuels cost the US and the Earth, we should not disregard the price of our military adventures around the world.

    It’s not a coincidence that “Bad men” like Khadafy, Saddam, whoever runs Iran, and Putin in Russia all just happen to live in countries that have lots of oil. Add to that countries that have strategic value for moving oil from source to market (Ukraine, Syria) and you have pretty much the US foreign policy of the 20th and 21st centuries. (Funny that such a clever person like Rachel Maddow has never noticed this.)

    When the US develops yet another weapons system, starts a war or backs a coup, the money spent has been for the betterment of our Exxons et al. So whatever the cost of our petroleum-based economies make sure to add the cost of our wars and conquests to the total.

    • CitizenOne
      June 8, 2019 at 20:16

      In the conservatives minds there is an extreme view that oil is literally the blood that allows the beating heart of the economy to continue. In its defense or in service to it we all take a vow to defend the free flow of oil if necessary by force of arms. We all benefit from the strong US military that is quick to meet any challenge to the supply of oil. The ideology then furthers the logic to include invading other countries with nationalized oil corporations like Venezuela and Iran. Why? Because oil that is not under the control of the big multinationals is being mismanaged by corrupt often socialist regimes or by governments opposed to western values.

      The problem with that thinking is number one, oil consumption is killing the planet through global warming. The other problem is there is no plan B. We never discover the replacement for oil and never look back laughing about how crazy we were before we found out about all the other ways we could power the planet.

      I agree that subsidies should be ended. If oil companies pass on the cost so what. Since nobody cares about fuel efficiency they can’t complain about the cost of their poor choices.

      • Bob in Portland
        June 9, 2019 at 11:23

        I agree with just about everything you write. But the US and its owners have never been about the free flow of oil. Rather, it’s about control of oil. There is nothing free about US attempts to shut down numerous Russian attempts at running pipelines into Europe. Natural gas is a lot cheaper than American gas, which costs more to extract from fracking, then costs even more by shipping it on LNG tankers across the Atlantic, than pipelines that Russians offer.

        And one reason why Russia is building new pipelines is because Ukraine has proven to be an unreliable partner in allowing Russian gas pipelines to continue functioning over its territory. Soon after the US-backed coup in Ukraine there were rumblings within the installed government that they would shut down or sabotage those lines, thus cutting off natural gas to Europe via their territory.

        Since then the US, through its State Department and intelligence agencies, has slowed or stopped proposed pipelines under the Black Sea to the Balkans and a proposed pipeline through Turkey. Considering the failed coup attempt in Turkey and the current arguments over F-35 sales to it, Turkey may continue moving closer to Russia.

        Other energy-poor allies in the EU are not embracing the idea of paying a premium for US gas. When things unfold at these current flashpoints expect the beginning of the end for a US-dominated EU/NATO.

        • CitizenOne
          June 10, 2019 at 00:22


          I agree with your correction to my statement, “In its defense or in service to it we all take a vow to defend the free flow of oil if necessary by force of arms”. I agree with your correction that “the US and its owners have never been about the free flow of oil. Rather, it’s about control of oil.” I was basically trying to say the same thing understanding that the free flow of oil we seek is solely on our terms and not for the national interests of any nation except the US. Our national interests are what is behind every foreign action such as the support for Saudi Arabia, the attempts at overthrowing the government of Venezuela and the saber rattling and general thrust for war against Iran by the current administration. Mike Pompeo and John Bolton are the servants of the US oil corporations that have placed these two people in charge of US foreign relations and not in support for any other oil corporations outside the control of the US. They paid a lot of money to have these guys sit in charge of the attempts to control the oil in Venezuela and Iran. They are paid to deliver that oil into US control even if it means war or military coups. I stand corrected. Thank you sir! Your insights into US military actions in Ukraine and Syria for the roles they play which potentially threaten the “free” (US Controlled) flow of oil are also valuable.

          The foreign policies of the US are dominated by oil interests yet we rarely hear this angle in the news. Instead we are always fighting socialism or restoring freedom or fighting terrorist nations or facing our old cold war enemies in a showdown between superpowers. All of these motives have an underlying goal. Control over oil.

  9. David McGruer
    June 8, 2019 at 11:21

    While I know for sure the global warming s are is all wrong, I agree government should get out of all subsidies and in fact out of the economy altogether. By interfering it can only create net harm.

    • Bob In Portland
      June 8, 2019 at 12:30

      Your comment is hard to decipher, but global warming is demonstrably real. Having government out of economic matters shows a degree of naivete that is mind-boggling.

  10. June 8, 2019 at 10:53

    There are no fossil fuel “subsidies.” The figure is based mostly on the supposed costs of co2 on the environment. “Renewable” resources actually get the subsidies. Note that I support a co2 tax that is phased in over decades.

    • Bob In Portland
      June 8, 2019 at 12:30

      Oil depletion allowance, for one.

  11. Dennis Rice
    June 8, 2019 at 10:16

    I have no problem with decreasing use of fossil fuels. As we do so, however, let’s keep in mind those who work in these fields and who feed their families by these works. Granted they are less in number than the rest of us, but they still have to eat. That said, let’s get on with decreasing dependence on fossil fuels. Solving the problem is more complex than just talking about it.

    • Bob in Portland
      June 9, 2019 at 11:25

      I’m still worried about all the whalers who lost their jobs when they supply of energy dried up.

    • M Miller
      June 10, 2019 at 11:04

      I’m also worried about all the drivers who will lose their jobs to self-driving vehicles, and the skilled/semi-skilled who will continue to lose out to increasingly sophisticated automation. But…it’s crunch time.

  12. Charles
    June 7, 2019 at 19:45

    Here in Canada subsidies are part of the tax code, going to be hard to take away from one industry and not another

  13. Tom Kath
    June 7, 2019 at 18:56

    “Virtue signalling” , “Echo chamber”, blah, blah

    • Bob In Portland
      June 8, 2019 at 12:33

      Not sure of your point, but if it’s virtue signaling to oppose oil wars, count me in. If it’s virtue signaling to want a livable world for my granddaughter, I’m sorry it offends you.

      • Tom Kath
        June 8, 2019 at 21:20

        Funny how a vast majority of these virtuous people in the echo chamber, worried about a future for their children and grandchildren, don’t actually have any.

        • Bob in Portland
          June 9, 2019 at 11:29

          I’ve got a lovely little granddaughter. It doesn’t seem realistic to post a picture of her, and a close examination of your question reveals more about you than people who want to preserve the environment.

          She’s as cute as a button. By the way, Tom, it’s funny how many people would rather believe the mouthpieces for Big Oil than scientists. Why do you suppose that is?

  14. Jill
    June 7, 2019 at 13:43

    Ben Norton reports on US attorneys arguing that: “Americans don’t have a right to “a climate capable of sustaining human life” (see his twitter feed). Thus either this planet is being terraformed for our alien overlords or we are truly ruled by the criminally insane (or maybe both!)

    What I have noticed is that the nations which currently hold sway over the earth are run by religious zealots, most of whom are christian armageddenists. (Family members include Muslims and Jews as Christians in their wacky ideology.) I include in this list the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia with lessor lights such as the UK, etc. (For information on The Family, see Jeff Sharlot).

    These people, like many armageddenists before them, want to hasten the end of the world. Evidently, they think this will be a glorious end times of burning lakes of fire and screams of the damned, or somehow they plan to not be on this earth while the catastrophe they created comes to its final conclusion.

    Our beautiful planet and all its myriad life forms may be gone soon. I’m really not certain there is much we can do to stop this as it appears to me that we have reached the tipping point and can’t really go back. Nevertheless, I still believe it is incumbent upon all those of good will towards our earth and its lifeforms to try and save these most precious beings.

    No political “leader” will save us. We need to stand up for this planet by all peaceful means possible. Respond to an earlier article related to this one–no one needs nukes, no one. We need full, immediate, verifiable disarmament of all nukes no matter who has them.

    I see the beautiful faces which surround me and I don’t believe I will see them that much longer. That’s my real feeling. But I’m going to keep trying even though I feel defeat is nearly certain. If we do not try, defeat is 100% certain. I cannot hardly deal with the sense of loss I feel.

    • Tennegon
      June 7, 2019 at 18:59

      Virtually every word of your comment resonates with me, Jill. Our beautiful Earth, and all we are so capable of knowing, and yet things appear so desperately, maddeningly dire.

      I do not hold out much actual hope that humans will change enough, along anywhere near the timeline required, to avert the collapse of a life-sustaining climate. There are just too many disgusting addictions to which the vast majority have succumbed, never questioning that it is in existential conflict with Nature.

      The one positive in your comments is consistent with my own approach, in that I am determined to find and savor the positive in my surroundings, primarily in our global community, along with the remants of the beautiful planet we inhabit, while we still do.

      Thank you for contributing.

    • Richard Bluhm
      June 8, 2019 at 09:46

      You are right. We fight evil because it’s evil and not because we are going to win. It would be nice to win nonetheless.

    • CitizenOne
      June 8, 2019 at 13:28

      It is too late. The scientists have not adequately modeled for eventualities like thawing of permafrost, melting of methane hydrates, sea level rise, global dimming etc. They are off to Thwaites Glacier to see if we are just totally hosed or massively screwed depending on how high the oceans will rise when this one glacier pops up off its grounding line. Will it be five feet or fifteen feet? Will it be in twenty years or fifty? Our children will find out. We are at best only several generations away from the massive destruction caused by a runaway greenhouse event. It will be one of the big mass extinction events and it will last for eons.

      Why am I saying this? Because there is no hope that the greedy global oil interests will ever stop or will ever be stopped. Exxon Mobile is hiring consultants and lawyers to train executives, not for a new business model, but for better ways to defend the current one. Charles and David Koch have given a lot of “philanthropy”to questionable causes often aligned with climate change pseudoscience which inevitably either completely denies climate change exists or if it does exist it is because of natural causes not man made causes. Our government leads the way with Congress even attempting to make the very mention of global warming or climate change illegal.

      The great distraction of the corporate funded media filled with corporate propaganda, misinformation and lies throws elections to leaders who will absolutely do nothing about it.

      We have the answers. Nuclear power is a great option and some countries have been very successful. Thorium reactors are another great option but the government killed these off back in the seventies. And of course all the renewables are great options. Circular carbon like biodiesel has its place too but alas when the Navy and the Air Force attempted to fuel their ships and planes with bio fuel Congress again stepped in and made that illegal too.

      Plus the fact that the, never to be mentioned, phenomenon of Global Dimming due to pollution is giving all the liars and deniers credibility in the eyes of the public since as long as they keep that a secret they have plausible deniability for their claims.

      We are being fooled and betrayed. I have no doubt that one day we will finally wake up only to find we are inside our tomb.

    • Jon
      June 8, 2019 at 21:33

      Your sir are a true bummer. Life goes on just fine, as it always has…

      • Bob in Portland
        June 9, 2019 at 11:39

        “Life goes on just fine, as it always has…”

        One thought line insinuated into the denier side of the climate debate is the absolute control of a higher power (God, if you will) over things like climate in the face of evidence all around us. I’ve read Wilhelm Reich’s THE MASS PSYCHOLOGY OF FASCISM, and more recent studies) that conservative minds are generally more aligned with a hierarchical view of the world. Parental authority, religious fundamentalism, even racism, all support the other belief systems of this type. “God was, is and ever will be, just like our climate, never mind that this is the third time this month that I’ve been flooded out of my house” kind of thinking.

        Life doesn’t go on just fine. Humans are destroying it daily.

    • Monod-Broca
      June 9, 2019 at 19:18

      UK didn’t live a hundred days with renewable energy. It lived thoses days without coal generated electricity.
      50 percent of its electricity came from gas powered plants ans british citizen kept driving cars ..

    • M Miller
      June 10, 2019 at 11:08

      I feel the same. I have two children and a gnawing sense of fear and impotent urgency haunt me daily.

      I’m willing to face whatever, but it is difficult to bear responsibility for exposing others to the same fate.

Comments are closed.