According to a recent IMF Survey Magazine article, Counting the Cost of Energy Subsidies, world-wide energy subsidies in 2015 account for $5.3 trillion or 6.5% of global GDP. The article summarises findings of an IMF working paper (see link below), which provides estimates by country, product (e.g. coal and oil) and component (e.g. global warming, local air pollution and congestion) in an Excel file
The working paper argues that energy subsidies are both larger and more pervasive than previously thought. According to the IMF Survey Magazine:
Eliminating global energy subsidies could reduce deaths related to fossil-fuel emissions by over 50 percent and fossil-fuel related carbon emissions by over 20 percent. The revenue gain from eliminating energy subsidies is projected to be $2.9 trillion (3.6 percent of global GDP) in 2015. This offers huge potential for reducing other taxes or strengthening revenue bases in countries where large informal sector constrains broader fiscal instruments.
In interpreting the findings it is important to understand how the term ‘subsidies’ is being used. According to the report, most of the $5.3 trillion “arises from countries setting energy taxes below levels that fully reflect the environmental damage associated with energy consumption.”
In other words, the term subsidy is being used whenever taxes do not fully account for the negative externalities associated with extracting and burning fossil fuels. Perhaps a better term would be ‘under-taxing’ rather than ‘subsidising’. Nevertheless the scale of not internalising externalities is huge. As Lord Nicholas Stern (author of the 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change) says:
“The failure to reflect the real costs of fossil fuels in prices and policies means that the lives and livelihoods of billions of people around the world are being threatened by climate change and local air pollution.”
But, while not taxing external costs account for more than 80% of the underpricing of fossil fuel energy, some three-quarters of these external costs relate to local environmental damage, rather than international damage such as global warming. Thus charging for these external costs would benefit primarily the local population, as well as generating revenues, and thus provides a strong argument for governments raising energy prices through increased taxes or reduced subsidies.
So which countries are the major culprits in ‘subsidising’ fossil fuels? What specific measures does the IMF recommend to tackle the problem and what countries are addressing the problem and in what ways? The working paper and articles address these questions.
Counting the Cost of Energy Subsidies IMF Survey Magazine (17/7/15)
G20 countries pay over $1,000 per citizen in fossil fuel subsidies, says IMF The Guardian, Damian Carrington (4/8/15)
Fossil fuels subsidised by $10m a minute, says IMF The Guardian, Damian Carrington (18/5/15)
How Large Are Global Energy Subsidies? IMF Working Paper, David Coady, Ian Parry, Louis Sears, and Baoping Shang (May 2015)
- Explain how energy subsidies are defined in the IMF working paper.
- What measurement problems are there in calculating the size of the ‘subsidies’?
- Draw a diagram to show how the under taxing of fossil fuel usage leads to a greater than socially optimum level of consumption of fossil fuels.
- What specific policies are pursued by the four biggest fossil fuel subsidising countries?
- What political problems are there in persuading countries to reduce fossil fuel subsidies/increase fossil fuel taxes.
- Is there a relatively high or low income elasticity of demand for energy? What are the implications of this for different income groups of policies to hold down energy prices?
Many UK coal mines closed in the 1970s and 80s. Coal extraction was too expensive in the UK to compete with cheap imported coal and many consumers were switching away from coal to cleaner fuels. Today many shale oil producers in the USA are finding that extraction has become unprofitable with oil prices having fallen by some 50% since mid-2014 (see A crude indicator of the economy (Part 2) and The price of oil in 2015 and beyond). So is it a bad idea to invest in fossil fuel production? Could such assets become unusable – what is known as ‘stranded assets‘?
In a speech on 3 March 2015, Confronting the challenges of tomorrow’s world, delivered at an insurance conference, Paul Fisher, Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, warned that a switch to both renewable sources of energy and actions to save energy could hit investors in fossil fuel companies.
‘One live risk right now is of insurers investing in assets that could be left ‘stranded’ by policy changes which limit the use of fossil fuels. As the world increasingly limits carbon emissions, and moves to alternative energy sources, investments in fossil fuels and related technologies – a growing financial market in recent decades – may take a huge hit. There are already a few specific examples of this having happened.
… As the world increasingly limits carbon emissions, and moves to alternative energy sources, investments in fossil fuels and related technologies – a growing financial market in recent decades – may take a huge hit. There are already a few specific examples of this having happened.’
Much of the known reserves of fossil fuels could not be used if climate change targets are to be met. And investment in the search for new reserves would be of little value unless they were very cheap to extract. But will climate change targets be met? That is hard to predict and depends on international political agreements and implementation, combined with technological developments in fields such as clean-burn technologies, carbon capture and renewable energy. The scale of these developments is uncertain. As Paul Fisher said in his speech:
‘Tomorrow’s world inevitably brings change. Some changes can be forecast, or guessed by extrapolating from what we know today. But there are, inevitably, the unknown unknowns which will help shape the future. … As an ex-forecaster I can tell you confidently that the only thing we can be certain of is that there will be changes that no one will predict.’
The following articles look at the speech and at the financial risks of fossil fuel investment. The Guardian article also provides links to some useful resources.
Bank of England warns of huge financial risk from fossil fuel investments The Guardian, Damian Carrington (3/3/15)
PRA warns insurers on fossil fuel assets Insurance Asset Risk (3/3/15)
Energy trends changing investment dynamics UPI, Daniel J. Graeber (3/3/15)
Confronting the challenges of tomorrow’s world Bank of England, Paul Fisher (3/3/15)
- What factors are taken into account by investors in fossil fuel assets?
- Why might a power station become a ‘stranded asset’?
- How is game theory relevant in understanding the process of climate change negotiations and the outcomes of such negotiations?
- What social functions are filled by insurance?
- Why does climate change impact on insurers on both sides of their balance sheets?
- What is the Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA)? What is its purpose?
- Explain what is meant by ‘unknown unknowns’. How do they differ from ‘known unknowns’?
- How do the arguments in the article and the speech relate to the controversy about investing in fracking in the UK?
- Explain and comment on the statement by World Bank President, Jim Yong Kim, that sooner rather than later, financial regulators must address the systemic risk associated with carbon-intensive activities in their economies.
The following video and audio podcasts look at resistance by the US oil and coal industries to measures to curb the consumption of oil and coal. Despite the clearly estabilised link between burning fossil fuels and global warming, many in the two industries reject, or at least question, the evidence. After all, it is in their commerical interests to promote the consumption of fossil fuels!
Elsewhere in the USA, interesting scientific developments are taking place to combat global warming. One measure is the production of ‘green oil’ produced from algae. Growing the algae absorbs carbon from the atmosphere.
In few areas are economic arguments so intertwined with political ones. The podcasts look at some of the issues.
Energy policy divides in the US BBC News, David Shukman (2/11/09)
America’s energy policy dilemma BBC News, David Shukman (2/11/09)
Texas takes on green energy BBC News, Roger Harrabin (1/06/09)
Ethical Man: Green revolution in Texas BBC Newsnight, Justin Rowlatt (11/3/09)
Climate plans part of wider battle over American freedom Ethical Man (Justin Rowlatt) blog (BBC) (3/11/09)
Obama urges climate change effort BBC News (3/11/09)
Al Gore on tackling global warming BBC Newsnight (4/11/09)
Al Gore on beating the ‘oil habit’ BBC Today Programme (4/11/09)
- To what extent will the free market result in a shift to greener energy sources? Why will any shifts towards greener fuels still not result in the socially or environmentally optimum use of fossil and ‘green’ fuels without government intervention?
- What policies could governments adopt to internatlise the externalities involved in burning fossil fuels?
- How suitable are cap-and-trade policies (tradable permits) for tackling global warming? What conditions are necessary for such policies to be effective?
- Why is tackling climate change politically difficult for (a) individual countries and (b) the world as a whole? How is game theory relevant to your analysis?