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Fossil fuels subsidised by $10m a minute, says IMF

Fossil fuel subsidies currently exceed global healthcare spending.  Creative Commons: Petr Štefek, 2005.

Fossil fuel subsidies currently exceed global healthcare spending. Creative Commons: Petr Štefek, 2005.

A new report by the International Monetary Fund estimates that fuel companies are benefitting from global subsidies of $5.3tn (£3.4tn) a year, equivalent to $10m a minute every day.

The IMF calls the revelation “shocking” and says the figure is an “extremely robust” estimate of the true cost of fossil fuels.

The $5.3tn subsidy estimated for 2015 is greater than the total health spending of all the world’s governments.

The vast sum is largely due to polluters not being made to pay the external costs by the burning of coal, oil and gas. These costs include the harm caused to local populations by air pollution, as well as to people across the globe affected by extreme weather conditions driven by climate change.

Cited by the Guardian, Nicholas Stern, climate economist at the London School of Economics, said:

This very important analysis shatters the myth that fossil fuels are cheap by showing just how huge their real costs are. There is no justification for these enormous subsidies for fossil fuels, which distort markets and damages economies, particularly in poorer countries.

Lord Stern also said that even the IMF’s vast subsidy figure was a significant underestimate:

A more complete estimate of the costs due to climate change would show the implicit subsidies for fossil fuels are much bigger even than this report suggests.

The IMF, one of the world’s most respected financial institutions, said that ending subsidies for fossil fuels would cut global carbon emissions by 20%.

It would also reduce the number of premature deaths from outdoor air pollution by 50%, which amounts to about 1.6 million lives a year.

Furthermore, the IMF said the resources freed by ending fossil fuel subsidies could be an economic “game-changer” for many countries, by driving economic growth and poverty reduction through greater investment in infrastructure, health and education, as well as cutting taxes that restrict growth.

The true cost of fossil fuels

David Coady, the IMF representative in charge of the report, said: “When the [$5.3tn] number came out at first, we thought we had better double check this!” The broad picture of huge global subsidies was “extremely robust”, Coady said. “It is the true cost associated with fossil fuel subsidies.”

The IMF estimate of $5.3tn in fossil fuel subsidies represents 6.5% of global GDP.

Just over half the figure is the money governments are forced to spend treating the victims of air pollution and the income lost because of ill health and premature deaths.

The figure is higher than a 2013 IMF estimate, because new data from the World Health Organisation shows the harm caused by air pollution to be much higher than thought.

Coal is the dirtiest fuel, in terms of both local air pollution and climate-warming carbon emissions and is therefore the greatest beneficiary of the subsidies, with just over half the total.

Oil, heavily used in transport, gets about a third of the subsidy and gas the rest.

The biggest single source of air pollution is coal-fired power stations and China, with its large population and heavy reliance on coal power, provides $2.3tn of the annual subsidies.

This is followed by the US ($700bn), Russia ($335bn), India ($277bn) and Japan ($157bn). The European Union collectively allows $330bn in subsidies to fossil fuels.

The costs resulting from the climate change driven by fossil fuel emissions account for subsidies of $1.27tn a year, about a quarter of the IMF’s total.

The IMF calculated this cost using an official US government estimate of $42 a tonne of CO2 (in 2015 dollars), a price “very likely to underestimate” the true cost, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The direct subsidising of fuel for consumers accounts for just 6% of the IMF’s total.

Other local factors, such as reduced sales taxes on fossil fuels and the cost of traffic congestion and accidents, make up the rest.

The IMF says traffic costs are included, regarding increased fuel prices as the most direct way to reduce them.

UN’s climate change chief Christiana Figueres said:

The IMF provides five trillion reasons for acting on fossil fuel subsidies. Protecting the poor and the vulnerable is crucial to the phasing down of these subsidies, but the multiple economic, social and environmental benefits are long and legion.

Barack Obama and the G20 nations called for an end to fossil fuel subsidies in 2009. However, little progress had been made until oil prices fell in 2014.

In April, the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, told the Guardian that it was ‘crazy’ that governments were still driving the use of coal, oil and gas by providing subsidies.

“We need to get rid of fossil fuel subsidies now,” he said.

Reform of the subsidies would increase energy costs. However, Kim and the IMF both noted that the existing fossil fuel subsidies overwhelmingly benefit the rich, with the wealthiest 20% of people getting six times as much as the poorest 20% in low and middle-income countries.

The call for national subsidy reforms

Gaspar views the current low oil and coal prices as a “golden opportunity” to phase out subsidies and use the increased tax revenues to reduce poverty through investment and to provide better targeted support.

Subsidy reforms have been put into practice in dozens of countries including Egypt, Indonesia, Mexico, Morocco and Thailand.

In India, subsidies for diesel ended in October 2014. “People said it would not be possible to do that,” noted Coady.

Coal use has also begun to fall in China for the first time this century.

On renewable energy, Coady said:

If we get the pricing of fossil fuels right, the argument for subsidies for renewable energy will disappear. Renewable energy would all of a sudden become a much more attractive option.

Shelagh Whitley, a subsidies expert at the Overseas Development Institute, commented:

The IMF report is yet another reminder that governments around the world are propping up a century-old energy model. Compounding the issue, our research shows that many of the energy subsidies highlighted by the IMF go toward finding new reserves of oil, gas and coal, which we know must be left in the ground if we are to avoid catastrophic, irreversible climate change.

Developing the international cooperation needed to tackle climate change has proved challenging.

At the same time, a key message from the IMF’s work is that each nation will directly benefit from tackling its own fossil fuel subsidies, as Gaspar said:

The icing on the cake is that the benefits from subsidy reform – for example, from reduced pollution – would overwhelmingly accrue to local populations.

By acting local, and in their own best interest, [nations] can contribute significantly to the solution of a global challenge.

The path forward is clear: act local, solve global.

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