Monday, 18 June 2012

Tweeting Against Fossil Fuel Subsidies is Fine, but...

There is a 24-hour "Twitterstorm" currently running to mark the Rio+20 environmental conference in Brazil.  The #EndFossilFuelSubsidies tweet-a-thon is being organised by environmental group, to help push the issue onto the agenda of world leaders attending the conference.

The logic behind the campaign is obvious: fossil fuel combustion is the single largest source of man-made greenhouse gas emissions.  We burn excessive fossil fuels in part because we fail to factor their environmental impact into the price.  Carbon taxes and cap-and-trade schemes are intended to help send more accurate (higher) price signals and thereby reduce demand.  However, not only are we failing to implement aggressive carbon pricing schemes, nations around the world actually offer  billions of dollars of subsidies that lower the price of fossil fuel production and consumption. Other subsidies are non-financial: relaxing environmental restrictions in protected areas reduces compliance costs for fossil fuel producers, making it easier to increase supply at a given price.

 What would compel otherwise rational decision makers to support such an illogical policy?  In a nutshell, it's a lack of joined up thinking.  Why subsidise fossil fuel production?  To shift the supply curve out to the right - increasing supply, reducing price, or both, as seen below:

Why do we need to increase supply?  Because we are consuming increasing quantities of fossil fuels.  Why are we consuming so much? Because we are not using renewables.  Because our buildings are inefficient, and we travel long distances in inefficient vehicles, and we manufacture large quantities of products in inefficient factories.

Why subsidise fossil fuel consumption? Because otherwise influential voters would revolt, poorer members of society would face fuel poverty, and manufacturers would threaten to take jobs elsewhere. Why are voters, households and employers sensitive to the price of fuel? Because their homes, vehicles and buildings use energy inefficiently and because they do not generate much, if any, of their own local power.

In other words, when confronted with the challenge of people using energy wastefully and failing to use locally available renewables, national leaders have responded with subsidies that boost production and lower the price of fossil fuels!  You can see how policy makers might find this response rational on a case-by-case basis, but from a broader systems perspective the case for these subsidies becomes ludicrous.  This "solution" becomes even more appalling when one considers the environmental cost.

A "big-picture" systems view can tackle these challenges simultaneously from an economy-wide and a local level.  If it is too expensive to drive vehicles long distances when people must face the full cost of fuel, then we can find ways to reduce vehicle miles per person or per tonne of goods: putting homes or factories closer to offices, increasing fuel efficiency, and using mass transit to reduce the number of cars people need to own.  If fuel costs are making homes unaffordable and businesses uncompetitive, then we can find ways to get the same benefits with less fuel: switch to renewables, where the "fuel" (sunlight, wind, etc) is free; or improve building and appliance efficiency so less energy is wasted.

#EndFossilFuelSubsidies is a clever campaign, but we need more systems-level thinking if it is to become more than a slogan that disappears after 24 hours.