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To Fight Climate Change, End Fossil-Fuel Subsidies

Op-Ed 2024-04-14, 12:14pm


Ludovic Subran

By Günther Thallinger and Ludovic Subran

MUNICH – In Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception, the linebetween reality and illusion becomes increasingly blurred. When it comes to fossil-fuel subsidies, life imitates art.Distinguishing between their perceived benefits and actual impact has proven to be a critical global challenge.

Günther Thallinger

While such subsidies may appear beneficial in the short term, they mask the profound environmental and economic consequences of our dependence on fossil fuels. Given theinterconnected threats posed by climate change, the question remains: Can we come to terms with reality and make decisions that genuinely benefit both ourselves and our planet?

Despite theinternational pledges made at the G20 summitin 2009 andthe United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in 2021 (COP26), along withthe European Union’s Green Deal and its eighth Environment Action Program, fossil-fuelsubsidies remain entrenched. According to the European Environment Agency,annual subsidies in the EU hovered around €56 billion($61 billion) between 2015 and 2021, with only a few member states taking steps to phase them out.

To be sure, thelack of action is not limited to the EU. The International Energy Agency recently reportedthat global fossil-fuel subsidies skyrocketed to more than $1 trillion in 2022, a spike largely attributed to geopolitical shocks like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which significantly disrupted energy markets.

The International Monetary Fund paints an even bleaker picture:accounting forthe insufficient taxation of carbon dioxide emissions impliesthatfossil-fuel subsidies surged to a record $7 trillion in 2022. This figure, the equivalent of7.1% of the world’s GDP, surpasses global spending on educationand nearly matches worldwide health-care expenditures.

While subsidies are often viewedas a means to address social inequalities and offerrelief to poorer households through reduced food and energy prices, they often have the opposite effect.In reality, these subsidiesdisproportionately benefitwealthier households and perpetuateunequal access to energy.Moreover, they divert crucial public funds from more effective investments that could reduce our relianceon fossil fuels and improve infrastructure, social protection, and health-care services, all of which offer greater benefits to low-income communities.

By contrast, the IMF estimates that eliminating these subsidies could prevent 1.6 million premature deaths annually, generate $4.4 trillion in revenues, and accelerate progress toward global climate goals. By maintaining energy subsidies initially designed as temporary measures, we riskperpetuating our dependence on fossil fuels.

But given that tackling social inequalities requires a phased approach,abalanced long-term climate strategy must include targeted financial support to vulnerable populations. This could involveexpanding welfare programs, retaining universal subsidies for essential goods, and boosting investment in public services that primarily benefit low-income households, such as health care, education, and infrastructure. Means-tested transfers andenergy rebates could also facilitate a smootherclimatetransition.

Similarly, low- and middle-incomecountriesmust pursuestructural reformsto enhance economic stability, deepen financial markets, and strengthen their institutions, therebyimproving their credit ratings and reducing their borrowing costs. Transparent sustainable investment disclosures and strategic use of guarantees could also helpthese countries mitigate investment risks.

The Green Climate Fundunderscores the crucial role of blended finance in helping developing countries decarbonize. Created under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Fund currently manages 216 projects with acombined value of $12 billion. When accounting for co-financing, its overall assets exceed$45 billion.

The next few years will be critical for the global transition to net-zero emissions, with technologicalinnovations playinga vital role. The EU’splan to achieve energy independence and a 55% reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030, for example,depends heavily on the development of athrivingclimate-tech sector.

But despite the need for rapid emissions reductions, Europelags behindthe United States and China. Our discussions with leaders from European climate-tech companies such as STABL, Proxima Fusion, Claims Carbon, and Electra underscored the urgency of the situation, whichtheEU must address by adopting supportive policies tostimulate the sector’s growth.

Afuture ofsustainable growth is within reach if we acknowledge the real costs of fossil fuelsand adjustour financial and political priorities accordingly. To this end, global policymakersmustoutline their plans for the energy sector, transportation networks, and information systems. By redirecting funds currently allocated to fossil-fuel subsidies, governments could meet their climate targets by 2030 and accelerate the shift to a net-zero economy.

As climate change worsens, itisincreasingly evident thatignoring the devastating consequencesof our dependence on fossil fuels is no longer an option. Achieving net-zero emissionsrequires boldpolicies such as the phaseout of fossil-fuel subsidies,as well as investment in technological innovation and a global commitment to a fair and equitable energy transition.

Günther Thallinger, a member of the Board of Management of Allianz SE, is responsible for Investment Management and Sustainability. Ludovic Subran is Chief Economist at Allianz.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2024.