Renewables receive three times as much money per energy unit as fossil fuels.
By BJORN LOMBORG
For 20 years the world has tried subsidizing green technology instead of focusing on making it more efficient. Today Spain spends about 1% of GDP throwing money at green energy such as solar and wind power. The $11 billion a year is more than Spain spends on higher education.
At the end of the century, with current commitments, these Spanish efforts will have delayed the impact of global warming by roughly 61 hours, according to the estimates of Yale University's well-regarded Dynamic Integrated Climate-Economy model. Hundreds of billions of dollars for 61 additional hours? That's a bad deal.
Yet when such inefficient green subsidies are criticized, their defenders can be relied on to point out that the world subsidizes fossil fuels even more heavily. We shouldn't subsidize either. But the misinformation surrounding energy subsidies is considerable, and it helps keep the world from enacting sensible policy.
Three myths about fossil-fuel subsidies are worth debunking. The first is the claim, put forth by organizations such as the Environmental Law Institute, that the U.S. subsidizes fossil fuels more heavily than green energy. Not so.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimated in 2010 that fossil-fuel subsidies amounted to $4 billion a year. These include $240 million in credit for investment in Clean Coal Facilities; a tax deferral worth $980 million called excess of percentage over cost depletion; and an expense deduction on amortization of pollution-control equipment. Renewable sources received more than triple that figure, roughly $14 billion. That doesn't include $2.5 billion for nuclear energy.
Actual spending skews even more toward green energy than it seems. Since wind turbines and other renewable sources produce much less energy than fossil fuels, the U.S. is paying more for less. Coal-powered electricity is subsidized at about 5% of one cent for every kilowatt-hour produced, while wind power gets about a nickel per kwh. For solar power, it costs the taxpayer 77 cents per kwh.
Critics of fossil-fuel subsidies, such as climate scientist Jim Hansen, also suggest that the immense size of global subsidies is evidence of the power over governments wielded by fossil-fuel companies and climate-change skeptics. Global fossil-fuel subsidies do exceed those for renewables in raw dollars—$523 billion to $88 billion, according to the International Energy Agency. But the disparity is reversed when proportion is taken into account. Fossil fuels make up more than 80% of global energy, while modern green energy accounts for about 5%. This means that renewables still receive three times as much money per energy unit.
But much more important, the critics ignore that these fossil-fuel subsidies are almost exclusive to non-Western countries. Twelve such nations account for 75% of the world's fossil-fuel subsidies. Iran tops the list with $82 billion a year, followed by Saudi Arabia at $61 billion. Russia, India and China spend between $30 billion and $40 billion, and Venezuela, Egypt, Iran, U.A.E., Indonesia, Mexico and Algeria make up the rest.
These subsidies have nothing to do with cozying up to oil companies or indulging global-warming skeptics. The spending is a way for governments to buy political stability: In Venezuela, gas sells at 5.8 cents a gallon, costing the government $22 billion a year, more than twice what is spent on health care.
A third myth is propagated by a recent International Monetary Fund report, "Energy Subsidy Reform—Lessons and Implications." The organization announced in March that it had discovered an extra $1.4 trillion in fossil-fuel subsidies that everyone else overlooked. Of that figure, the report claims, $700 billion comes from the developed world.
U.S. gasoline and diesel alone make up about half of the IMF's $700 billion in alleged subsidies. Gasoline and diesel deserve more taxation, the report says, so the IMF counts taxes that were not levied as "subsidies." Thus air pollution merits a 34-cents-per-gallon tax, according to the IMF models, while traffic accidents and congestion should add about $1 per gallon.
According to the IMF, the U.S. also should have a 17% value-added tax like other countries, at about 80 cents per gallon. The combined $350 billion such taxes allegedly would raise gets spun as a subsidy.
The assumptions behind the IMF's math have some problems. The organization assumes a social price of carbon dioxide at five times what Europe currently charges. The air-pollution damages are upward of 10 times higher than the European Union estimates. And what do traffic accidents have to do with gasoline subsidies?
Finally, the IMF effectively ignores the 49.5 cents per gallon in gasoline taxes the U.S. consumer actually pays. The models cancel out this tax, inexplicably, with an "international shipping cost." But even if you accept the IMF's estimated pollution costs and the European-style VAT, the total tax the IMF says goes uncollected comes to only about 44 cents per gallon—or less than the actual U.S. tax of 49.5 cents per gallon. The real under-taxation is zero. The $350 billion is a figment of the IMF's balance sheet.
Inaccurate information of this sort is needlessly misinforming public policy. I'm in favor of ending global fossil-fuel subsidies—and green-energy subsidies. Subsidizing first-generation, inefficient green energy might make well-off people feel good about themselves, but it won't transform the energy market.
Green-energy initiatives must focus on innovations, making new generations of technology work better and cost less. This will eventually power the world in a cleaner and cheaper way than fossil fuels. That effort isn't aided by the perpetuation of myths.
Dr. Lomborg, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, is the author of "How Much Have Global Problems Cost the World? A Scoreboard from 1900 to 2050" (Cambridge, 2013).