This group brings together the best thinkers on energy and climate. Join us for smart, insightful posts and conversations about where the energy industry is and where it is going.


Everyone on the planet helps subsidise fossil fuels by £45 per year

NASA's James Hansen
NASA’s James Hansen  

Fossil fuel companies get between $400 and $500 billion in subsidies per year. This must end.

The first major scientist to alert the world to the dangers of climate change, NASA’s James Hansen, has issued a new challenge to the world based on the latest science surrounding the issue.

In a new paper published on the NASA website, Scientific Case for Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change to Protect Young People and Nature, he calls for governments around the world to stop using public funds to subsidise fossil fuels.

If anything is holding back investment in clean tech to save the planet, this is.

Fossil fuel subsidies

The paper uses scientific analysis to calculate the world’s total subsidies to oil, coal and gas companies at between $400 and $500 billion per year.

That’s about £45 for each man woman and child on the planet.

This hardly seems possible, but this is a peer-reviewed paper.

Moreover, these companies are not required to pay their costs to society.

The paper notes that air and water pollution from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels kills over one million people a year and affects the health of many more.

But its greatest costs are likely to be the impact of climate change.

The greenhouse gas emissions from our use of fossil fuels up to now are only a fraction of the potential emissions from known reserves and potentially recoverable resources.

With shale gas, tar sands and other technologies we are seeing more and more of these reserves become economically recoverable.

Without legislation from governments to the contrary, and with these subsidies, there is no doubt that they will be recovered.

Hanson and his co-writers place the blame for the lack of action by the world’s political leaders on the “undue sway of special financial interests on government policies aided by pervasive public relations efforts by organisations that profit from the public’s addiction to fossil fuels”.

In other words by overt and covert lobbying of politicians and political parties by the fossil fuel industry and those that benefit from it.

It is understandable, if not scientifically acceptable, that the UK government wants to continue to exploit the fossil fuel reserves within its waters and under its soil, such as shale gas. After all, other countries are doing.

But it must, morally, resist the temptation.

The scientific imperative is undeniable, and the longer we wait, the harder it will be.

If emission reductions began this year the required rate of decline is 6% to restore the energy balance of the Earth and stabilise the climate by the end of the century.

If reductions are delayed until 2020 the required level of reduction is 15% per year.

If we had begun in 2005 it would have been just 3% per year.

That is the rate of acceleration of the problem.

This transition to a post-fossil fuel world of clean energy will not occur as long as fossil fuels remain so cheap and the market does not incorporate their full cost.

After discussing the current consensus level of scientific understanding of the issues, and outlining all of the possible implications for humanity and the planet, Hanson argues that the initiation of the phase-out of fossil fuel emissions is urgent and that it is necessary to garner public support to fight such influence.

This depends upon persuading the majority that a prompt, orderly transition to a post-fossil fuel world is technically feasible and economically beneficial, aside from its benefits to the climate.

A matter of morality

The costs of climate change, loss of biodiversity, acidification of the ocean, loss of food supply, international conflict, refugee problems and so on will all be borne by young people and future generations.

This makes the issue “a matter of morality; a matter of intergenerational justice”.

Hansen and his co-writers conclude their paper by comparing the moral challenge of climate change to that of slavery, “an injustice done by one race of humans to another”, so “the injustice of one generation to all those to come must stir the public’s conscience to the point of action”.

Hanson expresses surprise that more young people are not shouting for change. Perhaps they are disillusioned with politics or unaware of the threats and possibilities.

But he does put his faith in the judicial system. He says that in some nations it may be possible to apply legal pressure to governments to develop realistic plans to protect the rights of young people and those yet to be born.

“Such a legal case the young people should demand plans for emission reductions”, the paper argues.

Carbon tax

It then discusses what economic levers might be employed to engage the transition to a post-carbon future, plumping for a carbon tax.

It quotes economic analysis that indicates that a tax beginning at $15 per tonne of carbon dioxide per year and rising by $10 per ton each year would reduce U.S. emissions by 30% within 10 years.

He is not a supporter of-and-trade because politically it has not found favour.

But a rising price for carbon emissions would not be sufficient on its own. The writers advocate considerably more investments in clean energy and carbon efficiency standards for buildings, vehicles and other products; global climate monitoring systems including and climate mitigation and adaptation in undeveloped countries the planting of forests.

I will let James Hansen and his co-writers finish this piece in their own, eloquent, words:

“The era of doubts, delays and denial, of ineffectual half-measures, must end. The period of consequences is beginning.

“If we fail to stand up now and demand a change of course, the blame will fall on us, the current generation of adults.

“Our parents did not know that their actions could harm future generations.

“We will only be able to pretend that we did not know. And that is unforgiveable.”

David Thorpe's picture

Thank David for the Post!

Energy Central contributors share their experience and insights for the benefit of other Members (like you). Please show them your appreciation by leaving a comment, 'liking' this post, or following this Member.


douglas card's picture
douglas card on May 10, 2012 11:44 pm GMT

Thanks David.  So happy to be made aware of this.  Did you get this information to HuffPo?  You need to do that for us.

Jesse Parent's picture
Jesse Parent on May 11, 2012 3:07 pm GMT

This depends upon persuading the majority that a prompt, orderly transition to a post-fossil fuel world is technically feasible and economically beneficial, aside from its benefits to the climate.

Unfortunately for homo-sapiens, the tried and true method of “if it’s not hurting me right now, it doesn’t matter”, may be entirely problematic for dealing with this sort of problem. This is said with the thought of “why does it have to be technically feasible or economically beneficial if it actually preserves your ability to live?”

If this line of trending plays out, there will eventually be a choice between the comfort of our current ‘standard of living’ (particularly the US), and the environmental and ecological constraints of the planet, which are the underlying supports for the current standard of living. It won’t matter if it’s economically fun or who profits once things get bad enough — should things continue.

The problem is, however, that the tangible issues of profit, of ‘where do we supply our energy needs!”, of a growing population, are all much more pressing than the questions of ‘what should our energy needs be?” and “what is the planet’s actual capacity for whatever lifestyle we want to pursue?”. Those questions may be answered unconsciously by way of focusing on other priorities. Either way they will be answered, regardless of how much thought is put into the answer, or priority given to the process.


“We will only be able to pretend that we did not know. And that is unforgiveable.”

If the worst case scenarios happen, the future of humanity will have several generations to learn the consequences of the last several generations.


I think one takeaway that can be applied regardless of one’s personal feelings about climate change is that the future is going to further necessitate the understanding and respect for our inter-connectedness. If globalization was about understanding how markets span the world, the broader result of this insight is realizing that the planet is a unified system upon which all people reside. Particularly now with population rising and no ‘new continents’ to populate or discover, there are real economic choices to be made: limited resources faced with unlimted wants.

This is what is different about the present. And I say, this is why we need to be ever more careful and intentional about our future. Our, because it is ‘ours’; we’re all on this planet together, like it or love it.

Get Published - Build a Following

The Energy Central Power Industry Network is based on one core idea - power industry professionals helping each other and advancing the industry by sharing and learning from each other.

If you have an experience or insight to share or have learned something from a conference or seminar, your peers and colleagues on Energy Central want to hear about it. It's also easy to share a link to an article you've liked or an industry resource that you think would be helpful.

                 Learn more about posting on Energy Central »