Subsidizing clean energy will cut carbon, but not as much as a robust carbon tax.
Many believe that devoting tax revenues to support, commercialize and bring down the price of clean energy will enable the U.S. and other societies to transition quickly and massively from fossil fuels. “No carbon tax needed,” according to this scenario; wind, solar and other renewables will out-compete fossil fuels in energy markets once they’ve been granted appropriate price supports to overcome initial hurdles to commercialization.
This idea has strong elements of truth. But we regard as wishful thinking the idea that subsidizing down the cost of clean energy can do more to push out fossil fuels than raising those fuels’ market prices through carbon taxing.
In broad terms, our view is that human appetites for energy are so boundless that, absent robust prices on carbon emissions, energy demand will outstrip the potential of even optimized and advanced solar and wind power systems. More analytically, in comments submitted to the Senate Finance Committee in 2014, we demonstrated that even a perfectly designed U.S. energy subsidy program — one that dismantled fossil fuel subsidies while buying down the price of renewable power and fuels — couldn’t compare in effectiveness to a carbon tax.
We summarized and linked to those comments in this blog post: CTC Tells Senate Finance Committee: Carbon Tax Beats Clean-Energy Subsidies, Hands Down. (Full report, 22 pages here (pdf).)
Ending direct subsidies to fossil fuels, while long overdue, will barely dent the climate crisis.
A related construct is that the U.S. and other countries massively subsidize the extraction and supply chain for fossil fuels. These subsidies are sometimes said to be the sole reason that coal, oil and gas still dominate energy supply at the expense of efficiency, wind and solar. According to this view, eliminating these subsidies — which ought to be easier politically than enacting a robust carbon tax — should take center stage in efforts to reform energy pricing and markets.
To take one example more or less at random: In a speech on the Senate floor in December 2020, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders decried the “hundreds of billions of dollars” in corporate welfare given to fossil fuel companies. (The clip, from Democracy Now! on Dec. 21, starts at around 19:25.) Yet in the United States, direct governmental support of fossil fuel exploration and production appears to be only around $22 billion a year.
While that is no small amount, it translates to a mere few percent of “end user” expenditures on fossil fuels; accordingly, taking away the $22 billion largesse, though a financial blow to the fossil fuel industry, would trigger only a few percent rise in fossil fuel prices — not nearly enough to fundamentally alter the market equations that still favor fossil fuels over renewables in much of the energy sector.
The same is true worldwide. The clearest and most comprehensive worldwide examinations of fossil fuel subsidies are a report, Counting the Cost of Energy Subsidies, and a “working paper,” How Large Are Global Energy Subsidies, both published in 2015 by the International Monetary Fund. The two IMF documents broaden the conventional definition of monetary “subsidies” to include fossil fuels’ massive externality costs — impacts on human health and climate — along with government spending to prop up their fossil fuel sectors.
The IMF graphic at right conveys at a glance that the absence of a charge for the harms caused by burning coal, oil and gas is a far greater factor in suppressing fossil fuels’ market prices than are taxpayer-funded subsidies. The remedy — the means to charge for those harms — is, of course, an explicit carbon tax.
Unfortunately, branding dirty energy’s pollution damages as a subsidy is now widespread. This, from a New York Times review of new climate-crisis books in April, 2019, is typical:
One prospective technique to scrub carbon from the atmosphere would cost $3 trillion a year, a colossal amount — but significantly less than the current level of subsidies paid out globally for fossil fuel, estimated at $5 trillion.
No, pre-tax subsidies “paid out globally for fossil fuel” are only around $330 billion a year, or one-fifteenth of the $5 trillion total, according to the IMF (see p. 17 of the IMF Working Paper). The rest is externality costs: climate harms, pollution harms, and other damages from underpriced automobile use; the antidotes to which, of course, are carbon taxes, other pollution taxes and road pricing.