Tuesday, May 08, 2012

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."


John77 said...

Those of us who recognise that burning the odd trillion tons of coal must have warmed the planet can be embarassed by junk like this. Variations in solar radiation are the dominant cause for secular temperature variations and we can do zilch about them - hence the FALL in global temperatures in the last few years. There is NO subsidy for fossil-fuel companies, just consumer fuel-price subsidies in a few energy-exporting countries, which are far exceeded by taxes on fuel in energy-importing countries.
It has obviously escaped Mr Hanson's notice that ALL fossil fuels have been created by carbon sequestration so burning them would be carbon-neutral and restore the earth's atmosphere to the status quo ante. Hence all his arguments about the natural state are nonsense.
I want to reduce energy waste as this is the only factor affecting "Global warming" that we can control (so, as far as possible I use my feet or public transport) but I also care about the truth. PLEASE can we have some honest guys to promote the case against burning more fossil fuel than necessary

SadButMadLad said...

What do you mean by the "energy balance" of the Earth?

David Thorpe said...

SadButMadLad: The energy balance of the Earth is the balance between the solar energy entering the Earth's atmosphere and the heat that is permitted to leave it by the greenhouse gas layer around the atmosphere. The fact that in recent history up to now the amount coming in has been more or less the same as the amount going out has stabilised the Earth's temperature and has permitted life to exist as we know it on the planet. By adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere less of this heat is permitted to leave and therefore the average global temperature is rising at a much faster rate than at any time in the Earth's history (as determined from fossil and other records etc.). This is dangerous as ecosystems cannot adapt fast enough. This is what we mean by climate change.

David Thorpe said...

John77: You are misinformed. There are nowadays no respectable scientists who believe that variations in solar radiation are the dominant cause for global average temperature increase. There has been no fall in average global temperatures in recent years, in fact the opposite is true. The reason there has been an energy balance that has permitted our civilisation to rise, as described in my answer to the other comment above, is because the carbon in the coal that was originally taken from the atmosphere, as you say, and as Mr Hansen recognises, has been sequestered in the ground.

By taking fossil fuels out of the ground and returning the carbon they contain to the atmosphere we are causing the average temperature to increase, by preventing less heat from leaving the planet than arrives from the sun.

The status quo ante that you refer to was a time when the temperature of the Earth was hotter. Life on Earth could probably adapt if it were to become hotter than it is now, but only if it had sufficient time to do so. It is the rate of increase of the average global temperature that is the problem. This rate of increase is much faster than at other times of transition in the past, when it took tens of thousands of years not decades. At the current rate of increase, given the amount of extra greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, we are facing a 6°C rise in temperature, according to no less an authority than the International Energy Agency [see http://www.eaem.co.uk/news/iea-warns-energy-ministers-last-chance-avoid-catastrophe], which itself has many times been accused of being a mouthpiece for fossil fuel companies as I am sure you will know. If they believe that this danger is real, then I have every confidence that it is.

Anonymous said...

Wow, only 45 pounds or about $70 or so in subsidies? Considering that every person on earth averages $11,000 a year, a $70 subsidy is peanuts. Thanks for the heads up James Hansen.

Climate alarmism is a dead faith.


David Thorpe said...

It's actually a very long suicide note. In fact leaders of the Group of 20 (G20) major economies committed in Pittsburgh in 2009 to phase out, over the medium-term, inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption.

At the time OECD Secretary General Angel Gurria urged developing and rich nations to phase out the subsidies urgently.

"As they (nations) look for policy responses to the worst economic crisis of our lifetimes, phasing out subsidies is an obvious way to help governments meet their economic, environmental and social goals," Gurria said at the press briefing.

If you don't listen to the OECD or the IEA, Conservative, mainstream organisations, who on earth do you listen to?

It's your grandchildren and their descendants who are really going to be suffering.

John77 said...

Oh dear
So the ability of the Romans to grow grapes and the habit of skating on the Thames in the seventeenth century and Ice Ages and woolly mammoths are all fictions and part of a plot by the evil fossil fuel companies?
Pull the other one!
I suggest that you go and check data on global average temperatures for the last decade. Even the widely distrusted UEA show a decline in the last few years http://www.cru.uea.ac.uk/ - and they were backing the screams about 2010 being the hottest year in England until suddenly it wasn't.
It wasn't a massive increase in CO2 levels that ended the Ice Ages.
Are you claiming that there is not a single respectable archaeologist?
Also there's this group that call themselves scientists somewhere over to the west of the Atlantic -
By taking fossil fuels out of the ground and burning them we are heating up the earth and its atmosphere. Full Stop. What do you think is the point of a kitchen fire?
If you would care to read *all* of my post you will find "I want to reduce energy waste as this is the only factor affecting "Global warming" that we can control". I don't need the IEA to warn me of the danger - I have been aware of it for a long time and installed solar panels last century.

John Mason said...

Wow John, you sure are some Gish-Galloper!

Readers wishing to unravel all of these talking-points, arranged one on top of the other rather like a motorway pile-up, are encouraged to visit:


The page lists the most frequently-met-with anti-climate science myths and debunks them: we are now up to #173 and no doubt there will be more to come, although I think we'd draw the line at "it's nothing to do with CO2, it's the leprechauns".....

However, let's take a quick look at your first post where you cherrypick "a few years" (inadequate in terms of climate trends where you need to look at a minimum of 30 years - and if you check out Dr Roy Spencer's satellite records the temperature ghas not fallen in any case, but that's by the by. You go on to opine:

"It has obviously escaped Mr Hanson's notice that ALL fossil fuels have been created by carbon sequestration so burning them would be carbon-neutral and restore the earth's atmosphere to the status quo ante. Hence all his arguments about the natural state are nonsense."

a) it may have escaped your attention, but the fossil fuels have formed over a timespan of a few hundred million years; b) returning all that stuff to the atmosphere over a few hundred is therefore carbon neutral in the most extreme sense that can be imagined, c) the last time a large carbon-spike of the type you apparently favour occurred it was accompanied by a mass-extinction and d) whilst a Hothouse climate may be more representative of the Phanerozoic, a geologically-orderly transition to it is desirable whereas a rapid one of several centuries is not.

Hope that helps.