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Fossil fuel subsidies in focus at climate talks

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 3, 2012 at 1:21 pm •  Published: December 3, 2012
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Many developing countries are positive toward phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, not just to protect the climate but to balance budgets. Subsidies introduced as a form of welfare benefit decades ago have become an increasing burden to many countries as oil prices soar.

"We are reviewing the subsidy periodically in the context of the total economy for Qatar," the tiny Persian gulf country's energy minister, Mohammed bin Saleh al-Sada, told reporters Monday.

Qatar's National Development Strategy 2011-2016 states it more bluntly, saying fuel subsides are "at odds with the aspirations" and sustainability objectives of the wealthy emirate.

The problem is that getting rid of them comes with a heavy political price.

When Jordan raised fuel prices last month, angry crowds poured into the streets, torching police cars, government offices and private banks in the most sustained protests to hit the country since the start of the Arab unrest. One person was killed and 75 others were injured in the violence.

Nigeria, Indonesia, India and Sudan have also seen violent protests this year as governments tried to bring fuel prices closer to market rates.

Iran has used a phased approach to lift fuel subsidies over the past several years, but its pump prices remain among the cheapest in the world.

"People perceive it as something that the government is taking away from them," said Kretzmann. "The trick is we need to do it in a way that doesn't harm the poor."

The International Energy Agency found in 2010 that fuel subsidies are not an effective measure against poverty because only 8 percent of such subsidies reached the bottom 20 percent of income earners.

The IEA, which only looked at consumption subsidies, this year said they "remain most prevalent in the Middle East and North Africa, where momentum toward their reform appears to have been lost."

In the U.S., environmental groups say fossil fuel subsidies include tax breaks, the foreign tax credit and the credit for production of nonconventional fuels.

Industry groups, like the Independent Petroleum Association of America, are against removing such support, saying that would harm smaller companies, rather than the big oil giants.

In Doha, Mohammed Adow, a climate activist with Christian Aid, called all fuel subsidies "reckless and dangerous," but described removing subsidies on the production side as "low-hanging fruit" for governments if they are serious about dealing with climate change.

"It's going to oil and coal companies that don't need it in the first place," he said.

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Associated Press writers Abdullah Rebhy in Doha, Qatar, and Brian Murphy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report

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Karl Ritter can be reached at www.twitter.com/karl_ritter