Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States have pledged to phase out subsidies – but many are still in place
By Lin Taylor
LONDON, June 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The world’s major industrial democracies spend at least $100 billion each year to prop up oil, gas and coal consumption, despite vows to end fossil fuel subsidies by 2025, a report said on Monday ahead of the G7 summit in Canada.
Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States – known as the Group of Seven (G7) – pledged in 2016 to phase out their support for fossil fuels by 2025.
Electricity, the thing we all use but don’t really notice, has unexpectedly become a hot topic under President Trump.
Why it matters: His administration is mulling bailouts for coal and nuclear power plants in a questionable attempt to strengthen the electricity grid. Meanwhile, this winter’s cold snaps drove up New England’s power bills and Puerto Rico is still grappling with one of the world’s worst power outages. Here’s a primer + glossary to help light the way.
Energy vs. electricity
They’re not the same thing. Energy is the type of resource used to make electricity. Once they’re in the power lines, electrons are the same regardless of whether they came from wind turbines or coal plants.
America’s electricity resource mix is increasingly diverse: Natural gas and coal are each about 30%, nuclear power 20%, and renewable energy makes up most of the rest.
The electricity grid
This is a catch-all phrase describing America’s electricity infrastructure, most visibly through the power lines you see along the road.
The grid isn’t monolithic. Several, mostly separate, power grids exist across the country. Within each grid, there are different types of markets. Some are set up in an auction-based system where electricity sources compete, and others are not.
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9 out of 10 people worldwide breathe polluted air, but more countries are taking action
Air pollution levels remain dangerously high in many parts of the world. New data from the World Health Organization (WHO) released today, shows that 9 out of 10 people breathe air containing high levels of pollutants. Updated estimations reveal an alarming death toll of 7 million people every year caused by ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution.
“Air pollution threatens us all, but the poorest and most marginalized people bear the brunt of the burden,” says Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO. “It is unacceptable that over 3 billion people – most of them women and children – are still breathing deadly smoke every day from using polluting stoves and fuels in their homes. If we don’t take urgent action on air pollution, we will never come close to achieving sustainable development.”
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Multimillion dollar project will scan and make public methane leaks from oil and gas plants that are a major contributor to global warming
Methane leaking from oil and gas facilities around the world – a major contributor to global warming – is set to be spotted from space.
The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has announced it aims to launch a satellite called MethaneSAT by 2021 to scan the globe and make major leaks public. That information will then enable governments to force action, EDF hopes. Building and launching the satellite will cost tens of millions of dollars, but EDF says it has already raised most of the money.
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in the short term, and is responsible for about a fifth of human-caused climate change. The oil and gas industry is to blame for about a third of anthropogenic methane emissions, from fracking and other exploration sites, and from leaky pipelines. Read more
Sometimes air pollution is easy to see. It billows off the top of smoke stacks, and out the tailpipes of cars zooming down the highway. Misty smog hangs in the air in cities like Delhi, Beijing, and Los Angeles, fracturing sunlight into a muted haze.
Most of the time, though, dirty air just looks like air. About 92 percent of the world’s population, and more than half the people in the United States, live in areas with unhealthy air quality. The World Health Organization calls air pollution the world’s “largest single environmental health risk,” and it leads to the premature deaths of millions annually. It’s a major public health problem for reasons you might expect: breathing in dirty air isn’t good for your lungs, and the the connection between the lungs and the cardiovascular system means it puts pressure on your heart, too.
But it’s increasingly clear that the effects of air pollution aren’t constrained to body parts below the shoulders—they can hurt the brain in a whole host of ways, many of which researchers are still trying to understand. One major area of interest? The way exposure to polluted air can affect the cognitive development of babies and children. Researchers aren’t shocked to find that an environmental toxin could harm young brains, because they’ve seen it happen before.
“To me, air pollution is kind of the next lead, in a way,” says Deborah Cory-Slechta, a professor of environmental medicine at the University of Rochester. Read more
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For now, however, we’re still moving in the opposite direction: Carbon dioxide emissions from the use of coal, oil and natural gas increased 1.4 percent globally in 2017 after holding steady for the previous three years, the International Energy Agency reported on Thursday. That’s the equivalent of adding 170 million new cars to the road worldwide.
The energy agency, which called the findings “a strong warning for global efforts to combat climate change,” detailed several big reasons CO₂ emissions are increasing again. Here’s a look at the main ones:
Emissions are rising fastest in Asia
Roughly two-thirds of last year’s emissions increase came from Asia, where fast-growing countries like China, India and Indonesia continue to rely heavily on fossil fuels as they lift themselves out of poverty.
China, which is responsible for one-quarter of the world’s industrial greenhouse gases, saw its emissions rise 1.7 percent in 2017, fueled by rapid economic growth and an increase in oil and natural gas use. The rest of developing Asia, including India and Indonesia, saw their overall emissions increase 3 percent.
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Nearly every country in the world regulates air pollution. But how much pollution control is enough? Answering that question requires considerable information about the costs as well as the benefits of regulation. Historically, efforts to measure benefits have focused on averting major health insults, such as respiratory or cardiovascular events that result in hospitalizations or death, which typically only afflict the most vulnerable segments of the population. These health episodes are clearly consequential—e.g., the U.S. Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 avert an estimated 160,000 deaths and 86,000 hospitalizations annually—but may only represent the tip of the proverbial iceberg, compared to the number of cases of respiratory impairment and other health insults that affect many healthy people every day but do not require hospitalizations or even formal health care encounters. The ubiquity of these less lethal impacts, revealed by emerging economic research on labor productivity and human capital accumulation, suggests that even modest impacts at the individual level can add up to considerable, society-wide impacts across the globe.
For decades, pollution and its harmful effects on people’s health, the environment, and the planet have been neglected both by Governments and the international development agenda. Yet, pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and death in the world today, responsible for an estimated 9 million premature deaths.
The Lancet Commission on pollution and health addresses the full health and economic costs of air, water, and soil pollution. Through analyses of existing and emerging data, the Commission reveals pollution’s severe and underreported contribution to the Global Burden of Disease. It uncovers the economic costs of pollution to low-income and middle-income countries. The Commission will inform key decision makers around the world about the burden that pollution places on health and economic development, and about available cost-effective pollution control solutions and strategies. Read more
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Most energy subsidies go not to renewables but to producing more of the dirty stuff.
The coal industry and its allies in the Trump administration have recently devoted considerable energy to arguing that subsidies to renewable energy have distorted energy markets and helped drive coal out of business. “Certain regulations and subsidies,” says Rick Perry, “are having a large impact on the functioning of markets, and thereby challenging our power generation mix.” You can guess which regulations and subsidies he’s talking about.
This is nothing new, of course. It is in keeping with a long conservative tradition of challenging the economic wisdom and effectiveness of energy subsidies.
At least, uh, some energy subsidies.
Energy analysts have made the point again and again that fossil fuels, not renewable energy, most benefit from supportive public policy. Yet this fact, so inconvenient to the conservative worldview, never seems to sink in to the energy debate in a serious way. The supports offered to fossil fuels are so old and familiar, they fade into the background. It is support offered to challengers — typically temporary, fragmentary, and politically uncertain support — that is forever in the spotlight.
So let’s change that. Let’s talk about “certain regulations and subsidies” — namely, the ones propping up US fossil fuels.
Three recent analyses can help. The first does the yeoman’s work of tallying up federal and state energy subsidies. The second shows the effect those subsidies have on oil and gas production. And the third shows how thoroughly the US coal industry is propped up by regulatory policy. Together, they paint a clear picture: The profits of US fossil fuels are built on a foundation of government assistance.
All right then. First: What gets subsidized, and how much?
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