Blog Post

The European Green Deal must cut hidden fossil fuel subsidies

Brussels should ensure that fossil fuels do not get direct or indirect support from governments

By: Date: March 4, 2020 Topic: Energy & Climate

One of the basic ideas in economics is that you tend to get the best results if people or firms that take decisions have to take account of all the benefits and costs. Climate change and pollution perhaps represent the two most evident examples of situations where that may not happen. Emitters and polluters have no incentive to consider the impact of their emissions and pollution for society as a whole. It is what economics textbooks call an ‘externality’: the adverse effects of greenhouse gas emissions or pollution are ‘external’ to the market, which means there is usually only an ethical – rather than an economic – incentive for firms and consumers to reduce their emissions. That is, when free markets do not maximise society’s welfare, they are said to ‘fail’ and policy intervention may be needed to correct them or, more precisely, to internalise them. The most common way governments and institutions do so is to impose a tax on the producers of a negative externality. This is could be done to encourage a polluter to reduce their emissions. It is interesting to note that this principle is 100-year-old, as Arthur Cecil Pigou – an economist of the University of Cambridge – first introduced the concept of externalities and the idea of correcting them with a tax in 1920.

As the EU develops its European Green Deal, it is important to evaluate whether European countries are successfully internalising the climate externality, or not. To do so, it is crucial to analyse how fossil fuels are currently subsidised. Combustion of fossil fuels is the main cause of climate change, and phasing-out fossil fuels is the primary solution. Consequently, the main climate policy is to ensure that fossil fuels do not get direct or indirect support from governments.

Fossil fuel subsidies can be measured in two different ways. The first is a narrow measure, termed pre-tax subsidies, which simply reflects differences between the amount consumers actually pay for fuel use and the corresponding cost of supplying the fuel. The second is a broader measure, termed post-tax subsidies, which reflects differences between actual consumer fuel prices and how much consumers would pay if prices fully reflected supply costs plus the taxes needed to reflect environmental costs and revenue requirements.

While the international debate tends to focus on the first measure of subsidies, it seems more sensible to focus on the second, broader, measure as this is the only way to unveil the eventual ‘hidden subsidies’ given to fossil fuels simply by not properly internalising (i.e., taxing) their environmental costs including climate change, local air pollution traffic congestion and traffic accidents.

The most accurate estimation of global post-tax subsidies is provided by the International Monetary Fund. According to that, EU post-tax subsidies stood at $261 billion in 2015 – with the top-4 subsidisers being Germany ($72 billion), France ($35 billion), Poland ($29 billion) and Spain ($25 billion) (Table 1).

In the context of the European Green Deal, President von der Leyen proposed a Sustainable Investment Plan to mobilise a “green investment wave” of € 1 trillion over ten years. To put things into perspective, the cumulative amount of current € post-tax subsidies projected over ten years goes well beyond € 2 trillion.

This implies that in the context of the European Green Deal, it will be of paramount importance to push for the full internalisation of fossil fuels’ environmental externalities. Hence, Europe’s current carbon pricing system needs to be substantially scaled up.

Today, only half of European emissions are priced, and carbon prices remain too low to drive significant behavioural changes. So, it is clear that carbon prices should go wider and higher. A meaningful carbon price should be established for all sectors, by reforming and strengthening the EU emissions trading system (ETS) and by pushing EU countries to increase the price for emissions not covered by the ETS through a reform of the Energy Taxation Directive.

These two policy actions should be prioritised in the context of the European Green Deal, as they are the only ones that could contribute to the elimination of the ‘hidden subsidies’ Europe still grants every year to fossil fuels. This is the first real step that should be taken to seriously pursue the 2050 climate neutrality path.

The author is grateful to Ian Parry and Georg Zachmann for useful comments.

 

Table 1. EU post-tax subsidies to fossil fuels, 2015 (USD billions)

Gasoline Diesel Natural gas Coal Total
Austria 0 2 0 1 3
Belgium 1 3 2 1 7
Bulgaria 0 1 0 4 5
Croatia 0 0 0 1 1
Cyprus 0 0 0 0 0
Czech Republic 0 1 1 11 14
Denmark 2 3 0 0 6
Estonia 0 0 0 0 0
Finland 0 1 0 1 2
France 4 24 4 3 35
Germany 5 20 7 39 72
Greece 0 1 0 3 4
Hungary 0 1 1 2 4
Ireland 1 2 1 0 3
Italy 0 3 7 4 14
Latvia 0 0 0 0 0
Lithuania 0 1 0 0 1
Luxembourg 0 2 0 0 2
Malta 0 0 0 0 0
Netherlands 1 3 3 3 10
Poland 1 2 2 24 29
Portugal 0 1 1 1 2
Romania 0 1 1 8 10
Slovak Republic 0 0 1 1 2
Slovenia 0 0 0 1 1
Spain 3 15 3 4 25
Sweden 2 2 0 1 5
TOTAL EU 22 89 37 113 261

Source: Bruegel elaboration on IMF, Energy Subsidies Template, 2019


Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint. Anyone is free to republish and/or quote this post without prior consent. Please provide a full reference, clearly stating Bruegel and the relevant author as the source, and include a prominent hyperlink to the original post.

Read article More by this author
 

Opinion

Why China should fear the EU's carbon border tax

Expect Beijing to soon start lobbying against the proposal.

By: Alicia García-Herrero Topic: Energy & Climate, Global Economics & Governance Date: July 26, 2021
Read article More on this topic More by this author
 

External Publication

A Safety Net for the Green Economy

How to protect workers hurt by the fight against climate change.

By: Simone Tagliapietra Topic: Energy & Climate Date: July 20, 2021
Read article More by this author
 

Blog Post

The European Union’s carbon border mechanism and the WTO

To avoid any backlash, the European Union should work with other World Trade Organisation members to define basic principles of carbon border adjustment mechanisms.

By: André Sapir Topic: Energy & Climate, Global Economics & Governance Date: July 19, 2021
Read article More on this topic
 

Blog Post

Making sure green household investment pays off

Policies are needed to support green fuel switching by households; support should be phased out as the carbon price rises.

By: Ben McWilliams and Georg Zachmann Topic: Energy & Climate Date: July 19, 2021
Read about event
 

Upcoming Event

Sep
3
10:15

Sustainable finance

Bruegel Annual Meetings, Day 3 - In this session on the final day of the Meetings, our panelists will discuss the future of finance and its sustainability.

Speakers: Maria Demertzis, Alberto De Paoli, Pierre Heilbronn and Alexandra Jour-Schroeder Topic: Energy & Climate, Finance & Financial Regulation Location: Palais des Académies, Rue Ducale 1, Brussels
Read article More on this topic More by this author
 

Podcast

Podcast

A fitting plan for the European Green Deal?

How does the world's first roadmap for meeting climate goals stack up?

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: Energy & Climate Date: July 15, 2021
Read article Download PDF
 

External Publication

Building the Road to Greener Pastures

How the G20 can support the recovery with sustainable local infrastructure investment.

By: Mia Hoffmann, Ben McWilliams and Niclas Poitiers Topic: Global Economics & Governance, Testimonies Date: July 15, 2021
Read article More on this topic More by this author
 

Opinion

‘Fit-for-55’ package: Squaring the circle

The European Union finds itself at the centre of a three-dimensional puzzle. Burdens need to be shared between 450 million citizens, 25 million businesses and EU countries in a way that is acceptable to enough of them.

By: Georg Zachmann Topic: Energy & Climate Date: July 15, 2021
Read article More by this author
 

Blog Post

Fit for 55 marks Europe’s climate moment of truth

With Fit for 55, Europe is the global first mover in turning a long-term net-zero goal into real-world policies, marking the entry of climate policy into the daily life of all citizens and businesses.

By: Simone Tagliapietra Topic: Energy & Climate, European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: July 14, 2021
Read article More on this topic More by this author
 

Blog Post

The EU green bond standard: sensible implementation could define a new asset class

The proposed EU green bond standard will be less prone to ‘greenwashing’, and the widest possible set of issuers and jurisdictions should be encouraged to use the standard.

By: Alexander Lehmann Topic: Finance & Financial Regulation Date: July 13, 2021
Read article More on this topic
 

Blog Post

A breakdown of EU countries’ post-pandemic green spending plans

An analysis of European Union countries’ recovery plans shows widely differing green spending priorities.

By: Klaas Lenaerts and Simone Tagliapietra Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: July 8, 2021
Read article Download PDF More on this topic More by this author
 

Policy Contribution

The risks from climate change to sovereign debt in Europe

European Union institutions and national fiscal authorities should incorporate climate risk in debt sustainability analysis.

By: Stavros Zenios Topic: Energy & Climate Date: July 8, 2021
Load more posts