Action on fossil fuel subsidies may triumph in Rio+20 dialogues

The progress of the Rio+20 Dialogues has reinforced my worst fears about the Sustainable Energy For All initiative.

Of the ten Energy ideas put to the public vote, only one tackles energy poverty. The other nine address energy efficiency and use of renewables, by implication in rich countries. It should have been the other way around.

There are good reasons why the UN Secretary-General included goals for efficiency and renewables in his initiative. A criticism of the Millennium Development Goals is that they place no obligations on developed countries. Any new sustainable development goals are almost certain to involve all countries.

Originating in 2011, the energy goals are therefore a trailblazer for this new thinking. I’m trying to reserve judgement until the Rio proceedings are done. But something makes me uneasy about action plans which bundle the off-grid huts of an Ethiopian village together with European suburbs where households burn over 20,000 kWh per annum.

Back to the participatory online Rio+20 Dialogues. The basic idea sounded fine. The first stage invited civil society staffers to brainstorm ideas under thematic headings. Moderators then identified the most favoured proposals, shaping them up for public voting which ends later tonight.

The “winners” go forward to the Sustainable Development Dialogues, four days of open debate organised by the Brazilian government as a preliminary to the formal conference.

Voters on the energy proposals did have the good fortune to be presented with reasonably clear options. “Encourage the use of bicycles” is unambiguous, even if somewhat absurd for most of the world’s population who neither own nor can aspire to owning a car.

Recommendations appearing in other thematic sections frequently plumb the depths of development-speak. Try these for size:

  • Consolidate the principle of non-regression as a key principle for environmental and social policies.
  • Eliminate misery and poverty-rooted malnutrition
  • Strengthen solidarity financing mechanisms

The latter appears in the Water section (?!)

The most explicit proposal on Energy is to “take concrete steps to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies.” I suspect that this will capture the most votes – the argument is apparently unassailable.

It was put succinctly by Professor Nebojsa Nakicenovic in his opening remarks for this afternoon’s Energy session of the Forum on Science Technology and Innovation, organised by the International Council for Science.

He explained that additional global investment of $500 billion per annum is required to achieve the goals of the Sustainable Energy For All initiative. And the current level of fossil fuel subsidies around the world? Yes, it’s more than $500 billion.

Nothing is that simple, however. A significant chunk of these subsidies is provided by developing countries where people are too poor to be able to cope with the consequences of their removal.

Even a rise in bus fares can leave families short of money to buy food – which itself rises in price when fuel costs rise. The Nigerian government was forced into a U-turn on subsidy removal by public protest earlier this year.

It’s therefore with a slightly heavy heart that I read that plans a major escalation of its campaign against fossil fuel subsidies to coincide with Rio+20. Bill McKibben’s activist group doesn’t do campaigning by halves:

On 18 June, we are going to unleash a 24-hour social media storm — an online push united by one single message: #EndFossilFuelSubsidies

Of course, a political agreement on subsidies could make concessions for developing countries. But I would feel more comfortable if the website made an effort to disclose the nuances of this campaign to its supporters.

There’s a real distinction between US subsidies of big oil and Indian subsidies of kerosene and LPG used by poor households as their energy source.

There’s no reference to fossil fuel subsidies in the Key Issues for Rio+20 briefing document published yesterday by the influential Third World Network. This document is effectively a Rio+20 guidebook for developing country negotiators.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK