The Public is Clear: End Fossil Fuel Subsidies

Negotiations here at Rio+20 appear to have come to a standstill.  Member states can’t seem to agree to much of anything; the multilateral process, intended to promote ‘cooperation, compromise and dialogue’, has turned into a frantic scramble to produce ‘some’ nay ‘any’ kind of tangible outcome of the conference. So far, ‘compromise’ has meant the deletion of entire paragraphs of text that countries have been unable to agree upon.  There is a real threat here that this enormous global opportunity could be wasted.

At this crucial moment delegations would do well to take heed to civil society groups, who have had no trouble coming to consensus on some of the most important outcomes from this summit, namely ending the nearly $1 trillion annual subsidy for fossil fuels.

Over the last several weeks thousands of people around the world have voted online for their sustainable development priorities as part of the Rio-Dialogues process.  The No.1 response was “take concrete steps to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies.” In the lead up to Rio, Avaaz.org, 350.org and many others collected over a million signatures against these regressive handouts and yesterday on Twitter #endfossilfuelsubsidies was a top trending topic worldwide; while hundreds of youth and their allies marched through the Rio Centro complex to highlight that incentives for atmospheric pollution and outdated technologies are not part of the future we want. 

 The World Business Council for Sustainable Development, as part of its Vision 2050 report, said that by 2020 governments must “remove subsidies that encourage over-consumption and resource degradation.”   The Trade Union Assembly on Labour and the Environment, held last week, articulated a very different vision than the business community on many issues.  However, the two groups agreed on the importance of “fair and environmentally-sound tax policies” with labor calling for a “just transition” away from fossil fuel dependency.  Over 170 NGOs have co-signed a letter calling for a socially equitable phase out.  Similar calls have been made by other major groups for the scientific and technological community, youth and women , to name just a few.

Yet, despite all of this, over the past few days the text on subsidies has gotten increasingly weaker.  We must ask why.  One explanation is that civil society has not been given an appropriate space to voice the importance of this issue.  In an attempt to move these negotitations forward, the Brazilian government took energy negotiations behind closed doors at the beginning of the prepcom.  They facilitated discussions that included only a few key states and no representatives from civil society.  While this could be seen as a pragmatic move, ECO must dissent.  Fossil fuel subsidies are clearly a critical issue for civil society globally and must be brought into the center of deliberations in the coming days. Bringing in more voices, particularly those who have already come to consensus across ideological divides, enhances the credibility and productive potential of this process.

The Brazilian Presidency and the UNCSD have an enormous opportunity but they need to act fast.  By bringing fossil fuel subsidy reform into the heart of negotiations they can demonstrate a commitment to responsive leadership,and to the global mandate they have received.  This would significantly improve the actual and perceived legitimacy of this process and would be an important first step toward advancing a more ambitious agenda.

There are no guarantees that subsidy reform will make it into a final text.  However, there is a strong case to made that by discussing it openly we can find language acceptable to all parties. For example, it appears that some countries are worried that a phase out would undermine their ability to develop or would create a domestic political backlash.  These concerns can be assuaged by discussion that includes actors like Switzerland, Costa Rica or Ethiopia.  These delegations will surely be happy to talk about how their countries have removed perverse energy incentives and found more effective ways to protect the poor and reinvest in projects that drive positive feedbacks for sustainable development.  Civil Society groups can offer enormous insight based on their research and experience in affected communities.

We have an important choice to make.  We can continue grasping at straws over issues that are stuck in the mud or we can directly tackle one of the largest obstacles to achieving a green economy that alleviates poverty and strengthens opportunities for development.  Civil society has provided a path, now leaders need to take it.

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