Shall the gigantic subsidies to fossil fuels cease?

The “Polluter pays” principle is well and widely accepted among policy makers and industries. Applying this principle is the basis on which, e.g., modern waste management and recycling systems are successfully built – and the construction continues. The consumer is increasingly often put in the driver’s seat, when new waste minimization and recycling initiatives are introduced.

Maybe the most striking exception to these practices is carbon dioxide from the use of fossil resources – primarily as fuels. Managing carbon dioxide waste by the same principles and practices would mean that the cost of removing carbon dioxide waste from the atmosphere should be added to the consumer prices of fossil fuels, and that the industry should arrange the removal. The same division of responsibilities would hereby be applied to CO2 recycling.

Not applying the “polluter pays” principle and good waste management practice to carbon dioxide waste means a huge subsidy to fossil fuels. Based on the rough numbers available, the CO2 collection cost alone would add some 250$ to the price of an oil barrel. Incidentally, the cost of planting forest and growing a corresponding amount of wood to do the collection – and also the first step of recycling – is of similar magnitude. This translates into gigantic (actually even larger, “terantic” or trillions of dollars) annual subsidies to the use of fossil resources, globally.

The fact that the subsidies given to the use of renewable fuels and power are marginal when compared to those poured to fossil fuels, doesn’t mean that subsidizing renewables is always a good idea. Subsidies tend to cause forgetfulness in critical thinking. When there is a shortage of good ideas, the danger of this happening is, of course, even bigger. Lignocellulosic ethanol or cracking of wood into carbon monoxide and hydrogen for synthesis gas do not look like good ideas – at least not for now. The mounting challenge is to find better ideas for renewable power and fuels.

It’s clear that adding the high cost of CO2 capture and recycling to consumer prices of fossil fuels cannot be done suddenly, and better ideas don’t just pop up, either. Time and thoughtful work is needed. Gradual but steady implementation of good waste management and recycling also to carbon dioxide waste, thus removing the huge subsidies from fossil fuels, say, over the next 15 to 20 years might be a solution.  Announcing such program would show the right direction to investors but leave it to innovative companies and research institutes to provide competing ideas and technologies.

I realize that the weak link getting this done is policymaking, especially as it takes wide international cooperation. But, considering the power of young generations, efficiently connected by social media, maybe even this could happen.

Whatever we do or leave undone to develop sustainable fuels and power, stakes rise as years go by. Better get serious soon.