This paper examines subsidies for the consumption of fossil fuels provided by developing countries and oil-exporting countries. (In what follows all unqualified references to fuel subsidies are to subsidies for the consumption of fossil fuels, including electricity that is generated by combusting fossil fuel. Thus neither production subsidies nor subsidies for other types of energy, such as hydro, solar, wind, and nuclear, are considered.6 In this context, “consumption” does not mean only household consumption; it includes consumption by business and governments.) The next section describes the negative effects of fuel subsidies mentioned above in greater detail. Although emphasis in this paper, as in most of the literature and in policy discussions, is on eliminating fuel subsidies, it should be emphasized that reforming fuel subsidies does not necessarily mean eliminating them quickly. There may be cases in which temporary, limited, and well-targeted fuel subsidies are appropriate. No effort has been made to identify these cases, which would require case-by-case analysis of the situation in particular countries. Progress has been made in recent years in reducing or eliminating subsidies to the consumption of fossil fuels, but much remains to be done.7 Section III discusses briefly how fuel subsidies are defined, describes the price-gap methodology commonly used in cross-country comparisons of consumption subsidies, indicates some shortcomings in that methodology, and notes that the level of subsidies is quite sensitive to international fuel prices, moving in concert with them. Section IV presents estimates of fossil fuel consumption subsidies for the 37 countries on which the International Energy Agency has complete data. The section then briefly describes some of the implications of eliminating subsidies, focusing on potential budget impacts in countries that, as a fraction of GDP, run significant budget deficits and spend significant amounts on fuel subsidies. Fuel consumption subsidies are often defended as alleviating poverty, and some subsidies may further this objective. But, because fuel subsidies are often poorly targeted, the distributional impact of many subsidies is regressive, or at best proportionate to income. Regressivity is especially likely in most of the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa and some of those in Asia, where only a small minority of the population – fewer than 10 percent in many countries – uses modern fuels and may not even have access to them. It is often the middle class who benefit the most from fuel subsidies – and who defend them most adamantly.8 Section V discusses the distributional impact of eliminating subsidies, which varies from country to country, as well as by the type of fuel subsidized. Although fuel subsidies are costly and are not well-targeted to relieve poverty, eliminating subsidies may impose onerous burdens on the poor. It may thus be necessary, for humanitarian as well as political reasons, to accompany subsidy reform with measures to alleviate the burden on the poor. Section VI examines measures that can be used to protect the poor when fuel consumption subsidies are reformed. Lack of space and expertise precludes discussion of the important issues involved in implementing fuel subsidy reform, including means of increasing support for reform by addressing distributional concerns.9 The use of biomass (firewood, charcoal, straw, agricultural residue, or dung) or coal for cooking and heating has several serious disadvantages: inter alia, emissions of GHGs are greater than with fossil fuels other than coal, dangerous indoor air pollution leads to impaired health, especially for women and small children, use of biomass often requires devotion of many hours to gathering fuel, again commonly by women and children, and, where dung is used for fuel, it causes deterioration of soil fertility. In recent years substantial attention has been devoted to assuring access to clean energy for all.10 An alternative argument for subsidizing the use of fossil fuels, albeit one that probably does not explain the prevalence of subsidies, is thus to induce poor households to shift from biomass and coal (solid or “traditional fuels”) to modern (non-solid) fuels (kerosene, gas, and electricity). Section VII discusses the use of fuel subsidies to encourage consumers to switch from traditional fuels to modern fuels. A short concluding section draws some tentative conclusions, based on the analysis presented earlier. There is clearly a strong case for reforming subsidies to the consumption of fossil fuels, as reform would improve environmental, economic, and budgetary, performance in countries now providing fuel subsidies. Care must be taken, however, to avoid or offset adverse effects on the real income of the poor.
McLure, Charles E. Jr., "Reforming Subsidies for Fossil Fuel Consumption: Killing Several Birds with One Stone" (2013). International Center for Public Policy Working Paper Series. 52.