“We distort reality when we omit the health and environmental costs associated with burning fossil fuels from their prices,” says Lester R. Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute (EPI).
When governments actually subsidize their use, they take the distortion even further, the founder and former president of the Worldwatch Institute, wrote in a [data highlight](http://www.earth-policy.org/data_highlights/2012/highlights24), adapted from his book [“World on the Edge”.](http://www.earth-policy.org/books/wote)
Worldwide, he says, direct fossil fuel subsidies added up to roughly $500 billion in 2010. Of this, supports on the production side totaled some $100 billion. Supports for consumption exceeded $400 billion, with $193 billion for oil, $91 billion for natural gas, $3 billion for coal, and $122 billion spent subsidizing the use of fossil fuel-generated electricity.
“All together, governments are shelling out nearly $1.4 billion per day to further destabilize the earth’s climate.”.
**Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China…**
The president of Earth Policy Institute, which he founded in 2001 “to provide a plan of a sustainable future along with a roadmap of how to get from here to there,” give some concrete examples:
The government of Iran spent the most on promoting fossil fuel consumption in 2010, doling out $81 billion in subsidies. This equaled more than 20 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Saudi Arabia was a distant second at $44 billion. Rounding out the top five were Russia ($39 billion), India ($22 billion), and China ($21 billion).
Kuwait’s fossil fuel subsidies were highest on a per capita basis, with $2,800 spent per person. The United Arab Emirates and Qatar followed, each spending close to $2,500 per person.
Carbon emissions could be cut in scores of countries by simply eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, says Brown. Some countries are already doing this. Belgium, France, and Japan have phased out all subsidies for coal, for example.
“As oil prices have climbed, a number of countries that held fuel prices well below world market prices have greatly reduced or eliminated their motor fuel subsidies because of the heavy fiscal cost. Among those reducing subsidies are China and Indonesia.”
Even Iran, which was pricing gasoline at one fifth its market price, dramatically reduced its gasoline subsidies in December 2010 as part of broader energy subsidy reforms.
**Only 66 Billion Dollars for Renewable Energy**
In contrast to the $500 billion in fossil fuel supports in 2010, renewable energy received just $66 billion in subsidies—two thirds for electricity generation from wind, biomass, and other sources, and one third for biofuels.
Not only do fossil fuel subsidies dwarf those for renewables today, but a long legacy of governments propping up oil, coal, and natural gas has resulted in a very uneven energy playing field, according to Brown.
“A world facing economically disruptive climate change can no longer justify subsidies to expand the burning of coal and oil.”
The International Energy Agency projects that a phaseout of oil consumption subsidies by 2020 would cut oil use by 3.7 million barrels per day in that year.
“Eliminating all fossil fuel consumption subsidies by 2020 would cut global carbon emissions by nearly 5 percent while reducing government debt. Shifting subsidies to the development of climate-benign energy sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal power will help stabilize the earth’s climate, Brown concludes.
**2011: A Year of Weather Extremes, with More to Come**
Meanwhile, EPI released on January 31 an impacting [analysis](http://www.earth-policy.org/indicators/C51/temperature_2012) by Janet Larsen and Sara Rasmussen, alerting that the global average temperature in 2011 was 14.52 degrees Celsius (58.14 degrees Fahrenheit).
According to NASA scientists, they add, this was the ninth warmest year in 132 years of recordkeeping, despite the cooling influence of the La Niña atmospheric and oceanic circulation pattern and relatively low solar irradiance. Since the 1970s, each subsequent decade has gotten hotter—and 9 of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred in the twenty-first century, according to Larsen and Rasmussen.
Each year’s average temperature is determined by a number of factors, including solar activity and the status of the El Niño/La Niña phenomenon, they add. But heat-trapping gases that have accumulated in the atmosphere, largely from the burning of fossil fuels, have become a dominant force, pushing the Earth’s climate out of its normal range, add the report.
“The planet is now close to 0.8 degrees Celsius warmer than it was a century ago. Hidden within annual averages and expected variability are startling instances of new temperature and rainfall records in many parts of the world—weather extremes that would once be considered anomalies but that now risk becoming the new norm as the Earth heats up.”
**Second Wettest Year on Record**
The Worldwide, 2011 was the second wettest year on record over land. (The record was set in 2010, which also tied 2005 as the warmest overall.), Heavier deluges are expected on a warmer planet; each temperature rise of 1 degree Celsius increases the amount of moisture the atmosphere can hold by about 7 percent. Higher temperatures also can fuel stronger storms, say Larsen and Rasmussen.
Brazil started the year with the deadliest natural disaster in its history: in January, a month’s worth of rain fell in a single day in Rio de Janeiro state, leading to floods and landslides that killed at least 900 people. That same month, flooding in eastern Australia covered an area nearly the size of France and Germany combined. Overall, it was the third wettest year in Australia since recordkeeping began in 1900.
**The Most Expensive Weather Disaster**
The most expensive weather disaster of 2011 was the flooding in Thailand in the second half of the year, which ultimately submerged one third of the country’s provinces. At $45 billion worth of damage—equal to 14 percent of Thailand’s gross domestic product—it was also the costliest natural catastrophe the country ever experienced, according to their analysis.
In October, more than 100 people died as two storms—one from the Pacific and the other from the Caribbean—pounded Central America with rain. In western El Salvador, nearly 1.5 meters of rain (almost 5 feet) fell over 10 days. And in December, Tropical Storm Washi hit the Philippines, creating flash floods that killed more than 1,200 people.
The 2011 Atlantic hurricane season had 19 named storms. Hurricane Irene brought extreme flooding to the northeastern United States in August, with total damages topping $7.3 billion. The year was the wettest on the books for seven states in the country, while it was among the driest for several others.
Although the extremes appear to balance out, making for a near-average year, in fact a record 58 percent of the contiguous United States was either extremely wet or extremely dry in 2011.
**Overwhelmed by Rain, Overwhelmed by Dryness**
Indeed, as is expected on a hotter planet, while some parts of the globe were overwhelmed by rain in 2011, others were distinguished by dryness. A severe drought in the Horn of Africa that began in 2010 devolved into a crisis situation in 2011, characterized by crop failure, exorbitant food prices, and widespread malnutrition, say Larsen and Rasmussen.
“Exacerbated by chronic political instability and a belated humanitarian response, the death toll may have exceeded 50,000 people.”
James Hansen, director of NASA’s [Goddard Institute for Space Studies,](http://www.giss.nasa.gov/) writes that the likelihood of such extreme heat waves “was negligible prior to the recent rapid global warming.”
**All-time Temperature Highs**
Worldwide, seven countries set all-time temperature highs in 2011: Armenia, China, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Republic of the Congo, and Zambia. Interestingly, Zambia also was the only country to experience an all-time low temperature when it dropped to -9 degrees Celsius (16 degrees Fahrenheit) in June, the analysis adds.
Larsen and Rasmussen give some examples: Kuwait experienced the year’s highest temperature, with thermometers measuring a searing 53.3 degrees Celsius (127.9 degrees Fahrenheit), the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth during the month of August.
Even more threatening to health than daytime highs are extra hot nighttime minimum temperatures, which do not allow any respite from the heat. The world’s hottest 24-hour minimum ever—41.7 degrees Celsius (107 degrees Fahrenheit)—was recorded in Oman in June 2011.
**A Warm Arctic?**
“Even the Arctic had a notably warm year, with the 2011 temperature a record 2.2 degrees Celsius (4 degrees Fahrenheit) above the mean for 1951–80. Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost U.S. city, spent a record-breaking 86 consecutive days at or above freezing, far more than the previous record of 68 days set in 2009.”
In fact, over the last 50 years temperatures in the Arctic have risen more than twice as fast as the global average, melting ice and thawing permafrost, the analysis’ authors inform.
Arctic sea ice has been shrinking more rapidly, falling to its lowest volume and second lowest area on record during the 2011 summer melt season. “With the summertime ice loss outpacing wintertime recovery, Arctic sea ice has thinned, making it increasingly vulnerable to further melting. Scientists expect a completely ice-free summertime Arctic by 2030 or even earlier.”
As the reflective ice disappears, they write, it exposes the dark ocean, which more readily absorbs solar energy, further warming the region. This sets forth a climate cascade, accelerating ice loss both in the ocean as well as on nearby Greenland, which contains enough ice to raise global sea level by 7 meters (23 feet) if it completely melted.
**Accelerating Global Warming**
“The warming also thaws Arctic permafrost, releasing carbon dioxide and methane, further accelerating global warming.”
Even without fully incorporating such climate feedback, models show that continued reliance on fossil fuels could raise the global temperature by up to 7 degrees Celsius (over 12 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of this century, Larsen and Rasmussen conclude. Such an elevated temperature would amplify temperature and precipitation extremes enough to make the weather events of recent years look tame in comparison.”
Only a rapid, dramatic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions can hold future temperatures in a range bearing any resemblance to what civilization has known.
2012 [Human Wrongs Watch](http://human-wrongs-watch.net/)