July 31, 2017, by Alex Kirby
Pollution in Harbin: Bad air kills 1.6m people prematurely each year.in China.
Image: By Fredrik Rubensson via Wikimedia Commons
The fossil fuel subsidies paid to the industry that exploits them is a fraction of their cost to people’s health in the rich world.
LONDON, 31 July, 2017 – Health campaigners say the energy policies of the world’s richest countries are inflicting a double burden on their citizens, not only using their taxes to pay fossil fuel subsidies, but also loading huge health costs on them.
The work of the Health and Environment Alliance, HEAL, the report says that although fossil fuel combustion causes deadly air pollution and climate change, virtually all governments spend vast sums of public money – their citizens’ taxes – on supporting the oil, gas and coal industry in fossil fuel energy production.
A report by HEAL says the health costs associated with fossil fuels are over six times higher than the subsidies the industry receives in the G20 group of the globe’s leading industrialised countries.
The G20 agreed in 2009 to phase out the subsidies, but HEAL says that on average, in countries belonging to the bloc, the health costs associated with fossil fuels are far greater than the subsidies: US$2,758bn against $444bn.
HEAL cites a 2015 report by the UK-based think tank the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), which finds that “G20 country governments’ support to fossil fuel production marries bad economics with potentially disastrous consequences for climate change.”
HEAL’s own report says the subsidies support an industry that causes premature deaths, ill-health and huge health costs worldwide, in stark contrast to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. It urges policymakers to end subsidies and use the public money saved to support healthy energy or health care investments instead.
Every year air pollution from mostly fossil fuel combustion cuts short the lives of an estimated 6.5 million people worldwide through respiratory tract infections, strokes, heart attacks, lung cancer and chronic lung disease. The costs to health from the resulting air pollution, climate change and environmental degradation are not carried by the industry, HEAL says, but paid by society.
Genon K. Jensen, HEAL’s executive director, said: “European and global leaders continue to pledge to tackle climate change and decarbonise our economy. However, they still give out billions of euros and dollars which lead to global warming and fuel early death and ill-health, including heart and lung disease.
“It is time to seize the opportunity to improve the health of millions of people worldwide by abandoning subsidies to the deadly fossil fuel industry. They should walk the talk and end fossil fuel subsidies now.”
The report examines the costs of the health impacts arising from fossil fuel subsidies in several countries. In the UK, for example, the health costs from fossil fuel-driven air pollution are almost five times higher than the subsidies paid.
That means that citizens not only see $6.5bn of public money given to one of the world’s wealthiest industries, but that gift costs them another $30.7bn in health costs alone from premature deaths from air pollution.
In China, the report says, fossil fuels impose $1,790bn in health costs from air pollution, more than 18 times what the nation pays to oil, gas and coal producers, helping to fuel a public health crisis that is already causing 1.6 million premature deaths every year.
HEAL recommends that policy-makers should phase out fossil fuel subsidies by 2020 for developed nations, and by 2025 for low-income economies, to cut premature deaths, poor health and climate chaos and promote renewable, clean energy choices.
“Ultimately fossil fuel subsidies pay the polluter instead of making the polluter pay.”
The report also highlights how the funds could be re-allocated to boost health. In Germany, for example, it says the $5.4bn (€5.1bn) of subsidies represent taxpayer money that is sufficient to provide more than 300,000 households with a solar installation, powering their homes with clean energy, as well as to fund the transition for all of Germany’s 15,000 coal power plant workers for five years.
In countries like Turkey and Poland fossil fuel subsidies represent valuable public funds that could strengthen national health systems, providing Poland with 30,000 more physicians.
Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former prime minister of Norway and later director-general of the World Health Organisation, writes in a preface to HEAL’s report: “Fossil fuels cause climate change. The temperature increases and extreme weather events associated with climate change have direct impacts on the health and wellbeing of people all over the world.
“As a result, the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the WHO all recommend the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies to protect human health. . . Ultimately fossil fuel subsidies pay the polluter instead of making the polluter pay.” – Climate News Network
Alex Kirby is a former BBC journalist and environment correspondent. He now works with universities, charities and international agencies to improve their media skills, and with journalists in the developing world keen to specialise in environmental reporting.