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Rio 20

The wisdom of children...and prophets

Andrew Steer's picture

UN Photo/Maria Elisa Franco

We’re changing planes in Panama on our way to the Rio+20 Earth Summit.  As we taxi out to take off the pilot tells us that we’ll need to wait for 15 minutes while we burn off 300 pounds of fuel, since the plane may be too heavy to take off.

My 11 year-old daughter, who is sitting next to me, says “Isn’t this very silly? It’s wasteful and bad for the climate. Why do they do it?” 

We’ve brought Charlotte, together with her 10 year old brother, Ben, on this trip so they can see how country leaders struggle with the big issues, and also because they ask the right questions, and help keep us grounded. I explained to her that the fuel on international flights is totally untaxed by international agreement, and that subsidies on fossil fuels amount to over $400 billion each year, including over $70 billion in rich countries. And that governments spend more than 20 times more paying people to consume more fossil fuels than they spend on research to develop renewable energy.

“That’s stupid”, says Ben, who is not as polite as his sister. It’s like telling your kids not to smoke, and then paying them each time you see them smoking.

They’re right, of course. And one of the rare bright spots in Rio was the airtime given to fossil subsidies by civil society and the private sector. The B20 (the business shadow of the G20) Working Group on Green Growth, of which I am a member, urged G20 leaders to publish subsidy levels each year, and set a time-bound schedule for their elimination. Not so easy for political leaders to grasp this nettle, of course, having seen several countries, most recently Nigeria, find their efforts to raise energy prices hit with violent opposition. I discussed with Charlotte how smart politicians, such as in Indonesia and Iran, have found ways to use a share of the revenues saved to provide cash compensation to the poor. “Makes sense”, she said.