A view from Central Europe and the Baltics
Energy subsidies are common throughout the world. The bulk of subsidies are paid in the Middle East and North Africa where my colleague, Shanta Devarajan, has eloquently blogged about their corrosive impact on economic growth, on employment, on human health and on water conservation. Where I sit, in Central Europe, many countries are in the process of liberalizing their market for energy and bringing subsidies to an end. What lessons does the experience of energy price liberation in this group of countries offer to their neighbors in the south? Based on the work of my colleagues, Nistha Sinha and Caterina Ruggieri, I would draw five lessons.
A view from Central Europe and the Baltics
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.
Yesterday, I discussed India’s incredible economic transformation over the last two decades and some of the challenges that the country is currently facing. So, what can India do to reduce the impact of global uncertainty and improve growth performance and boost investor confidence?
India’s firepower to respond to a crisis with traditional monetary and fiscal stimulus is much weaker now than prior to the 2008 crisis. Fiscal space for additional spending is severely constrained in light of continued high deficits. Room for monetary policy easing is modest in light of continued high inflation, and still low real interest rates. Moreover, when investor confidence is at a low ebb as it is in India, easing monetary policy would be tantamount to “pushing on a string.”
Almost 400 million Indians—about a third of the subcontinent’s population—don’t have access to electricity. This power deficit, which includes about 100,000 un-electrified villages, places India’s per capita electricity consumption at just 639 kWh—among the world’s lowest rates.
The access gap is complicated by another problem: more than three-quarters of India’s electricity is produced by burning coal and natural gas. With India’s rapidly-growing population— currently 1.1 billion—along with its strong economic growth in recent years, its carbon emissions were over 1.6 billion tons in 2007, among the world’s highest.
This is unsustainable, not only from a climate change standpoint, but also because India’s coal reserves are projected to run out in four decades. India already imports about 10% of its coal for electricity generation, and this is expected to reach 16% this year.
India’s national and state governments are taking action to correct this vicious circle of power deficits and mounting carbon emissions. The national government has set a target of increasing renewable energy generation by 40 gigawatts (GW) by 2022, up from current capacity of 15 GW, itself a threefold increase since 2005. Still, renewable sources account for just 3.5% of India’s energy generation at present, so the scale of the challenge is formidable. The cost of meeting it will be high unless the tremendous innovative capacity of India and market reforms can be coordinated to make India a clean energy leader.
The recent riots in Maputo were triggered by increases in the cost of living, and they raised concerns of a possible repeat of the 2008 food and fuel price crisis around the world.
But this time the riots were at least as much the result of misguided domestic policies as of international price volatility.
“What you don’t touch, for you lies miles away. (…) What you don’t coin, you’re sure is counterfeit.” These sophisms are voiced by Mephistopheles, under the guise of the Court Fool, in Goethe’s Faust. He aims to convince the Emperor to mint more coins, for money buys everything: parks and palaces; breasts and rosy cheeks. The Commander-in-Chief accompanies the scene and speaks his mind: “The Court Fool is wise, for he promises benefits to all.”
Economic theory, in contrast to the Commander-in-Chief, the Court Fool and other populists, states that all government handouts come at a cost – regardless of whether they are distributed in the form of subsidies or direct transfers. Financing them is only possible by raising taxes and getting into debt (or creating more money… and inflation).
Imagine how the new Indonesia would prosper if everyone had affordable health insurance, every child completed secondary education and highways were in place connecting Indonesia’s three biggest cities: Jakarta, Surabaya and Medan.