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As World Burns, Richest Nations Can't Decide When to End Fossil Fuel Handouts

Despite ambitious pledges, global energy ministers could not agree on a target date to phase out billions in subsidies to dirty energy

"The world is in a deep hole with climate change, and the first thing to do in a hole is stop digging," said Stephen Kretzmann of Oil Change International. (Photo: ribarnica/flickr/cc)

The world's richest nations have failed to agree on a deadline to phase out fossil fuels subsidies—a commitment energy ministers made in 2009—stirring new fears over the impact of the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars that go toward keeping dirty energy afloat every year.

Energy ministers from the Group of 20 (G20) met in Beijing on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss bringing those subsidies to a close after the Group of 7 (G7), the world's seven wealthiest economies, last month committed to eliminate "inefficient" fossil fuel handouts by 2025. A report published in 2015 by the climate group Oil Change International found that the combined G20 subsidies for oil, gas, and coal production amounts to roughly $444 billion a year.

But despite ambitious pledges during the COP21 summit in Paris last year and long-term campaigning from climate groups, who urged an even earlier phase-out deadline of 2020, officials could not agree on a target date.

According to the state-run Chinese news agency Xinhua, as the two-day meeting wrapped up without a firm plan in place, ministers released a communique and three other draft plans that reportedly "encouraged" G20 members to "formulate development strategies and action plans to boost renewable energy investment and consumption."

The G20 were also asked to "hold dialogues on emergencies in this field, guard against market disruptions and promote energy safety."

Killing the Messenger

"G20 countries talked big in Paris about their commitment to fighting climate change, but when it comes to the basic task of stopping public support for climate changing fossil fuels, they can't seem to take the first steps, much less walk the walk," said Stephen Kretzmann, executive director at Oil Change International.

"The world is in a deep hole with climate change, and the first thing to do in a hole is stop digging," Kretzmann said. "If world leaders want to show that they’re committed to the kind of bold climate action they agreed to in Paris, the least they can do is commit to ending fossil fuel subsidies by 2020."

U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told reporters in Beijing that a communique drafted by the ministers "repeats the importance of moving towards a subsidy reduction. But within the G-20 there are different views on how fast and how aggressive one can be on that."

He added that in the U.S., "we'd like to see very substantial progress" by 2025 or 2030. The G7, which includes the U.S., agreed to phase out fossil fuel subsidies by 2025 in May—though, as Overseas Development Institute research fellow Shelagh Whitley said at the time, "we could easily get there twice as fast."

Li Shuo, a climate campaigner at Greenpeace, told the Washington Post on Thursday, "We think that it is critical that the G-20 follows this approach and the timeline should be even earlier."

This week's meeting was a lead-up to another G20 summit in September to take place in Hangzhou.

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