As thousands from around the world gather in Rio de Janeiro for the Earth Summit, how we tackle climate change and our energy future is top of mind for many. Ending fossil fuel subsidies is an action to which many governments have already committed and behind which the public stands. The Earth Summit is the right opportunity for commitments to phase out fossil fuel subsidies to turn into actions with clear timelines, transparency and equity safeguards. International gatherings of the magnitude of the Earth Summit are rare opportunities to raise the issues that concern us all on a global scale and assess where we are and where we're going.
One issue that has caught the public attention at home and around the world is the fact that despite record profits and polluting ways, the fossil fuel industry receives billions of dollars each year in subsidies. To be more precise, $775 billion or nearly one trillion dollars each year. That means taxpayer dollars going to line the pockets of the richest industries in the world, while increasing our dependence on fuels that are driving climate change and harming our health, homes and security.
Few concrete steps have been taken to fulfill the commitments made by our G-20 world leaders in 2009, and more than 50 countries since, to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies. Commitments are important, but at a certain point they become meaningless if not followed by a clear timeline and action, including transparency of reporting so that we can more easily track what subsidies are out there. Far from governments actually ending fossil fuel subsidies, the International Energy Agency reports that in 2012 governments are expected to spend nearly three times more money subsidizing fossil fuels than they did in 2009.
In the United States, President Obama has proposed cutting $4 billion in annual federal subsidies to the oil and gas industry and a number of Congressional proposals would cut tens of billions in fossil fuel subsidies over the next 10 years. But in the U.S. as in other countries, proposals to cut fossil fuel subsidies meet with stark resistance from the oil, gas, and coal industries. Not content with strip-mining Canada's boreal forest for tar sands and removing mountaintops for coal, the fossil fuel industry wants to drill an even bigger hole in our pocketbooks. And countries that depend on the fossil fuel industry are also standing in the way as outlined in a blog by my colleague Jake Schmidt.
Make no mistake, giving hand outs to the fossil fuel industry has a price tag that we can't afford on several levels. First, there is the obvious that Big Oil and Coal with their record profits don't need subsidies. But what many people don't realize, studies show that fossil fuel subsidies actually undermine healthy economic growth and the creation of jobs. And then when we look at the very real costs of climate change in terms of floods, storms, and droughts and of pollution on our health -- the tally adds up to a cost that we bear now and our children will continue to bear in the future.
It is time for people from around the world to tell our leaders that we want an end to fossil fuel subsidies. Not at some vague time in the future, but by 2015. In the meantime, as a May 2012 open letter from more than 75 groups states, we also need transparency around fossil fuel subsidies so that there can be public tracking and oversight. We also need assistance and safeguards for developing countries so that all people can get the energy they need. As Christine Lagarde, the Head of the International Monetary Fund, recently said: "Many countries continue to subsidize polluting energy systems. These subsidies are costly for the budget and costly for the planet. Countries should reduce them. But in doing so, they must protect vulnerable groups by tightly focusing subsidies on products used by poorer people, and by strengthening social safety nets."
Today, for 24 hours, people around the world are going to raise their voices in the ether through tweets and Facebook posts calling for an end to fossil fuel subsidies. A petition by 350.org, Avaaz and others has already received over one million signatures. Join NRDC and our partners today by sending a message amplified hundreds of thousands of times to #endfossilfuelsubsidies. Put "#endfossilfuelsubsidies" in your tweet or Facebook post and encourage others to do so and we will keep track and let our leaders in Rio know that the public wants an end to handouts to the fossil fuel industry.
Twenty years ago, the first Earth Summit, also in Rio, saw the birth of the climate treaty, a treaty on biodiversity and an framework for the newly emerging concept that working towards a healthy planet helps not hurts our prosperity. Twenty years later, we have innumerable international commitments. What we need are more on the ground actions. This is the Earth Summit for actions that build clean energy, end fossil fuel subsidies, protect our oceans and wildlands from unnecessary drilling, and fight climate change.
Follow Susan Casey-Lefkowitz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CaseyLefkowitz