Rio +20 Earth Summit: Down with Fossil Fuel Subsidies and Up with Food Sovereignty

Reason's Science Correspondent sends his third dispatch from the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro.

Rio de Janeiro—No United Nations conference is complete without a plethora of side events put on by various officially approved activist groups, and Rio +20 Earth Summit is no exception. I sampled two on Monday. The more promising side event was a panel organized by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) arguing for "Phasing Out Fossil Fuel Subsidies by 2015." Promising, because subsidies are generally a bad idea, as they waste resources by distorting consumer and producer choices away from more economically efficient outcomes. In 2009, at the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh the leaders of the world’s biggest economies agreed to phase out fossil fuels subsidies. Jake Schmidt from the NRDC cited figures ballparking global fossil fuel subsidies at a projected $775 billion in 2012 [PDF]. The vast majority, $630 billion, was consumption subsidies in developing countries. Global producer subsidies, including special tax breaks, loan guarantees, and export credits, amounted to $100 billion and developed countries provided $45 billion in consumption subsidies.

Schmidt claimed that eliminating fossil fuel subsidies would not only save governments $775 billion, but would also reduce global carbon dioxide emissions by 6 percent, and primary energy demand by 5 percent, if done by 2020. This would mean a reduction of 2.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide which is equal to about half of U.S. annual emissions. He also cited modeling studies that calculated that removing the distortions caused by subsidies would actually boost world GDP by an extra 0.7 percent by 2050.

Schmidt is right when he points out that the subsidies also make it more difficult for renewable energy sources to compete with fossil fuels. Naturally, as an environmental activist, he could not help but mention that according to the International Energy Agency (IEA) subsidies to “clean” energy sources amounted to only $66 billion last year.

But of course all subsidies have their defenders. For example, lots of people object to lifting consumption subsidies in places like Venezuela and Nigeria, arguing that increased fuel prices would disproportionately hurt the poor. Steve Kretzmann, head of the activist group Oil Change International, cited an IEA study that found that in 11 key developing countries 89 to 98 percent of the subsidies don’t benefit the poorest people. Why? Chiefly because they can’t afford automobiles or electric appliances. And the better off people in developing countries certainly take advantage of the subsidies. If governments want to subsidize the poor, fuel subsidies is a particularly stupid way to do it. On the other hand, trying to eliminate them has provoked protests and riots in places like Indonesia and even an 8 day general strike in Nigeria earlier this year. Phasing out subsidies is the right thing to do, but of course since the panelists are environmentalist ideologues, what they really want is to switch subsidies from fossil fuels to their preferred fuels like wind and solar power.

The second panel discussion I dropped by was on Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture. Oddly, the panelists (whose names and affiliations I wrongly assumed I could get later from the U.N. website) did not actually discuss the meaning of sustainable agriculture. However, they were sure that whatever sustainable agriculture is, it is certainly not modern agriculture.  

One panelist from India provided a deluge of data on the problem of hunger in India. He noted that India was the second-fastest growing economy in the world, and yet 46 percent of its children suffer from malnutrition, down only 1 percent since 1999. He claimed that one third of Indian children are born with low birth weights, which is double the rate in Africa. Two-thirds of Indian women are anemic and one-third of the population have a body mass index below 18.5.

Hunger persists despite the fact that the government of India has a stockpile of 82 million tons of grains. The government has amassed the stockpile by paying farmers a guaranteed minimum price that is considerably above international prices. Now the Indian government wants to export 8 million tons of the stockpile to rich countries like Australia and the United States. Since the Indian domestic grain prices are higher than international prices, the government would actually sell the grain at subsidized prices.

I believe that the first panelist was followed by Soumya Dutta from the All India People’s Science Forum who spun a deep conspiracy theory in which the United States launched the Green Revolution of the 1960s as a way to gain control over the world’s food supply. Dutta observed that the Green Revolution replaced traditional agriculture with farming practices “based on science and technology, bigger farms, tractors, fertilizers, hybrid seeds and God knows what else.” He darkly added, “Now the solution is biotech, but we know what happened to us with the Green Revolution. They want to control our food and food production systems.” Dutta noted that the negotiating text in the section on agriculture for The Future We Want at the Rio +20 Earth Summit focuses on trade, market access, and private investment and not at all on “food sovereignty.”

What is food sovereignty? The International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty defines it as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.” Supporters of food sovereignty aim to “resist and dismantle the current corporate trade and food regime.” Dutta put the whole issue in context when he asserted that the promotion of private investment in agriculture was a “strategy for getting out of the financial crisis.” He further explained, “They are trying to get control of all of the world’s resources through the financialization of nature” and thereby “sustain the capitalist production system which is now collapsing.” I couldn’t help thinking, yes, the Green Revolution was such a failure that it allows the Indian government today to hoard 82 million tons of grain and even contemplate exporting part of its surplus at subsidized prices. By the way, 82 million tons of grain was the total amount of grain that India produced in 1960 and since then wheat productivity has tripled.

Returning momentarily to reality, the first panelist from India mildly suggested that it was not true that the Green Revolution had accomplished nothing. He also correctly pointed out that corporations had had almost nothing to do with the Green Revolution and that the private sector still plays almost no role in Indian agriculture. Nevertheless, he celebrated the fact that anti-biotech activists had succeeded in blocking the introduction of an insect resistant biotech variety of eggplant developed by Monsanto in India. He noted that except for biotech cotton, “We have held the line against GM [genetically modified crops] in India.”

With regard to the future of agriculture, the first panelist declared, “I see the private sector as part of the problem rather than the solution.” Let’s see: The Indian government subsidizes energy and irrigation water to Indian farmers and pays higher than market prices for the grain they overproduce and then hoards it when hundreds of millions of Indians are malnourished, and is seriously considering subsidized exports to rich countries. And the private sector in agriculture is the problem. Really?

Tomorrow, I really will be dropping by the People’s Summit here in Rio.

Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey is the author of Liberation Biology (Prometheus).

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  • Almanian...still||

    I blame Bush.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Bjorn Lomborg pointed out other problems with the G-20 on CNN Sunday.

  • Almanian...still||

    You know who else had problems...

  • anon||

    Jay Z?

  • Pi Guy||

    But a bitch ain't one.

  • BakedPenguin||

    The Eurozone?

  • ||

    The Norse on Greenland?

  • Almanian...still||

    Tomorrow, I really will be dropping by the People’s Summit here in Rio.

    Safe travels, and try not to be robbed by roving bands of 13 year old wilding gangs. Rio kinda sucks...

  • sarcasmic||

    Let’s see: The Indian government subsidizes energy and irrigation water to Indian farmers and pays higher than market prices for the grain they overproduce and then hoards it when hundreds of millions of Indians are malnourished, and is seriously considering subsidized exports to rich countries. And the private sector in agriculture is the problem. Really?

    Corporations!
    Profits!
    Aaaaaaaauuuuuugggghhhhhh!

  • anon||

    It really is amazing how predictable the "arguments" are now. Highly unimpressive.

  • Sevo||

    "He darkly added, “Now the solution is biotech, but we know what happened to us with the Green Revolution. They want to control our food and food production systems.”"

    Nixon and Elvis' alien love-child are behind all this.

  • R C Dean||

    we know what happened to us with the Green Revolution.

    Yeah. You stopped starving so much.

  • sarcasmic||

    That's not true. With the Indian government hoarding all that grain, there are plenty of Indian people starving.
    It's all Bush's fault.

  • Sevo||

    I'll bet Dutta knows where Amelia Earhart is...

  • Gilbert Martin||

    A lot of what is called fossil fuel "subsidies" in the US are not actually subsidies at all.

    Tax credits and deductions that allow ANY company or person to keep more of their own money isn't a "subsidy".

    The money was all their own in the first place.

  • sarcasmic||

    Let's say that every week I take $100 from you, keep $20, and give $80 to someone's grandmother.

    At some point I instead take $80 from you, I still keep that $20, and now only give $60 to someone's grandmother.

    That is the equivalent of my taking $20 from someone's grandmother and giving it to you, because you are $20 richer and she is $20 poorer than if I had instead taken $100 from you.

    So not taking is giving, and not giving is taking.

    By the way, why do you hate grandmothers? What the fuck is wrong with you?

  • Gilbert Martin||

    "So not taking is giving, and not giving is taking."

    Absolutely.

    Also, up is the same thing as down, left is right, wet is dry, dark is light, etc. etc.

  • ||

    This is true but it is also true that tax credits and deductions are picking winners and losers. It is still crony capitalism.

  • T||

    Yeah, but tax credits and deductions that anyone qualifies for (like interest expense or depreciation) is a hell of a lot less crony than targeted tax breaks for green energy or some other bullshit.

    Also, a subsidy is a direct payment. If I am keeping my money, that's not a subsidy.

  • sarcasmic||

    If I am keeping my money, that's not a subsidy.

    Oh, but it is. You see, if that money had been taken from you it would have been given to someone else. But it wasn't. So that means that money was taken from the person it would have been given to, and given to you.

    You see? Not taking is giving, and not giving is taking.

    Inaction is action.

    /Tony is a retard

  • some guy||

    Targetted tax breaks and subsidies are not the same thing, but can we agree that they are both market-distorting and, therefore, bad?

  • Sevo||

    some guy|6.19.12 @ 2:10PM|#
    "Targetted tax breaks and subsidies are not the same thing, but can we agree that they are both market-distorting and, therefore, bad?"

    Doubt you're going to get a lot of disagreement about that. At least, not here.

  • T o n y||

    Do different tax rates not tip the scales in terms of market competition, though? It amounts to a subsidy. It is not any more fair just because it's in the form of a tax break rather than a payment. Same difference, except to people who mistakenly think taxes are inherently a form of theft.

  • sarcasmic||

    It amounts to a subsidy.

    That is correct.

    There is absolutely no logical distinction between not taking money from person A, and taking money from person B and giving it to person A.

    The first case is a tax break, the second is a subsidy.

    But there is no difference between not taking, and taking from one and giving to another.

    No difference at all.

    They are the exact same thing.

  • R C Dean||

    They are the exact same thing.

    If your working assumption is that nobody has anything except by the grace of the State, they actually are pretty much the same thing.

    If it all belongs to the State, ultimately, then not taking from you and giving to you are both just ways the State allows you to have something.

  • sarcasmic||

    And since "We are the Government", it all belongs to us!

    Everything belongs to everyone and no one!

  • BakedPenguin||

    If your working assumption is that nobody has anything except by the grace of the State...

    That's my current working assumption, only descriptive rather than normative.

  • T o n y||

    All doesn't "belong" to the state, but ownership can only exist as a tangible thing by virtue of a functioning state that protects property rights. Since such a thing must be paid for, it's just not the case that every cent you get your grubby hands on is absolutely "yours." If according to law someone owes taxes, that money is not in fact theirs, it belongs to the Treasury.

  • sarcasmic||

    You insist that there is no difference between the Treasury not taking, and the Treasury taking from one and giving to another.

    No difference at all.

    The only way for that to be logically sound is if it all belongs to the Treasury, and what you have is what they give to you or allow you to keep.

  • anon||

    You insist that there is no difference between the Treasury not taking, and the Treasury taking from one and giving to another.

    Of course he does sarcasmic. This is the same TONY that equates action to inaction.

  • T o n y||

    It all belongs to the universe in the end. Money is a fiction. Ownership is a fiction. Rights are a fiction. Personhood is a fiction.

  • anon||

    It all belongs to the universe in the end. Money is a fiction. Ownership is a fiction. Rights are a fiction. Personhood is a fiction.

    Then why don't you please go fiction yourself?

  • sarcasmic||

    It all belongs to the universe in the end. Money is a fiction. Ownership is a fiction. Rights are a fiction. Personhood is a fiction.

    That bus is also a fiction. Please walk in front of it.

  • T o n y||

    The only thing I mentioned that's remotely tangible is money, and even you agree that that's a fiction, until it's based on a shiny metal standard again.

    Useful fictions, yes, but still meaningless in the absence of an apparatus to enforce their common acceptance.

  • anon||

    The only thing I mentioned that's remotely tangible is money, and even you agree that that's a fiction, until it's based on a shiny metal standard again.

    I've never said that money is fiction.

  • some guy||

    Rights aren't tangible, but they do make sense. Personal property rights follow directly from the premise that all people are equal. To reject personal property rights is to reject that premise.

    Incidentally, ownership does exist in the absense of the state. Without a state, ownership is typically defined by physical possession, or trust between individuals. I'm not saying this is ideal, I'm just saying you were wrong to state that ownership depends on the state.

  • T o n y||

    Personal property rights follow directly from the premise that property owners are special. Don't know what it has to do with equality.

    Ownership can be enforced any number of ways, but it's still an abstract concept and still requires enforcement, typically by a state in the modern world.

  • Citizen Nothing||

    If one of my six-year-olds had said ^^this^^, I'd be posting it on Facebook. "They say the cutest things!"

  • Citizen Nothing||

    To T.O.N.Y.

  • NotSure||

    Yes people who worked for something get their "grubby hands" on the money, people who did not work for that money somehow don't have grubby hands. Only someone with a twisted and utterly muddled mind can come up with such descriptions.

  • NotSure||

    Here is the wikipedia definition of theft:
    In common usage, theft is the taking of another person's property without that person's permission or consent with the intent to deprive the rightful owner of it.

    Last time I checked I have neither given permission or consent to be taxed.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    "Phasing out fossil fuels by 2015"

    FIFY'd.

  • Whiterun Guard||

    I'm for the phasing out of fossil fuels. By combustion.

  • Mr. FIFY||

    That could take another fifty years or so, WG! We'd be surfing off the coast of Tennessee by then, to hear liberals bleat about global warming!

  • CampingInYourPark||

  • The Hammer||

    Wow. Worldwide Communism. That will work great!

  • DantoRang||

    Wow OK man I never thought about it liek that wow.

    www.Anon-Browser.tk

  • Brett L||

    Food sovereignty? I bow to no critter or crop.

  • ||

    Jake Schmidt from the NRDC cited figures ballparking global fossil fuel subsidies at a projected $775 billion in 2012.

    Way too low. It only takes into account direct subsidies. There are trillions in indirect subsidies:

    * highways built with eminent domain, not funded by gas/use taxes
    * state-run or state-monopoly-chartered electrical plants
    * state-run extraction and production companies
    * uncompensated fossil fuel damage: air pollution, runoff from highways and mines, spills, miner/extractor health, human-caused global warming
    * huge chunks of the military-industrial complex and its oil wars

    Do you want to take libertarianism seriously or are you cool with Dope-Smoking Republicanism?

  • Brett L||

    Wow. Highways built with eminent domain? Way to lead from strength. I suppose we could put state-funded needle programs (made from plastics!) on that list, too.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    Let's not forget that highway drivers are subsidizing mass transit boondoggles to the tune of about 20% to 25% of gas taxes collected.

    And also labor unions due to the Davis Bacon Act that forces gas tax paying drivers to pay for overpriced union labor.

  • some guy||

    And then there's Medicare, which keeps old people alive and consuming energy.

    How far can we take this?

  • NotSure||

    I see a pattern here, there is a lot of government involved, so logically we need lots of government to get involved with solar panels, right ?

  • Citizen Nothing||

    This is why nobody takes libertarians seriously.

  • ||

    Or we could reduce the subsidies to fossil fuels and see how renewables do in a true free market. But that doesn't get a whole lot of play in Reason, does it?

  • Sevo||

    JerseyPatriot|6.19.12 @ 1:09PM|#
    "Or we could reduce the subsidies to fossil fuels and see how renewables do in a true free market. But that doesn't get a whole lot of play in Reason, does it?

    Strange, the article makes exactly that point.
    JP's stupidity certainly gets a lot of play in the comments section.

  • ||

    Bailey has posted more articles on Solyndra than on fossil fuel subsidies. Half a billion for Solyndra, trillions for fossil fuels. If we're worried about subsidies, why are we straining at gnats and swallowing camels?

  • Sevo||

    JerseyPatriot|6.19.12 @ 1:34PM|#
    "Bailey has posted more articles on Solyndra than on fossil fuel subsidies."

    So what, dipshit? You're supposed point was covered in the article and now you're moving the goal posts.
    What an ignoramus.

  • some guy||

    Reason has been saying this for years and most commentors here have been nodding in agreement the whole time.

  • Sevo||

    From the article:
    "Soumya Dutta from the All India People’s Science Forum..."

    Who launches on this rant:
    "Dutta observed that the Green Revolution replaced traditional agriculture with farming practices “based on science and technology,"

    Somehow, I'd bet the "All India People’s Science Forum" opposes science, but the 'All India People's Ignorance Forum' didn't get a lot of memberships.

  • some guy||

    Some perspective:

    82 million tons of grain is 164 billion pounds. There are about a billion Indians so the surplus would last about half a year if you were giving out 1 pound per day per person.

    Of course, ideally, grain production in India wouldn't be subsidised and Indians would use more condoms.

  • Sevo||

    "82 million tons of grain is 164 billion pounds. There are about a billion Indians so the surplus would last about half a year if you were giving out 1 pound per day per person."

    I understand it's napkin-scribbling, but it's confounded by two huge variables:
    1) Figure at least half of the Indian population isn't 'hungry'; multiply by two.
    2) India is now a net exporter of grain; multiply by infinity.
    Typically in 20th-century (and probably 21st-century) hunger, there is no lack of food; there's a government distortion which means the distribution is screwed.

  • ||

    The second panel discussion I dropped by was on Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture. Oddly, the panelists (whose names and http://www.lunettesporto.com/l.....-3_22.html affiliations I wrongly assumed I could get later from the U.N. website) did not actually discuss the meaning of sustainable agriculture. However, they were sure that wh

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