Global Energy Subsidies: An Update
Energy subsidies are projected at US$5.3 trillion in 2015, or 6.5 percent of global GDP, according to a recent IMF study. Most of this arises from countries setting energy taxes below levels that fully reflect the environmental damage associated with energy consumption.
The country-level estimates underlying these global figures are now publicly available.
This study provides a comprehensive, updated picture of energy subsidies at the global, regional, and country levels. It focuses on the broad notion of post-tax energy subsidies, which captures the failure to charge for the environmental damage from energy consumption as well as to tax energy consumption in the same way as other consumption goods to raise government revenues. The study also estimates the fiscal, environmental and welfare gains from eliminating these energy subsidies.
The key findings of the study are as follows. First, post-tax energy subsidies are dramatically higher than previously estimated, and projected to remain high despite the sharp decline in international energy prices. Second, the vast majority of energy subsidies reflect domestic externalities, so countries should move ahead with energy subsidy reform unilaterally in their own interests. Third, the potential fiscal, environmental and welfare impacts of energy subsidy reform are substantial. Using the fiscal dividend to lower distortionary taxes or increase productive public spending could further improve welfare and economic growth.
Measuring Energy Subsidies
When defining energy subsidies it is important to distinguish between consumer and producer subsidies. Within consumer subsidies it is also useful to distinguish between pre-tax and post-tax consumer subsidies since differences in estimates in the literature most often reflect a different focus on these subsidies.
Pre-tax consumer subsidies exist when energy consumers pay prices that are below the costs incurred to supply them with this energy. For internationally traded energy products, like natural gas and petroleum products, the supply cost used to calculate subsidies is the international price adjusted for distribution and transportation costs. Where the energy product is non-traded, like electricity, the supply cost is the price at which the domestic producer recovers costs, including a normal return to capital.
Post-tax consumer subsidies exist if consumer prices for energy are below supply costs plus the efficient levels of taxation. The efficient level of taxation includes two components. First, energy should be taxed the same way as any other consumer product. Second, some energy products contribute to local pollution, traffic congestion and accidents, and global warming—efficient taxation requires that the price of energy should reflect these adverse effects on society. In most countries, taxes on energy fall far short of the efficient levels.
Producer subsidies exist when producers receive either direct or indirect support that increases their profitability above what it otherwise would be. This support can take many forms, including receiving a price for the output above the supply cost, paying a price for inputs below supply costs, or receiving a direct transfer from the budget. In practice, producer subsidies tend to substantially smaller in magnitude than consumer subsidies.
A Global Picture of Energy Subsidies
Pre-tax subsidies (including pre-tax consumer subsidies and producer subsidies) were estimated at US$541 (0.7 percent of global GDP) in 2013 and projected to decline to US$333 (0.4 percent of global GDP) in 2015, reflecting both the decline in international energy prices and an assumption that many countries would only partially pass-through those reductions to retail prices. Post-tax energy subsidies were estimated at $4.9 trillion (6.5 percent of global GDP) in 2013 and projected to remain high, at $5.3 trillion (6.5 percent of global GDP) in 2015.
In dollar terms, Emerging and Developing Asia accounts for about half of global post-tax subsidies with advanced economies accounting for about one quarter. In percent of GDP, post-tax subsidies are highest in Emerging and Developing Asia and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), at over 15 percent of regional GDP. In addition, the vast majority of post-tax subsidies reflect domestic externalities with only about a quarter from global warming.
Consequences of Energy Subsidies
Subsidies are intended to protect consumers by keeping prices low. But they also come at a high cost. Subsidies are expensive for governments—and therefore taxpayers—to finance and can hinder governments’ efforts to reduce budget deficits. They also compete with other priority public spending on roads, schools, and healthcare.
All consumers—both rich and poor—benefit from subsidies by paying lower prices. Governments could get more “bang for their buck” by removing or reducing subsidies and targeting the money directly to programs that help only the poor.
Subsidies encourage excessive energy consumption, which accelerates the depletion of natural resources. They also reduce the incentive for investment in energy efficiency and other forms of cleaner energy. By encouraging wasteful use of energy, energy subsidies can also exacerbate the external vulnerability of countries to volatile international energy prices.
The Benefits of Subsidy Reform
The fiscal, environmental and welfare gains from removing energy subsidies are substantial. At a global level, revenue gains in 2013 were estimated to be about US$3.0 trillion (4.0 percent of global GDP) and are projected to be US$2.9 trillion (3.6 percent of global of global GDP) in 2015. These reforms can also generate substantial environmental benefits, such as reductions in CO2 emissions and premature deaths from air pollution.
In 2009, the Group of 20 advanced and emerging market economies called for a phase out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies in all countries, and reaffirmed this again in 2012.
Despite the potential gains, many countries have had difficulty reforming subsidies. When reforms are made, prices increase, and this has often led to widespread public protests.
The absence of public support for subsidy reform is in part due to a lack of confidence in the ability of governments to shift the resulting budgetary savings to programs that would compensate the poor and middle class for the higher energy prices they face.
This problem is particularly challenging in oil-exporting countries, where subsidies are seen as a mechanism to distribute the benefits of natural resource endowments to their populations and where the capacity to administer targeted social programs is typically limited.
Governments are also often concerned that higher energy prices will contribute to a higher rate of inflation and adversely affect their competitiveness. Subsidy reform can also be complex when it includes trying to reduce inefficiencies and production costs, as is often the case for the electricity sector.
A Plan for Reform
While there is no single recipe for successful subsidy reform, country experiences suggest that the following ingredients are needed:
- a comprehensive energy sector reform plan with clear long-term objectives with an analysis of the impact of reforms;
- transparent and extensive communication and consultation with stakeholders, including information on the size of subsidies and how they affect the government’s budget;
- price increases that are phased-in over time;
- improving the efficiency in state-owned enterprises to reduce producer subsidies;
- measures to protect the poor through targeted cash or near-cash transfers or, if this option is not feasible, a focus on existing targeted programs that can be expanded quickly; and
- institutional reforms that depoliticize energy pricing, such as the introduction of automatic pricing mechanisms.
Although the future extent and effects of global climate change remain uncertain, the expected damages are not zero, and risks of serious environmental and macroeconomic consequences rise with increasing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. Despite the uncertainties, reducing emissions now makes sense, and a carbon tax is the simplest, most effective, and least costly way to do this. At the same time, a carbon tax would provide substantial new revenues which may be badly needed, given historically high debt-to-GDP levels, pressures on social security and medical budgets, and calls to reform taxes on personal and corporate income. This book is about the practicalities of introducing a carbon tax in the United States, set against the broader fiscal context.
The IMF study on Getting Energy Prices Right: From Principle to Practice offers practical guidance for countries on how to go about quantifying the harmful side effects of energy use, and shows what this implies for corrective taxes on coal, natural gas, gasoline, and road diesel, for over 150 countries.
Energy subsidies have wide-ranging economic consequences. Although they are aimed at protecting consumers, subsidies aggravate fiscal imbalances, crowd out priority public spending, and depress private investment, including in the energy sector. This book provides (1) the most comprehensive estimates of energy subsidies currently available for 176 countries and (2) an analysis of "how to do" energy subsidy reform, drawing on insights from 22 country case studies undertaken by the IMF staff and analyses carried out by other institutions.