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Fossil Fuels. Why are they such a problem?

Fossil Fuels. Why are they such a problem?

The world’s 20 biggest polluters on the planet are fossil fuel companies, with the energy sector responsible for creating 75% of all carbon emissions- and surprise - subsidized by all of us

Anyone with basic high school math can read this headline and add up what this means. What would surprise most people though is knowing that the very industry that creates our greatest emissions is aided and abetted by pretty much every western citizen who pays their taxes. Fossil fuels are heavily subsidized by governments - and that means - with money supplied by you and me.

The numbers vary, depending on who is reporting and who a 'subsidy' is defined (and that's a story in itself), but they are eye watering nonetheless:

  • Australian fossil fuel subsidies hit $10.3 billion in 2020-21
  • USA fossil fuels received $5.9 trillion in subsidies in 2020
  • Overall, The IEA and the OECD estimate that 52 advanced and emerging economies - representing about 90% of global fossil-fuel supplies - gave subsidies worth an average of US$555 billion each year from 2017 to 2019. (This dipped to $345 billion in 2020 only because of lower fuel consumption and declining fuel prices during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

What is a fossil fuel subsidy?

Fossil fuel subsidies generally take two forms.

  1. Production subsidies: tax breaks or direct payments that reduce the cost of producing coal, oil or gas.
  2. Bowser subsidies: cutting fuel prices for the end user, such as by fixing the price at the petrol pump so that it is less than the market rate. 


It's both governments paying subsidies while telling their citizens they are leading climate evangelists, and also the fossil fuel companies themselves who are the protagonists in this pact. There are hundreds of examples of business groups, like lobby groups for the oil and gas industry who bombard Facebook with ads opposing climate legislation, often described in terms like “energy literacy advocacy.” The intention and impact is complete confusion and the maintenance of status quo.

How can grassroots people get change?

In the end, no matter how confused you are by messaging around what is green, brown, black, going to cost you more or less - what is true is that anything fossil fuel based is driving up emissions and the only way to stop that is to stop using products that use fossil fuels. And to vote for and support those who are genuinely supporting emissions reduction strategies.

About that EV

Pretty much anyone buying a new car realises that fossil fuel cars are on their way to extinction. Electric vehicle (EV) sales are growing exponentially as car makers shift to full electric footings. But even if you buy an EV, you need electricity to power it. And electricity can come from many sources. In 2021 in Australia, only 24 percent of our energy supply came from renewables. The rest came from fossil fuels.

If you own your own property and don't have solar, the one way you can be sure of where your energy is coming from, is to install solar. Then sign up to a green energy company for when you need on grid supply. 

Fossil fuel products pretty much coat us all

It's not just energy that is driving fossil fuel production. While around 87 percent of fossil fuels are used for transport, electricity, and heating, around 5 percent are used to make plastics, cleaners, shoe polish, stockings and medicines. According to Oil and Gas Info, you'll find oil and gas-based materials in every product on this infographic.

Most virgin plastics are petrochemicals - close to 99 percent. There are reportedly around 6,000 products made from fossil fuels that are used routinely in most households. 

We are the guy in the street - as well as government and business

Science has told us everything we need to know about climate change. Every deadly threat to our existence as a result of climate change is now monitored, measured and reported on. The facts are accessible. The question is simply, "What are we going to do about it? And when?"

The truth is that the world’s fate is in our own hands - the human race. Within the human are moms, pops, politicians, leaders of oil companies, high tech, advocacy, and teachers. Each of us has the power to influence something and someone. 

Considering how far behind we are in the race to decarbonize the world, and how our leaders seem unwilling or unable to go up against vested fossil fuel interests to fix a big chunk of the problem, we need to give them a very big nudge, wherever and whenever we can.

We have the technology. Enough of us have the will. What we need now is both the courage to call out bad actors, to act better ourselves and to push however we can for change.

Main image: Designed and sold by Soda Puffs on Redbubble | *Alejandro de la Garza is a reporter for TIME Magazine | Infographic: Oil and Gas Co

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