In a liberalised energy market, investors, operators and consumers should face the full cost of their decisions. But this is not the case in many economies or energy sectors. Many policies distort the market in favour of existing fossil fuel technologies. Stern Review final report
Tax shifting involves lowering income taxes while raising levies on environmentally destructive activities, in order to create a more responsive market. It has been widely discussed and endorsed by economists. For example, a tax on coal that included the increased health care costs associated with breathing polluted air, the costs of acid rain damage, and the costs of climate disruption would encourage investment in renewable technologies. Several Western European countries are already shifting taxes in a process known there as environmental tax reform, to achieve environmental goals.
Subsidies are not inherently bad as many technologies and industries emerged through government subsidy schemes. The Stern Review explains that of 20 key innovations from the past 30 years, only one of the 14 they could source was funded entirely by the private sector and nine were totally funded by the public sector. In terms of specific examples, the Internet was the result of publicly funded links among computers in government laboratories and research institutes. And the combination of the federal tax deduction and a robust state tax deduction in California helped to create the modern wind power industry.
But just as there is a need for tax shifting, there is also a need for subsidy shifting. Lester Brown has argued that "a world facing the prospect of economically disruptive climate change can no longer justify subsidies to expand the burning of coal and oil. Shifting these subsidies to the development of climate-benign energy sources such as wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal power is the key to stabilizing the earth’s climate."
Some countries are eliminating or reducing climate disrupting subsidies and Belgium, France, and Japan have phased out all subsidies for coal. Germany reduced its coal subsidy from $5.4 billion in 1989 to $2.8 billion in 2002, and in the process lowered its coal use by 46 percent. Germany plans to phase out this support entirely by 2010. China cut its coal subsidy from $750 million in 1993 to $240 million in 1995 and more recently has imposed a tax on high-sulfur coals.
While some leading industrial countries have been reducing subsidies to fossil fuels, most notably coal, the United States has been increasing its support for the fossil fuel and nuclear industries. Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble