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Fossil fuel consumption subsidies bounced back strongly in 2018

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Authors: Wataru Matsumura and Zakia Adam*

Higher average oil prices in 2018 pushed up the value of global fossil fuel consumption subsidies back up toward levels last seen in 2014, underscoring the incomplete nature of the pricing reforms undertaken in recent years, according to new data from the IEA.

The new data for 2018 show a one-third increase in the estimated value of these subsidies, to more than $400 billion. The estimates for oil, gas and fossil-fuelled electricity have all increased significantly, reflecting the higher price for fuels (which, in the presence of an artificially low end-user price, increases the estimated value of the subsidy). The continued prevalence of these subsidies – more than double the estimated subsidies to renewables – greatly complicates the task of achieving an early peak in global emissions.

The 2018 data sees oil return as the most heavily subsidised energy carrier, expanding its share in the total to more than 40%. In 2016, electricity briefly became the sector with the largest subsidy bill.

Fossil fuel consumption subsidies are in place across a range of countries. These subsidies lower the price of fossil fuels, or of fossil-fuel based electricity, to end-consumers, often as a way of pursuing social policy objectives.

There can be good reasons for governments to make energy more affordable, particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable groups. But many subsidies are poorly targeted, disproportionally benefiting wealthier segments of the population that use much more of the subsidised fuel. Such untargeted subsidy policies encourage wasteful consumption, pushing up emissions and straining government budgets.

Recent years have seen multiple examples of pricing reforms, underpinned by lower oil prices that created a political opportunity among oil-importing countries and a fiscal necessity among exporters. Reforms typically focused on gasoline and diesel pricing, and in some cases also on LPG, natural gas and electricity tariffs. IEA price data (shown below for gasoline) show clearly the wide range of end-user prices across countries – the lowest prices found among countries that subsidise consumption.

The nature of pricing reforms undertaken in recent years differ depending on the sector and on national circumstances, but fall into three broad categories:

  • Complete price liberalisation, typically for the main transport fuels, as for example in India, Mexico, Thailand and Tunisia.
  • Introduction of a mechanism for regular, automatic adjustment of prices in line with international prices. China has such a system for oil prices, and similar mechanisms were also introduced in Indonesia, Malaysia, Jordan, Cote d’Ivoire and Oman.
  • A schedule of reforms to regulated prices, often with a view to aligning them with cost-recovery or market-based prices. This was the most common type of reform in the Middle East and North Africa, where prices for oil products, natural gas, water and/or electricity were raised in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. There were also increases in regulated electricity prices elsewhere, as for example in Indonesia.

These price reforms were often accompanied by the introduction of more targeted programmes of support for vulnerable groups. They also brought significant financial savings to the governments concerned, allowing these resources to be deployed to other development or policy priorities.

However, in 2018 the oil price trended higher for much of the year before falling back in the last quarter. This became a major source of strain in countries where consumers were newly exposed to rising retail prices, particularly where national currencies were losing value against the US dollar at the same time.

The rise in retail prices created broader pressure to revisit some of the pricing reforms.

  • Some countries with fully liberalised prices sought ways to dampen the effects on consumers, for example via reductions in other taxes and duties (as in India) or via implicit price interventions through state-owned oil and gas companies.
  • Upward fuel price adjustments were postponed in some countries that had committed to follow international price movements but retained some administrative discretion over the level and timing of any changes. This was the case in Indonesia, Malaysia and Jordan.
  • In fully regulated price environments, the reform schedule was in some cases pushed back or watered down.

Shielding consumers from short-term changes in international fossil fuel prices comes at a fiscal and environmental cost. It also diminishes the potential for higher prices to curb demand and bring the market into balance.

The different reform pathways since 2015 can be separated out into the various components of the change in subsidy values. Pricing reforms over the last three years brought substantial dividends, estimated at 36 billion dollars in total. This represents either a direct easing of the strain on public finances (via reduced public expenditures on subsidies) or additional revenue accruing to resource-rich countries (by reclaiming more of the value that was previously being foregone because of under-pricing).

Notable reductions in oil-related consumption subsidies over this period were observed in many countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain, as well as in Colombia and Pakistan. Ukraine saw the largest fall in subsidies for natural gas. Subsidies to fossil fuel-based electricity consumption were substantially lower over this period in Russia, Argentina, Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and in parts of the Middle East.

However, these falls were outweighed by two other factors: a widening gap between prevailing prices and market-based pricing in many countries (exacerbated in some cases by depreciation of the domestic currencies against the dollar); and increased consumption of subsidised energy.

The largest increases in consumption subsidies for oil products were in Indonesia, Iran, Egypt and Venezuela. In the latter case, a collapsing currency meant that gasoline and diesel sales (where available) were essentially free in dollar terms. Iran also saw the largest increase in natural gas subsidies, and – together with Venezuela, Mexico, Egypt and China – was among those seeing the most significant increase in subsidies to fossil fuel-based electricity.

Committing political capital to subsidy reform remains tough, especially if international prices are volatile. But phasing out fossil fuel consumption subsidies remains a pillar of sound energy policy. Especially when part of a broader suite of supportive policy measures, pricing reform is pivotal for a more robust, secure and sustainable energy sector over the long term.

Industries and households are more likely to opt for energy-efficient equipment, vehicles and appliances. Investors in a range of energy technologies, especially clean technologies, see a better case to commit their capital. That is why the IEA continues to be a strong supporter of efforts to phase out inefficient fossil fuel consumption subsidies.

*Zakia Adam, WEO Energy Analyst

IEA

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The hydrogen revolution: A new development model that starts with the sea, the sun and the wind

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“Once again in history, energy is becoming the protagonist of a breaking phase in capitalism: a great transformation is taking place, matched by the digital technological revolution”.

The subtitle of the interesting book (“Energia. La grande trasformazione“, Laterza) by Valeria Termini, an economist at the Rome University “Roma Tre”,summarises – in a simple and brilliant way – the phase that will accompany the development of our planet for at least the next three decades,A phase starting from the awareness that technological progress and economic growth can no longer neglect environmental protection.

This awareness is now no longer confined to the ideological debates on the defence of the ecosystem based exclusively on limits, bans and prohibitions, on purely cosmetic measures such as the useless ‘Sundays on which vehicles with emissions that cause pollution are banned’, and on initiatives aimed at curbing development – considered harmful to mankind – under the banner of slogans that are as simple as they are full of damaging economic implications, such as the quest for ‘happy degrowth’.

With “degrowth” there is no happiness nor wellbeing, let alone social justice.

China has understood this and, with a view to remedying the environmental damage caused by three decades of relentless economic growth, it has not decided to take steps backwards in industrial production, by going back to the wooden plough typical of the period before the unfortunate “Great Leap Forward” of 1958, but – in its 14thFive-Year Plan (2020- 2025)-it has outlined a strategic project under the banner of “sustainable growth”, thus committing itself to continuing to build a dynamic development model in harmony with the needs of environmental protection, following the direction already taken with its 13th Five-Year Plan, which has enabled the Asian giant to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 12% over the last five years. This achievement could make China the first country in the world to reach the targets set in the 2012 Paris Climate Agreement, which envisage achieving ‘zero CO2 emissions’ by the end of 2030.

Also as a result of the economic shock caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, Europe and the United States have decided to follow the path marked out by China which, although perceived and described as a “strategic adversary” of the West, can be considered a fellow traveller in the strategy defined by the economy of the third millennium for “turning green”.

The European Union’s ‘Green Deal’ has become an integral part of the ‘Recovery Plan’ designed to help EU Member States to emerge from the production crisis caused by the pandemic.

A substantial share of resources (47 billion euros in the case of Italy) is in fact allocated destined for the “great transformation” of the new development models, under the banner of research and exploitation of energy resources which, unlike traditional “non-renewable sources”, promote economic and industrial growth with the use of new tools capable of operating in conditions of balance with the ecosystem.

The most important of these tools is undoubtedly Hydrogen.

Hydrogen, as an energy source, has been the dream of generations of scientists because, besides being the originator of the ‘table of elements’, it is the most abundant substance on the planet, if not in the entire universe.

Its great limitation is that in order to be ‘separated’ from the oxygen with which it forms water, procedures requiring high electricity consumption are needed. The said energy has traditionally been supplied by fossil – and hence polluting- fuels.

In fact, in order to produce ‘clean’ hydrogen from water, it must be separated from oxygen by electrolysis, a mechanism that requires a large amount of energy.

The fact of using large quantities of electricity produced with traditional -and hence polluting – systems leads to the paradox that, in order to produce ‘clean’ energy from hydrogen, we keep on polluting the environment with ‘dirty’ emissions from non-renewable sources.

This paradox can be overcome with a small new industrial revolution, i.d. producing energy from the sea, the sun and the wind to power the electrolysis process that produces hydrogen.

The revolutionary strategy based on the use of ‘green’ energy to produce adequate quantities of hydrogen at an acceptable cost can be considered the key to a paradigm shift in production that can bring the world out of the pandemic crisis with positive impacts on the environment and on climate.

In the summer of last year, the European Union had already outlined an investment project worth 470 billion euros, called the “Hydrogen Energy Strategy”, aimed at equipping the EU Member States with devices for hydrogen electrolysis from renewable and clean sources, capable of ensuring the production of one million tonnes of “green” hydrogen (i.e. clean because extracted from water) by the end of 2024.

This is an absolutely sustainable target, considering that the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that the “total installed wind, marine and solar capacity is set to overtake natural gas by the end 2023 and coal by the end of 2024”.

A study dated February 17, 2021, carried out by the Hydrogen Council and McKinsey & Company, entitled ‘Hydrogen Insights’, shows that many new hydrogen projects are appearing on the market all over the world, at such a pace that ‘the industry cannot keep up with it’.

According to the study, 345 billion dollars will be invested globally in hydrogen research and production by the end of 2030, to which the billion euros allocated by the European Union in the ‘Hydrogen Strategy’ shall be added.

To understand how the momentum and drive for hydrogen seems to be unstoppable, we can note that the Hydrogen Council, which only four years ago had 18 members, has now grown to 109 members, research centres and companies backed by70 billion dollar of public funding provided by enthusiastic governments.

According to the Executive Director of the Hydrogen Council, Daryl Wilson, “hydrogen energy research already accounts for 20% of the success in our pathway to decarbonisation”.

According to the study mentioned above, all European countries are “betting on hydrogen and are planning to allocate billions of euros under the Next Generation EU Recovery Plan for investment in this sector”:

Spain has already earmarked 1.5 billion euros for national hydrogen production over the next two years, while Portugal plans to invest 186 billion euros of the Recovery Plan in projects related to hydrogen energy production.

Italy will have 47 billion euros available for “ecological transition”, an ambitious goal of which the government has understood the importance by deciding to set up a department with a dedicated portfolio.

Italy is well prepared and equipped on a scientific and productive level to face the challenge of ‘producing clean energy using clean energy’.

Not only are we at the forefront in the production of devices for extracting energy from sea waves – such as the Inertial Sea Waves Energy Converter (ISWEC), created thanks to research by the Turin Polytechnic, which occupies only 150 square metres of sea water and produces large quantities of clean energy, and alone reduces CO2 emissions by 68 tonnes a year, or the so-called Pinguino (Penguin), a device placed at a depth of 50 metres which produces energy without damaging the marine ecosystem – but we also have the inventiveness, culture and courage to accompany the strategy for “turning green”.

The International World Group of Rome and Eldor Corporation Spa, located in the Latium Region, have recently signed an agreement to promote projects for energy generation and the production of hydrogen from sea waves and other renewable energy sources, as part of cooperation between Europe and China under the Road and Belt Initiative.

The project will see Italian companies, starting with Eldor, working in close collaboration with the Chinese “National Ocean Technology Centre”, based in Shenzhen, to set up an international research and development centre in the field of ‘green’ hydrogen production using clean energy.

A process that is part of a global strategy which, with the contribution of Italy, its productive forces and its institutions, can help our country, Europe and the rest of the world to recover from a pandemic crisis that, once resolved, together with digital revolution, can trigger a new industrial revolution based no longer on coal or oil, but on hydrogen, which can be turned from the most widespread element in the universe into the growth engine of a new civilisation.

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Jordan, Israel, and Palestine in Quest of Solving the Energy Conundrum

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Gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean can help deliver dividends of peace to Jordan, Israel, and Egypt. New energy supply options can strengthen Jordan’s energy security and emergence as a leading transit hub of natural gas from the Eastern Mediterranean. In fact, the transformation of the port of Aqaba into a second regional energy hub would enable Jordan to re-export Israeli and Egyptian gas to Arab and Asian markets.

The possibility of the kingdom to turn into a regional energy distribution centre can bevalid through the direction of Israeli and Egyptian natural gas to Egyptian liquefaction plants and onwards to Jordan, where it could be piped via the Arab Gas Pipeline to Syria, Lebanon, and countries to the East.  The creation of an energy hub in Jordan will not only help diversify the region’s energy suppliers and routes. Equal important, it is conducive to Jordan’s energy diversification efforts whose main pillars lie in the import of gas from Israel and Egypt; construction of a dual oil and gas pipeline from Iraq; and a shift towards renewables. In a systematic effort to reduce dependence on oil imports, the kingdom swiftly proceeds with exploration of its domestic fields like the Risha gas field that makes up almost 5% of the national gas consumption. Notably, the state-owned National Petroleum Company discovered in late 2020 promising new quantities in the Risha gas field that lies along Jordan’s eastern border with Iraq.

In addition, gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean can be leveraged to create interdependencies between Israel, Jordan, and Palestine with the use of gas and solar for the generation of energy, which, in turn, can power desalination plants to generate shared drinking water. Eco-Peace Middle East, an organization that brings together environmentalists from Jordan, Israel and Palestine pursues the Water-Energy Nexus Project that examines the technical and economic feasibility of turning Israeli, Palestinian, and potentially Lebanese gas in the short-term, and Jordan’s solar energy in the long-term into desalinated water providing viable solutions to water scarcity in the region. Concurrently, Jordan supplies electricity to the Palestinians as means to enhancing grid connectivity with neighbours and promoting regional stability.

In neighbouring Israel, gas largely replaced diesel and coal-fired electricity generation feeding about 85% of Israeli domestic energy demand. It is estimated that by 2025 all new power plants in Israel will use renewable energy resources for electricity generation. Still, gas will be used to produce methane, ethanol and hydrogen, the fuel of the future that supports transition to clean energy. The coronavirus pandemic inflicted challenges and opportunities upon the gas market in Israel. A prime opportunity is the entry of American energy major Chevron into the Israeli gas sector with the acquisition of American Noble Energy with a deal valued $13 billion that includes Noble’s$8 billion in debt.

The participation of Chevron in Israeli gas fields strengthens its investment portfolio in the Eastern Mediterranean and fortifies the position of Israel as a reliable gas producer in the Arab world. This is reinforced by the fact that the American energy major participates in the exploration of energy assets in Iraqi Kurdistan, the UAE, and the neutral zone between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Israel’s normalization agreement with the UAE makes Chevron’s acquisition of Noble Energy less controversial and advances Israel’s geostrategic interests and energy export outreach to markets in Asia via Gulf countries.

The reduction by 50% in Egyptian purchase of gas from Israel is a major challenge caused by the pandemic. Notably, a clause in the Israel-Egypt gas contract allows up to 50% decrease of Egyptian purchase of gas from Israel if Brent Crude prices fall below $50 per barrel. At another level, it seems that Israel should make use of Egypt’s excess liquefaction capacity in the Damietta and Idku plants rather than build an Israeli liquefaction plant at Eilat so that liquefied Israeli gas is shipped through the Arab Gas Pipeline to third markets.

When it comes to the West Bank and Gaza, energy challenges remain high. Palestine has the lowest GDP in the region, but it experiences rapid economic growth, leading to an annual average 3% increase of electricity demand. Around 90% of the total electricity consumption in the Palestinian territories is provided by Israel and the remaining 10% is provided by Jordan and Egypt as well as rooftop solar panels primarily in the West Bank. Palestinian cities can be described as energy islands with limited integration into the national grid due to lack of high-voltage transmission lines that would connect north and south West Bank. Because of this reality, the Palestinian Authority should engage the private sector in energy infrastructure projects like construction of high-voltage transmission and distribution lines that will connect north and south of the West Bank. The private sector can partly finance infrastructure costs in a Public Private Partnership scheme and guarantee smooth project execution.

Fiscal challenges however outweigh infrastructure challenges with most representative the inability of the Palestinian Authority to collect electricity bill payments from customers. The situation forced the Palestinian Authority to introduce subsidies and outstanding payments are owed by Palestinian distribution companies to the Israeli Electricity Corporation which is the largest supplier of electricity. As consequence 6% of the Palestinian budget is dedicated to paying electricity debts and when this does not happen, the amount is deducted from the taxes Israel collects for the Palestinian Authority.

The best option for Palestine to meet electricity demand is the construction of a solar power plant with 300 MW capacity in Area C of the West Bank and another solar power plant with 200 MW capacity across the Gaza-Israel border. In addition, the development of the Gaza marine gas field would funnel gas in the West Bank and Gaza and convert the Gaza power plant to burn gas instead of heavy fuel. The recent signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Palestinian Investment Fund, the Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Company (EGAS) and Consolidated Contractors Company (CCC) for the development of the Gaza marine field, the construction of all necessary infrastructure, and the transportation of Palestinian gas to Egypt is a major development. Coordination with Israel can unlock the development of the Palestinian field and pave the way for the resolution of the energy crisis in Gaza and also supply gas to a new power plant in Jenin.

Overall, the creation of an integrating energy economy between Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and Palestine can anchor lasting and mutually beneficial economic interdependencies and deliver dividends of peace. All it takes is efficient leadership that recognizes the high potentials.

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The EV Effect: Markets are Betting on the Energy Transition

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The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) has calculated that USD 2 trillion in annual investment will be required to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement in the coming three years.

Electromobility has a major role to play in this regard – IRENA’s transformation pathway estimates that 350 million electric vehicles (EVs) will be needed by 2030, kickstarting developments in the industry and influencing share values as manufacturers, suppliers and investors move to capitalise on the energy transition.

Today, around eight million EVs account for a mere 1% of all vehicles on the world’s roads, but 3.1 million were sold in 2020, representing a 4% market share. While the penetration of EVs in the heavy duty (3.5+ tons) vehicles category is much lower, electric trucks are expected to become more mainstream as manufacturers begin to offer new models to meet increasing demand.

The pace of development in the industry has increased the value of stocks in companies such as Tesla, Nio and BYD, who were among the highest performers in the sector in 2020. Tesla produced half a million cars last year, was valued at USD 670 billion, and produced a price-to-earnings ratio that vastly outstripped the industry average, despite Volkswagen and Renault both selling significantly more electric vehicles (EV) than Tesla in Europe in the last months of 2020.

Nevertheless, it is unlikely this gap will remain as volumes continue to grow, and with EV growth will come increased demand for batteries. The recent success of EV sales has largely been driven by the falling cost of battery packs – which reached 137 USD/kWh in 2020. The sale of more than 35 million vehicles per year will require a ten-fold increase in battery manufacturing capacity from today’s levels, leading to increased shares in battery manufacturers like Samsung SDI and CATL in the past year.

This rising demand has also boosted mining stocks, as about 80 kg of copper is required for a single EV battery. As the energy transition gathers pace, the need for copper will extend beyond electric cars to encompass electric grids and other motors. Copper prices have therefore risen by 30% in recent months to USD 7 800 per tonne, pushing up the share prices of miners such as Freeport-McRoran significantly.

Finally, around 35 million public charging stations will be needed by 2030, as well as ten times more private charging stations, which require an investment in the range of USD 1.2 – 2.4 trillion. This has increased the value of charging companies such as Fastnet and Switchback significantly in recent months.

Skyrocketing stock prices – ahead of actual deployment – testify to market confidence in the energy transition; however, investment opportunities remain scarce. Market expectations are that financing will follow as soon as skills and investment barriers fall. Nevertheless, these must be addressed without delay to attract and accelerate the investment required to deliver on the significant promise of the energy transition.

IRENA

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