We like to think we can see the true nature of the world around us, or at least, that we have a chance of understanding it. In February, the Irish government took a big step towards revealing how the fossil fuel infrastructure really works. How? By halting all public investment in fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas from the €8 billion (US$8.6 billion) Ireland Strategic Investment Fund.
When it comes to the environment and protecting it for our own health as well as that of the planet, it helps to try and see through the obvious arguments about why we are still using so much fossil fuel, even though we know the damage it does to the climate. After all, Shell Oil made a film about that damage to the climate by fossil fuel use back in 1991, so none of this is new.
So after decades of discussions, why aren’t we further down the road to renewable energy use?
One key reason is because some of the largest modern governments are so profoundly intertwined with the fossil fuel industry. Massive subsidies go towards supporting supply security, but also fund environmental protection by reducing emissions. A 2016 report published in World Development estimated that direct fossil fuel subsidies averaged 6.5% of the global GDP in the years 2013-2015, with over half the subsidies going to coal (China is the largest subsidizing country by far).
Subsidies of renewable energies are a small fraction of this amount, particularly if one folds in the indirect subsidies of maintaining fossil-fuel infrastructures, and the lack of holding fossil fuel companies all along the production chain financially accountable for damage done – for example, clean-ups of damaged water systems or land polluted in oil spills, or ecosystem rebuilding following mining activities.
These subsidies are public funds that are paid to support what is already one of the most profitable industries on the planet.
By becoming the first country in the world to fully divest from fossil fuel subsidies, Ireland shines a light on how the system really works. Knowing how much any given government is paying to support fossil fuel use instead of more sustainable energies can provide real insight into policy decisions – and if that country is a representative democracy, that knowledge can guide voters’ choices.
This divestment gets down to the hidden structures that keep a dangerous addiction both strong and intact.