Cutting subsidies

So having ranted incorrectly about energy subsidies, I saw this article about Malaysia and was reminded of this set of principles I suggested to one of the officials at the Single Buyer of Peninsular Malaysia while working with them on a project. These are ideas on how to move towards a regime where subsidies are reduced and does not apply to everyone:

1. Make them transparent: Start by making clear where there is a subsidy; even when there is a blanket subsidy, make sure that the amount of subsidy is clearly shown to those receiving the subsidy, and that the burden of the subsidy is properly attributed, reported, even publicly. Where price controls are used, the implicit subsidy needs to be made explicit.

2. Share a cross-section of the beneficiaries: Often, fuel subsidies are meant to help manage the cost of living for the lower income. But when it is implemented through price controls or blanket subsidies, it disproportionately benefits the largest energy users. By publicising who are the beneficiaries of the subsidy and how much who gets, you can start considering how to reduce the subsidy for select groups of beneficiary that will be impacted the least.

3. Reduce subsidy for beneficiaries not aligned with policy intents: unless the state policy intention is to benefit the fossil fuel industry, there are always some groups benefiting from a blanket subsidy whose profile doesn’t align with the target group you are trying to help.

4. Keep the subsidy only for groups targeted: once the policy intents are clearer and there is social consensus of who the target groups should be, the subsidies can be pared back to be given only to those who need them. This means that subsidies need to shift from producer-side towards consumer-side. This should be aided by improvements in technology, government data-collection, and new channels for disbursing benefits.

The truth is that economics of renewables have improved and could match fossil energy in some cases. Cutting subsidies for fossil fuel will not just help reduce the reliance on them but free up more government resources to accelerate the transition. We should not allow subsidies to stand in the way of the transition.