The Mirage of Fossil Fuel Subsidies: Unraveling the IMF’s Dubious Claims

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From Watts Up With That?


In the ever-evolving discourse surrounding climate change and energy policy, few topics generate as much debate as the alleged subsidies for fossil fuels. Tilak Doshi’s incisive article sheds light on the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) recent claims regarding these subsidies, offering a critical examination of the figures and the motivations behind them.

The IMF’s Eye-Catching Headline

Legacy media, with its penchant for sensationalism, recently paraded a headline that would give even the most seasoned energy analyst pause: “Fossil fuels being subsidised at rate of $13 million a minute, says IMF”. Citing a staggering $7 trillion in support for fossil fuels in 2022, the claim is audacious, especially when juxtaposed against global expenditures on education and military.

“For those of us who have not completely given up on tracking legacy media headlines on climate issues due to the sheer noise-to-signal ratio, there was one recently that made even the most skeptical take notice.”

The Discrepancy in Estimates

The IMF’s figure starkly contrasts with estimates from other reputable institutions. The International Energy Agency (IEA) pegged global fossil fuel subsidies at a record $1.097 trillion in 2022, while the International Institute for Sustainable Development estimated them at $1.4 trillion for the G20 group.

“Why do these estimates vary? The differences in these estimates lie partly in varying methodologies employed to measure subsidies. They also reflect the inherently elastic nature of the subsidy concept.”

Understanding Subsidies: Not All Are Created Equal

Subsidies, in their essence, are government expenditures aimed at supporting specific sectors or demographics. They can be transparent, like price support for farmers, or opaque, favoring a particular industry or technology.

“A subsidy is government expenditure, in cash or kind (for example, a tax credit), in favor of households or firms as financial redistribution in the overall interest of the public.”

Deciphering the IMF’s “Subsidies”

The IMF’s classification of fossil fuel subsidies is intriguing. They differentiate between “explicit” subsidies, which refer to observable undercharging for fossil fuels, and “implicit” subsidies, which account for hypothesized costs of global warming and local air pollution.

“The fossil fuel subsidies identified by the IMF in its 2023 Update on Fossil Fuel Subsidies Data refer to “explicit” and “implicit” subsidies.”

The Flawed Logic of Implicit Subsidies

The IMF’s inclusion of “implicit” subsidies is a contentious point. By factoring in the costs of global warming, such as rising sea levels, extreme weather, and the spread of diseases, the IMF inflates the subsidy figure. However, this approach is problematic, as it doesn’t account for the positive externalities of fossil fuel use.

“While the IMF takes into account negative externalities in its measure of “efficient” fuel prices, it does not consider well-documented positive externalities of fossil fuel use in its report.”

The Greening Effect of Carbon Dioxide

One significant positive externality of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the greening of Earth’s vegetated lands. This phenomenon, which has been observed over the past 35 years, is largely attributed to rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

“An important example of the positive externality of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the significant greening of a quarter to half of Earth’s vegetated lands over the last 35 years largely due to rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.”

The IMF’s Shift in Mandate

Historically, the IMF’s primary role was to maintain global financial stability. However, in recent years, the institution has expanded its purview to include climate change, aligning itself with the climate agendas of various governments.

“But what is an institution set up to act as a financial watchdog and first responder to countries in financial crisis doing dishing out advice on climate change?”

The Dangers of Overreach

The IMF’s foray into environmental policy is concerning. By delving into areas outside its expertise, the institution risks undermining its credibility and the efficiency of international capital markets.

“Climate policy is clearly beyond the scope of any financial regulator’s expertise. Given the uncertainty within the climate science community itself, there is no reason to believe that the IMF can have any greater understanding of climate risks.”


Tilak Doshi’s article offers a compelling critique of the IMF’s claims regarding fossil fuel subsidies. By highlighting the discrepancies in subsidy estimates and the flawed logic behind the IMF’s methodology, Doshi underscores the need for a more nuanced and informed discussion on energy policy.