Breaking up with fossil fuels

“It’s not me,
it’s you.”

The evidence is irrefutable.

We cannot address the climate crisis without looking at the true cost of our addiction to oil, coal and gas.

An average of US$423 billion dollars of public funds are spent every year on fossil fuel subsidies, and despite international commitments, subsidies are not being phased out but are increasing.

At this rate, since you entered this site…


of public funds were spent on fossil fuels.

And that number doesn’t include ‘externalities’ which are the extras we pay for the knock-on effects, such as air pollution, as well as the costs of increasingly violent storms and fires.

They not only take lives— air pollution kills seven million people a year and more than 410,000 people have been killed in violent storms in the last decade—they add up to trillions more.

The message is clear: In the 21st century we are paying and paying and paying again for our crippling reliance on 19th century technology. At the same time as hundreds of millions of people grind out an existence in poverty, the cost of renewable, clean energy plunges.

Our priorities must shift if we want to have a habitable, and just, home on Earth.

More than 410,000 people have been killed in violent storms in the last 10 years.

Clearing the obstacles

Fossil fuel subsidies are a major obstacle to our climate and sustainable development goals because they encourage investment in pollution and discourage renewable energy.

The trillions of dollars spent on old technology can be instead used to fight inequality, build social safety nets, enact universal health coverage, and ease the transition to clean energy economies which will reduce greenhouse gasses and improve human health and wellbeing.

Moving away from subsidies is a critical step to show the true cost of using fossil fuels, to both society and the environment. But reform doesn’t come without risk. If poorly planned, it can lead to price increases that disproportionately impact the poorest households and even increase inequality.

Making change
quickly and fairly

We must quit fossil fuels in a strategic and timely manner, but not underestimate the challenge. It’s important to move as quickly as possible, while ensuring fairness and equitability at every stage of the process.

It’s time for governments and markets to design their leaving strategies with increased commitment and to ensure that the savings reduce inequalities and provide social protection for the most vulnerable.

UNDP is uniquely qualified to help governments make energy pricing reforms that are economically viable and socially fair. The COVID-19 pandemic has opened a new door for policymakers to act now to prevent the catastrophic—and vastly unequal—consequences of climate change.

Time to

The world will spend trillions of dollars to recover from COVID-19. This investment can build the green economies of tomorrow, that are aligned with the Nationally Determined Contributions of the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals.

International momentum is growing, with world leaders calling for a concerted effort as the UN launches a year of accelerated action, including the High Level Dialogue on Energy the first United Nations global energy summit in 40 years.

More governments are receiving revenue from carbon pricing—money that could be used to offset lost income from fossil fuels, which amount to around US$1.1 trillion every year.


Clean energy is growing rapidly, even in developing and fragile countries.

Small island states such as Mauritius and Seychelles have developed ambitious targets for clean energy.

Despite being wracked by conflict and insecurity, Yemen is taking advantage of its hot and dry climate to invest in solar power.

And solar power programmes in Sudan have the double effect of giving families reliable electricity and reducing the need to cut trees for fuel. But the complete change to a green economy requires a systemic approach at all levels of society.

The future is

Phasing out fossil fuels and taxing carbon will spur growth and innovation.

Studies show that the move could provide for up to 10 years of spending on green innovation and infrastructure which would bring growth and new, safer jobs.

The devastating climate predictions are not inevitable. Extreme weather days can be cut in half in both rich and poor countries if the Paris Agreement is in full effect. We can still have an immense impact, limit global warming to 1.5 degrees and reduce by several hundred million the number of people who risk falling into poverty by 2050.

Reforming fossil fuel subsidies is imperative. Those vast sums of money must and should be used, not to continue to dig our own graves, but for the good of all humankind.

Photo credits from top to bottom: Mike Marrah/Unsplash, UNDP Mauritius/Stephane Bellerose, UNDP Mauritania/Freya Morales