Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
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Making Sense of Energy Subsidies

When Brown’s campus closed on March 12 due to increasing concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, students dispersed around the globe. Once classes resumed virtually, many students were tasked with continuing projects they had begun prior to this great change, grappling with familiar themes in unfamiliar formats. 

For Professor Jeff Colgan’s course “Geopolitics of Oil and Energy,” students engaged in an ongoing dialogue around climate change, power, and government influence. Joy Bestereous ’20, Andrew Bierle ’20, Gabrielle Hsi ’20, and Simon Giordano ’22 made up one of three groups who created policy videos as their final projects, with this group's focus on energy subsidies.

Here, these students weigh in on what they learned while constructing this project — and how it came together amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. 


What was it like finishing this project after classes went remote in mid-March? 

Joy: Much of our research came together after the shift towards remote learning. To make that happen, we separated things and everybody picked an area that they wanted to study. Half of us looked into renewable energy subsidies, the other half took care of fossil fuel subsidies. In terms of accomplishing the project virtually, I think In terms of accomplishing the project virtually, I think it's realistic to how things get done — there were challenges, but through collaboration, it came together.

Simon: This is a small class that meets for two and half hours once a week. Being in Sydney, Australia, this was from the time of about 3:00 to 5:30 am for me. Watching recorded lectures definitely wasn’t the same, and asking questions live was impossible. Nonetheless, Professor Colgan did the best job he could and my team was always understanding of the situation.

Andrew: Professor Colgan went out of his way to check in with us and ensure that this class was still serving its ultimate purpose. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that his candor and flexibility helped us get the most out of the course, even during lockdown.

Joy: Throughout the process, we developed a very good energy and communication, and I think we did a good job with delegating tasks — even though that was sometimes hard because here are some things you can't delegate when you're working remotely, like the editing of the video had to be completed by one person.

What was the greatest takeaway for you from researching energy subsidies, and putting together this project? 

Joy: I think the key thing that we learned was that the topic of energy subsidies in general is just incredibly confusing, and that's why very little progress is being made in that realm. A big part of what our video is about is how there are multiple definitions involved in energy subsidies. And because of those differing definitions, countries can claim that they don't have any energy subsidies or that they've done everything in their power to remove them. And the effect of that is that governments are doing less than they actually could be if they're using the wrong definition and not making sense.

Andrew: Learning about energy subsidies around the world taught me a great deal about the international energy industry and about how big of an impact framing can have on research questions. We tend to think about subsidies as financial transactions between government and businesses, but in reality there are multiple approaches you can take when talking about them. Small differences in these definitions have great importance when talking about the global energy industry which is so inseparable from pivotal issues like climate change and geopolitics.

Simon: Though tackling climate change will have positive results for all nations and their people, many leaders cannot help but employ a zero-sum-game mentality when they approach the topic. This makes honesty an unrealistic expectation and intentions ultimately undecipherable. For this reason, absolute clarity and precision must be taken when international agreements are codified.

Andrew: Between tax breaks, public financing, research and development support, and direct payments, there is a long history of government support for fossil fuels that is not always matched in the renewable industry. Recognizing these differences is crucial as people and governments begin to look forward to a decarbonized future that runs on renewable energy.

Simon: Without a hard definition of what a subsidy is, progress — reducing fossil fuel subsidies — relies almost solely on the integrity of state leaders. As long as this remains the status quo, nothing will be achieved.

What do you hope viewers take away from this video? 

Simon: Ideally one should walk away from our video feeling uneasy and frustrated. The lesson at the heart of this piece is that attempting to achieve real political solutions on a global scale requires accountability. And that accountability cannot be quantified and enforced without an agreed definition for a subsidy; until that happens we may as well be wasting our time. 

Andrew: I would guess that most people are not thinking too extensively about subsidy definitions right now, but hopefully our video makes a case for why the topic has large implications for the world. 

— Elise Ryan ’21