Yeah, I thought about it and I call bulls**t

Unilever CEO Paul Polman recently tweeted this, which was subsequently retweeted by real-life Tony Stark Elon Musk and a couple thousand others.

It’s complete tripe.

Ignoring the awkward unit conversion, I can accept that $166,666 a second can pay for 20 solar panels on 1.5 million houses a day – by my maths that’s in the range of $9,600 per house, which seems reasonable if a bit optimistic, considering things like installation.

But $166,666 a second is $5.26 TRILLION a year, which is more than 10 times larger than what the International Energy Agency reckons is the global subsidy to all fossil fuel (about $493 bn in 2014). Those energy subsidies, by the way, are overwhelmingly provided by major producers (e.g. Iran, Saudi, Russia) and developing countries. In the States, 65% of the government’s total energy subsidies go to renewable energy (yes, the government pays people to buy your cars Mr Musk), and it’s a similar story in the EU.

I’ll freely admit I don’t know very much about economics, so I had to do my homework – I later found that the IMF source providing this $5.26 trillion number was this working paper, which was jumped on by the usual suspects at the time. The huge difference between that number and what the IEA considers to be subsidy comes from “post-tax subsidies”, which apparently cover enormous non-existent taxes and fines on climate change, air pollution, and so on. (Those pre-tax subsidies in the IEA estimate also include (among other things) taxes not levied, for example in bringing cheap petrol to the people of Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Qatar, Iran, etc.)

It’s already a stretch to conclude that world governments could reasonably be taxing oil companies almost five times their annual revenue – close to 1/7th of all the value created in the entire world, as it happens. It’s plain dishonest to imply that oil companies are somehow being given this fictional money and that it could have been spent on solar panels instead.

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