Doug Koplow, subsidies researcher and founder of Earth Track, answers questions
With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
I’m the founder of Earth Track in Cambridge, Mass., which focuses on increasing visibility of environmentally harmful subsidies. This visibility comes through direct analysis, consolidation of research from around the world, and descriptive materials understandable by general audiences.
Subsidies transfer value from the public sector to private interests, sometimes in cash, but more often via complex and hard-to-track methods. A good general observation is the quicker your eyes glaze over reading eligibility requirements, the bigger the subsidy is likely to be. At an estimated trillion dollars per year globally, these subsidies degrade and destroy our natural environment. They contribute to many of the most challenging environmental problems we face today, including climate change, fisheries loss, deforestation, water depletion, and declines in biodiversity.
What are you working on at the moment?
We recently completed a major analysis of U.S. subsidies to ethanol and biodiesel for the Global Subsidies Initiative. Trendy though biofuels may be, there are quite severe environmental downsides that need much more attention. We will soon produce a top 10 list of the most distorted energy subsidies from around the world — a useful starting point for subsidy reformers.
I’m just beginning a major upgrade to the Earth Track website to enhance its look and capabilities, including some new web-based subsidy-tracking tools. If you are a skilled programmer with a fierce commitment to environmental protection, we may be able to use your help in this effort.
Slated for later in 2007 (not all funding is yet in place) is a comprehensive update of U.S. fossil-fuel subsidies. In the midst of serious issues on carbon emissions and an upsurge of new coal plants, updating 10- to 15-year-old data on fossil-fuel subsidies is a prerequisite for supporting good policy decisions.
How do you get to work?
I drive. Since I haul my kids to school en route, perhaps it would count as carpooling. But I’m burning gasoline nonetheless.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I discovered environmental economics in college, and was most interested in political economy. No matter how important the environmental impacts, political and financial issues seemed to drive the pace and direction of policy. It was clear that I had to understand the business angle to be successful in influencing policy outcomes. First, I needed credibility in confronting business arguments against taking action. Second, this worldview would help me to structure more effective solutions as well. Being among a handful of environmentalists at Harvard Business School, I was in the perfect venue to gain these important skills.
Subsidies entered the picture in the late 1980s when I happened to work on a project for the U.S. EPA on disincentives to recycling. Subsidies to energy used in primary-materials manufacture turned out to be quite important, which led me to the tremendous work done by Rick Heede (then with the Rocky Mountain Institute) on U.S. energy subsidies. For some crazy reason, I decided I wanted to do an update. I thought it would take a few months; it took almost three years. But it was fascinating to do, and I was hooked.
Unfortunately, one-off studies are not enough if people are to make better decisions about resource use from the outset. A range of reforms is needed to detail how government proposals and expenditures are reported and tracked.
Environmentalists are objective-oriented: carbon controls, energy efficiency, reduced pollution. Too often, though, we don’t see the fiscal subsidies coming through the back door. New legislation, special tax breaks, regulatory exemptions, and the like can undermine years of regulatory and policy work to protect the environment.
A revolution in the quality and transparency of data on government subsidies would yield tremendous environmental dividends. We would see more coherent policies, reduced pressure on critical ecosystems and resources, and much greater leverage to challenge environmentally harmful policies. Since subsidies normally favor the large and well connected, improved transparency would also benefit smaller firms and newer and cleaner technologies.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Boston, and live here today — with a few years away in Connecticut and Washington, D.C.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
A big project evaluating how energy subsidies affected environmental quality in the Canadian aluminum industry was canceled in the middle of an update meeting. The cancellation was political: a coalition of aluminum and government interests didn’t like our findings. This is not an uncommon outcome for many government-based subsidy-reporting initiatives that I’ve seen, underscoring the importance of non-governmental organizations in the subsidy-reform arena.
What’s been the best?
Discovering arcane wording worth hundreds of millions of dollars to particular industries in pending legislation, calling attention to the problem, and then seeing the subsidy disappear in the next version. I can’t be sure I caused the shift, but I like to think my work at least contributed.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
Big picture, it’s seeing how much better UPS can track a package than the government can track hazardous waste, or how much more a fast-food restaurant knows about its buyer demographics than the government knows about industrial emissions. Little picture, it’s going into “earth-friendly” food stores and seeing organic produce like apples or broccoli mummified in plastic wrap.
Who is your environmental hero?
I’ve got a few. The Nature Conservancy, for its focused strategy to save core ecosystems, often using private capital and innovative financial instruments. The Rocky Mountain Institute, with founder Amory Lovins, for their tireless work to refocus discussion from energy supply to energy services, paving the way for many of the demand-side options we see today. The Publish What You Pay consortium, for their efforts to apply basic principles of transparency to resource-extraction industries around the world.
What’s your environmental vice?
I drive a car and I fly.
How do you spend your free time (if you have any)? Read any good books lately?
Mostly I spend my free time with my three children, all under the age of nine, and my spouse. The majority of the books I read are with the kids, though I am enjoying Brice Smith’s Insurmountable Risks, on the myriad problems with nuclear power as a solution to climate change.
What’s your favorite meal?
Does dark chocolate count as a meal?
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I like to garden and eat organic food.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
Bryce Canyon National Park.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
Mandatory cost-benefit assessments for any fiscal subsidy that harms environmental quality. If these steps are needed to ensure environmental regulations are efficient and well thought out, aren’t they at least as important to screen environmentally damaging subsidies?
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Fight the glaze and learn to decode enough subsidy language so you can expose and oppose these things when they come up in your area.