The G20 summit wrapped up in Toronto on Sunday without much action on one of its most sensible targets: phasing out wasteful fossil-fuel subsidies. Those subsidies amount to a crazy $550 billion a year worldwide, and the G20 agreed to look at how to rid the world of them last fall in Pittsburgh.

Whispers before this weekend’s meeting suggested the group of leading economies might punt altogether on the subsidies issue, but it didn’t turn out quite that bad. From the L.A. Times:

Earlier this week, negotiators were hammering out an agreement among the top 20 industrialized and emerging nations that called for each to take “voluntary” measures to cut production and consumption incentives.

But privately under pressure from the Obama administration over the last two days, the group now is preparing to sign [and has now completed] an agreement that omits the word “voluntary.”

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… The tougher language was seen in part as a reaction to the ongoing oil spill crisis in the Gulf of Mexico.

Council on Foreign Relations energy-policy fellow Michael Levi points out that G20 joint statements are essential voluntary anyway. He finds good news elsewhere:

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The more important news is in less-reported language from the communique:

“We welcome the work of Finance and Energy Ministers in delivering implementation strategies and timeframes, based on national circumstances, for the rationalization and phase out over the medium term of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption….”

G20 leaders, in order to show up at the summit prepared, were required to come up with actual strategies for reducing fossil fuel subsidies. I know from speaking with policymakers in several countries that governments were going through planning exercises that they otherwise wouldn’t have in order to deliver on their previous G20 commitments. These strategies will have real consequences for fossil fuel consumption. (I would love to see some of the submissions, in order to judge exactly what those consequences might be; I hear, though, that they’re generally pretty decent.) This is where summits like the G20 can have serious impact.

India, for example, announced last week in advance of the summit that is was removing price controls on gasoline and diesel. It’s impossible to tell whether there’s any relationship between this and the G20 process – the domestic political consequences of removing fuel subsidies are so high that G20 dynamics undoubtedly played at most a supporting role – but, given the timing, it certainly doesn’t hurt. [Emphasis mine.]

Again, taking aim at taxpayer subsidies to oil, coal, and gas companies should be a political no-brainer during a time of budget deficits and the continuing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. And since the Gulf gusher is trumping every other dirty-energy catastrophe in the public discourse, it’s worth reminding that this year has already brought us a coal freighter crashing into the Great Barrier Reef (on an illegal, money-saving shortcut), 29 miner deaths at a West Virginia coal mine, another deadly coal-mine disaster, and several deaths at a natural gas refinery in Washington state. Dirty energy companies aren’t in a strong position to defend public handouts.