Single Stats Should Be Against The Law

We saw earlier that the often cited plateau in global warming (16 years with no real change in global temperatures) was not enough to get anybody’s attention–but that when it was combined with the statistic that we had emitted one third of all human CO2 since that plateau started, it got a few people to scratching their heads.

That’s because the numbers tossed around in climate discussions are too disconnected from human experience to mean much of anything to anybody. I can tell you what a quad is–it’s a quadrillion BTUs. Do you feel smarter knowing that? I can explain it in greater detail. In fact I have, with quads looked at here and BTUs here.

But people have been using raw numbers to talk about climate change for a long time and they’re not playing fairly. I’ve seen numbers abused a lot, especially when talking about the loss of ice in Greenland and the Arctic. People talk about billions of tons lost or how many Manhattans of ice were formed last week.

What they should do is just refer to percentages of the estimated total. But if they did that, people would realize that fears of a melt-out in Greenland or Antarctica is simply absurd. Or that the rapid regrowth after a truly amazing summer melt in the Arctic isn’t really very encouraging.

With that in mind, let’s put two recent statistics together. According to a World Bank report released on January 18, 2012, the GDP of the world grew by an anemic 2.6%. Ho, hum. We all want better.

According to the Global Carbon Project, human emissions of CO2 grew by 2.6% in 2012. Boo. We want that figure to drop.

If you put those two statistics together and actually read the reports that generated the statistics, you see other things. First and most obviously, GDP grew at the same rate as than emissions. Think how bad we would feel if emissions were rising more quickly than CO2…

The Global Carbon Project says that emissions increased by 3% in 2011–funny how the headline of the article says ‘No Slowdown in CO2 Emissions in 2012’. To me, 2.6% is indeed lower than 3%, but maybe they’re doing ‘climate math’, where the point you’re making can be disconnected from the numbers.

The real point is that emissions are not outpacing development. Restraint, taxes and the growth of natural gas and renewables in the developed world are making it possible for the developing world to improve their style of life without the larger scale emissions of CO2 that characterized our historical development.

Now, we know that we have to bend the curve more. Perhaps because curmudgeons are not celebrating the success of the U.S. in lowering emissions, the goal of doing just that still seems unattainable.

But if the huge economy of the U.S., profligate in its consumption and careless in the past about its emissions, can reduce emissions, so can the rest of the world.

We’re staying even at this point–but it’s a welcome start.

5 responses to “Single Stats Should Be Against The Law

  1. C02 emissions increased 2.6% a year. That may seem inconsequential. But do the math as you suggest. You do not appear to understand the exponential function. The exponential function describes anything growing steadily a calculate percentage. The time for the growing fraction to increase by a fixed fraction is a constant. If it takes a fixed length of time to grow 2.6% than it takes even longer to grow to 100%. This longer time is the doubling time. Doubling time can be calculated by T2 = 70/2.6. Thus a growth rate of 2.6% has a doubling time of 26 years. The use of 70 comes from 100% divided by the natural logarithmic of 2 which is 69.3 or approximately 70.
    So considering that the global carbon commissions were 35.6 billion tons in 2012 with a 2.6% rise… in 26 years (2038) it will be 71.2 billion tons a year if the 2.6 stays constant. Now imagine a more industrialized third world. A growing China, India and the African nations. Its obvious the 2.6% at that rate will not stay constant, which will be a net decrease in the time to reach double what we have now.

    How might this be considered staying even in any sense of the word?

    • Dani, Welcome to Lukewarmer. Browse around. I hope you find something thought provoking. Tom is an eternal optimist. He manages to find good news in the darnest places. I’m not an optimist and the only good news I’ve heard lately is that Hagel may not be as bad as Panetta.

  2. Hi Dani, Well, you’ve stumbled on the reason I started my other weblog, linked to in this post several times. I too am worried about future emissions, their quantity and the period of time it takes to reach a certain level.

    However, I am mildly reassured that emissions are not outpacing the growth of GDP, which is what the current crop of OECD countries did.

  3. “According to the Global Carbon Project, human emissions of CO2 grew by 2.6% in 2012”

    The actual report is here…

    “CO2 emissions from fossil fuels burning and cement production are projected to increase by 2.6% in 2012……The 2012 projection of 2.6% growth is based on the world GDP projection of 3.3% made by the International Monetary Fund and our estimate of improvements in the fossil intensity of the economy of 0.7%”

    China had an unexpectedly good year in non-fossil generation and the US switch to natural gas was more then anyone expected. The IMF has not yet released actual GDP growth numbers for 2012. The BP Statistical Review of energy that the Global Carbon Project depends on for actual numbers has also not been released for 2012.

    All that happened is that in October the IMF downgraded it’s global GDP growth projections and the Global Carbon Project revised it’s projections based on those downgraded GDP numbers. It will be months before ‘actual data’ becomes available.

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