Friday, 29 January 2010

Per capita carbon emissions vs GDP

One thing that has always concerned me about climate change is the way the government’s approach has whiffed sharply of hypocrisy. In the UK, we are going to have new runways, we are said to need 240,000 new homes a year, and car manufacturing is trumpeted as Definitely Good for the UK. On the other hand, Govt. is always talking about CO2 like the world will end if we dare to so much as breathe out. So, which is it to be? Go after CO2 emissions or let the economy grow? Politics seems to be an attempt to dodge a falling rock by moving both directions at once. It’s impossible. You have to jump one way or the other. Which way they jump, I have never really minded (I just would like the Grey Suits to be consistent – either consistently determined to grow the economy come what may, or consistently determined to cut CO2. Then we can vote according to which view we like. Just be honest, guys.)
What of the “low carbon economy”? Can there be such a thing? Can growth come at the same time as CO2 is cut?
I’ve just compiled some data to find out. It turns out, if history is a predictor of any sort, that growth at the same time as cutting CO2 is impossible.

The graph (click it for clearer version) shows year-on-year changes in per-capita CO2 emissions against the deviation in global growth from what the IMF term the global recession level, i.e. 3%. Which way you should plot this could be argued. Perhaps it should be the other way around, with CO2 emissions driving GDP growth. In either case, the line is the same, as is the conclusion: When the global economy grows, per-capita emissions grow. “Sustainable Growth” is a politician’s myth. We can have Sustainability or Growth. Not both.
One caveat: there is a possibility that some of the two data sets actually have the same source. For example, some carbon dioxide emissions might be estimated by economic activity. This shouldn’t be a problem, because the raw number for CO2 (its atmospheric concentration) is well known, and population size ought to be independent of GDP. Ought to be. I just don’t know exactly how the data was produced.
Data sources:
Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre
IMF economic database

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