Since I started this blog, I have habitually ranked countries with regards to their climate change indicators. These include changes in carbon emissions, energy use, forms of sustainable energy, and various ratios such as energy intensity (energy divided by GDP) and carbon intensity. These rankings are my way of making sense of the global energy transition that we are going through. I want to figure out the consequences of our current actions and how they will affect our children and grandchildren’s future. All of these indicators use directly measurable parameters, which makes ranking them equivalent to counting.
The databases (such as the World Bank) from which we extract the parameters are reliable and use transparent methodologies. Anybody who wants to reproduce the results can do so without much difficulty. We make scientific observations based on these rankings. These observations are in keeping with the Popperian definition of the scientific method: “scientific theory could not be proved but could be disproved or falsified. He claimed that ‘It must be possible for a scientific system to be refuted by experience. A theory that is not refutable by any conceivable event is non-scientific.’” Given that we are using simple observed data, we can classify the indicators as objective.
The difficulty with environmental issues—especially climate change—is that per definition they depend on both human actions and changes in the physical environment. Each one of these impacts comes with many indicators to follow. The weight that we assign to each action is to a large degree subjective. Thus, different individuals or organizations with their own agendas can produce different results—the opposite of the scientific method. For example:
The United Kingdom of Great Britain, which is composed of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Island, has been preparing for Brexit for the last several years. Finally, about a month ago, the UK was able to agree on how exactly to leave the European Union. The Brexit issue, obviously, was not the only issue on the agenda. A country with more than 66 million people has other issues to attend to. One of these was the major expansion of Heathrow airport—the largest airport in England and a gateway to much of its economic activity. A few days ago, the country (and much of the world) was shocked to hear that a judge had blocked the airport’s expansion, citing the UK’s commitments to the 2015 Paris agreement. A Pittsburgh paper covered the matter well:
LONDON — Heathrow Airport’s plans to increase capacity of Europe’s biggest travel hub by over 50% were stalled Thursday when a British court said the government failed to consider its commitment to combat climate change when it approved the project.
The ruling throws in doubt the future of the 14 billion-pound ($18 billion) plan to build a third runway at Heathrow, the west London hub that already handles more than 1,300 flights a day.
While Heathrow officials said they planned to appeal, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government indicated it wouldn’t challenge the ruling by the Court of Appeal.
On November 2016, then Foreign Minister Boris Johnson ratified the Paris Agreement. The EU, which at that time included the UK, signed the agreement as 28-member block. Like all the other signatories to the Paris Agreement, the EU signed a Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) commitment to reduce greenhouse gases by 40% of 1990 levels by 2030 and reach zero emission status by mid-century.
While the UK is no longer part of the EU, now Prime Minister Mr. Boris Johnson (whose party has a very solid majority in parliament) has declared that the government will not challenge the judge’s decision.
… that ordered the government to cut greenhouse gas cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent from 1990 levels by the end of 2020. Because of climate change, “the lives, wellbeing and living circumstances of many people around the world, including in the Netherlands, are being threatened,” Kees Streefkerk, the chief justice, said in the decision. “Those consequences are happening already.”
There was nothing in the NDC that refers the Netherlands in specific or to the year 2020. Nor does it mention the very general statement about “combating climate change” that appears in the British judge’s argument. Instead, these two countries’ justice systems appear to have extrapolated the Paris Agreement’s necessary commitments and are holding their governments to their words. These decisions have major economic impacts. There is no obvious ranking here but the NDC itself reflects the willingness of the signatories to abide by the Paris agreement. The judge is making a subjective interpretation regarding whether the Heathrow expansion is consistent with the commitment.
The second example comes from China. A publication in Nature addresses the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (see my October 6, 2015 blog):
“Assessing progress towards sustainable development over space and time” by Zhenci Xu et al
To address global challenges1–4, 193 countries have committed to the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)5. Quantifying progress towards achieving the SDGs is essential to track global efforts towards sustainable development and guide policy development and implementation. However, systematic methods for assessing spatio-temporal progress towards achieving the SDGs are lacking. Here we develop and test systematic methods to quantify progress towards the 17 SDGs at national and subnational levels in China. Our analyses indicate that China’s SDG Index score (an aggregate score representing the overall performance towards achieving all 17 SDGs) increased at the national level from 2000 to 2015. Every province also increased its SDG Index score over this period. There were large spatio-temporal variations across regions. For example, eastern China had a higher SDG Index score than western China in the 2000s, and southern China had a higher SDG Index score than northern China in 2015. At the national level, the scores of 13 of the 17 SDGs improved over time, but the scores of four SDGs declined. This study suggests the need to track the spatio-temporal [sic] ynamics of progress towards SDGs at the global level and in other nations.
Figure 1 shows the UN’s sustainable development goals that the paper analyzes.
Figure 1 – Sustainable Development Goals of the UN
The paper’s results are shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2 – Changes in China’s SDG index score and individual SDG scores.
The article contains two very dense pages with very subjective criteria that the authors use to weigh the original SDG scores shown in Figure 1 against the overall score shown in Figure 2. One of the reasons that the paper was accepted for publication in such a prestigious journal, in spite of its subjectivity, is that it can be duplicated in most other countries and thus compared. Unfortunately, this kind of work can be weaponized to serve the political ends of various governments. If they simply adjust the weight they give to contributions of individual components, they can achieve the impacts necessary to accomplish specific political ends.
Here again, there is no obvious ranking comparing the Chinese efforts to those of other countries but there is an analysis of the entire effort in terms of time scale. Since this comes with a very detailed methodology, any other country can compare China’s efforts to its own reality and in this way provide the data necessary for such ranking.
In the next blog I will expand on this issue and provide some details on the methodology so that we can all rank whatever we wish.