The newly launched Carbon Monitoring Action Group (CARMA) has collated carbon emission data across more than 50,000 power plants worldwide. CARMA makes a lot of data available, enabling statistical analysis and comparison with free (for non-commercial use), up-to-the-year information. The report is a necessary milestone in becoming greatly aware of the challenges and identifying what steps to take.
The story the BBC, CNN and other outlets have generally run with shows up the worst offenders, ranking a few other countries by how bad they are. The facts cited in these stories are true: the United States emits the most carbon and Australia is the worst offender when emissions are compared to population. China is clearly the fastest growing polluter with emissions more than doubling since the year 2000 and CARMA's estimates doubling that figure again in the next decade.
These conclusions got me thinking, because my home country of New Zealand has always had a rivalry with Australia, and it's clear that we have well and truly beaten them here. I thought that the news agencies had their angle wrong, and that they should turn their charts upside-down to heroicize the winners.
But early conclusions are not as straightforward as we may like them to be. Sure, the USA, China and Australia stand out as offenders, but more work is needed to analyse CARMA's findings. What figures should we really be comparing?
Countries as different as the United States and China should not be compared on carbon emissions alone. China is estimated to have over one billion more people than the USA, and yet supports this population with slightly lower total carbon emissions at present.
But despite China coming so close to passing the USA on carbon emissions, it is only generating 60 percent as much energy in total. When viewed in this context, China's 1679 generation plants are some of the largest yet least carbon efficient in the world -- and at this size, this is a huge challenge to face in the coming years.
New Zealand and Australia is a much more fair comparison. The two countries have historically shared similar geographic locations, histories, social policies, accents and globally recognised identities. Lifestyles, climatic conditions and electricity demands are often compared between the two nations. So how is it that per capita New Zealand's emissions from power generation are around 75 percent lower than Australia's?
Unfortunately, the answer is not that New Zealand is doing such a good job at conservation or new tech implementation that it makes any other country's efforts look poor. Switzerland has astonishing figures; its' 550 generation plants have carbon emissions totalling only one twentieth the amount per head in Australia. Comparison of electricity generation by tonne [In US terms, by metric ton. -- Ed.] of carbon dioxide shows that Switzerland is achieving its' generation with more than two hundred times greater efficiency. But Norway, the Congo, Iceland and Rwanda each generate electricity at an even better carbon ratio than Switzerland does, showing that it is possible to achieve high scores all over the globe.
Is carbon efficiency per watt the best figure to compare, or is it carbon per head of population? Given that energy requirements are likely to remain high in the short term of the emerging bright green future, I say we should focus on per watt carbon emissions. As Switzerland and Norway clearly show, you can have a high-energy-use lifestyle without the emissions.
This is valuable data, something to consult in tandem with other energy efficiency information. In the mean time, congratulations to Rwanda, Bhutan and Iceland: home to the world's most carbon-efficient (per watt) energy generators.
Image credit: thanks Future Atlas!