For most of his career, my middle school art teacher had the letters “POV” written on the classroom ceiling. From time to time, confused eleven-year-olds would inquire about the meaning behind the acronym permanently overhead. “Well,” he’d respond, “that depends upon your point of view.”
So it is with climate change. We hear numerical evidence every day that should compel us to address our growing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. We’ve studied the problem long enough to proclaim confidently: Blame the oil companies; China’s growth will kill the planet; Coal is the enemy. The data are clear and the answers are in front of us, so why waste time challenging what we already know?
Because, while oil companies, China and coal all contribute to a warming climate, our perspectives of the problem are often rather limited. Those of us committed to addressing climate change tend to become entrenched in what we believe are the solutions. We work so passionately to ensure wind turbines remain economically competitive or to end construction of coal-fired power plants, for instance, that we tend to forget these efforts are merely a means to an end. A look at some popular statistics about U.S. emissions helps reveal how changing our perspective of the problem can reshape the ways we think about solutions.
In 2010, the U.S. was responsible for emitting 6,822 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e), a standard metric used for quantifying GHGs. One of the most common ways to present a breakdown of emissions is by the economic sector responsible for them: Based on the pie chart above, we see that the electric power industry contributed 34% of our total emissions in 2010, followed by the transportation sector at 27%. Together, these two comprise over 60% of total emissions, numbers that lead us to believe that we won’t get far in addressing climate change unless we double down on our commitments to solar panels and electric cars. While these technologies are important, however, the chart marginalizes the emissions impact of residential, commercial, and other sectors. Presenting the same data from another angle, the chart below reveals additional levers for change.
While electricity generation is a major source of GHGs, its emissions are driven by demand from our homes and businesses. Another way to consider our emissions is by including the emissions from electricity in the sectors where that electricity is used. When viewed from this angle, we see that the residential and commercial sectors contribute 40% – the largest single portion we’ve seen so far. Clearly, renewable energy would reduce our emissions no matter how the data are presented, but this perspective underscores the importance of energy efficiency at home and at work. Suddenly, stricter building codes and energy-efficient appliances seem like no-brainers, a conclusion absent from the first chart. And the importance of remaining cognizant of the limitations of our perspective doesn’t end here – take a look at the next graph and consider how it offers yet another course of action.
This chart clearly emphasizes the need to get off oil, yet fails to provide insight into how we might do so, while the other two force us to consider some of the ways we use those fuels. And when you take the three charts together, you can draw many of the same conclusions, an indication of their robustness. For example, no reasonable dataset can avoid the reality that our dependence on oil and coal is a main driver of our growing emissions.
As a final example of how the same numbers can be interpreted so differently, turn to the EPA’s GHG Reporting Program, which collects data about all greenhouse gas-emitting facilities in the US, such as power plants and oil refineries. In 2010, a mere 5% of facilities were responsible for 60% of total emissions. This program only accounts for stationary sources such as power plants and oil refineries, but the massive skew in distribution suggests that the most effective strategy for reducing emissions might in fact be to target the few largest emitters rather than to develop broader blanket policies. In the absence of federal legislation, the EPA seems to agree, with (delayed) plans to limit emissions from the largest facilities.
We must be vigilant in challenging our own assumptions. Is the core of the problem our dependence on oil? Inefficient homes? Coal-fired power plants? The answer to each, of course, is “Yes;” thus, our challenge lies not in determining which course of action is the right one, but rather how we can combine the lessons from a range of perspectives to be more effective advocates for change.
The Verdict: Some realities about GHG emissions are inescapable. A range of technologies and policies offers serious potential to reduce our overall emissions, and we need to consider them all. But we’ll only reap their full benefits if we can avoid entrenchment by recognizing that different vantage points offer varied yet valid insights into the complex challenge of addressing climate change. Taking care not to be limited by the narrowness of a single perspective will ensure we have a fighting chance at achieving meaningful change.
Jordan Garfinkle is the founder of CleanTechVerdict.com, a resource for those seeking fact-based assessments of technological and policy solutions to environmental problems.