Last week a co-worker pointed me towards the Twitter account of Dutch research journalist Marcel Crok. His concern was mostly with some recent factually incorrect tweets on this account. But as I started to browse through his time-line another tweet grabbed my attention. The tweet has since been running through my mind. Not because it is a particularly good tweet, or that it makes a good point. It’s not even a funny tweet either. In fact, I find this tweet so fascinating because there is a lot wrong with it.
So let’s look at the actual tweet. It reads “China now consumes around 2.7 tonnes of coal on a per-capita basis. However, Britain had per-capita coal consumption of 4.6 tonnes in 1913”. That’s it. No further explanation. No link to a site to provide more nuance. Just those two sentences. And it is that lack of nuance that is the problem. In those two sentences the poster talks about emerging economies, the environmental issues that come with improved standards of living, and the question of where we should get our energy. Those are a lot of complex issues spliced into a singular, and in my opinion unfair, 140 character long comparison.
When comparing, say, economies there are several numbers you could look at. A popular choice would be the GDP. It measures the size of an economy in cold hard currency. But some countries have a huge population while others have only a small population. So a country with a large GDP could still have its population living in poverty. They’d just need a huge amount of people to make up for it. So to even things out you use the GDP per-capita. It basically divides the GDP by the economy’s population size. This creates a much fairer comparison.
The tweet does the same. Just not with the GDP but with the consumption of coal. It’s per capita, so it’s a fair comparison, right? Well, in this case it’s not exactly fair. In economics, the GDP per-capita does not account for things like income inequality, corruption, human rights issues. So a country with a high GDP per-capita could still have a large portion of its population live in poverty. And, likewise, the comparison between China in 2015 and Great Britain in 1913 is missing a lot of variables.
Between Great Britain 1913 and China 2015 are 102 years. In those 102 years we’ve invented stainless steel, shortwave radio, the arc welder, robots, 3D movies, rockets, aerosol cans, the jet engine, radio telescopes, radar, the atomic bomb, microwave ovens, transistors, solar cells, computers, and the Internet. We’ve fought our way through two World Wars, the Cold War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and two Gulf wars to name just a few. We’ve sent humans to walk on the moon and then come back to Earth several times. Launched many satellites into space and sent probes to investigate our solar system.
It is almost impossible to compare the way we consume energy to the way we did 102 years ago. We’re just too far removed from that world. Coal, for one, was the obvious choice for the people in Great Britain. They had it in abundance, had very few alternatives, and had little to no knowledge of the harm it does to the environment. In 2015 we have a lot more knowledge and many more alternatives.
Another problem lies in the usage of per-capita numbers instead of total numbers. While per-capita numbers are used often to compare energy use between different countries, using it here is somewhat misleading. Crok’s tweet tries to make the point that China’s pollution from coal isn’t as bad as that of Great Britain in 1913. And it shows us the per-capita numbers that would prove this. But when we look at the total impact modern China and early 20th century Great Britain have had on the planet, we need total numbers. And while there are 1.36 billion people living in modern China, early 20th century Great Britain only had 42.6 million inhabitants. Even with Great Britain’s massive coal usage, the actual amount of pollutants sent into the atmosphere by modern China is much higher.
Calculating the precise amount of pollutants sent into the atmosphere by burning coal is not easy. To get a rough idea we first need to know how much actual carbon is in coal. Coal comes in a wide variety of forms ranging from 60% carbon to about 92%. When burned that carbon with oxygen from the air forms CO2. Carbon’s atomic weight is about 12, CO2 is about 44. Now we have the numbers we need to make a back-of-the-envelope calculation.
Great Britain’s 4.6 tons of coal per capita would produce between 253 million and 388 million metric tons of CO2. China’s 2.7 tons of coal per capita would produce between 8.11 billion and 12.4 billion metric tons of CO2.
Rising energy demands
China is one of the world’s fastest growing economies and this means their energy demands have gone up significantly. Like most large economies, the energy demand is likely to keep rising. China is fulfilling a large portion of this demand with coal. In 1980 the annual consumption of coal in China was 615.5 million metric tons. By 2012 this number has gone up to a whopping 3.5 billion metric tons. Per capita that comes to 2.7 tons. Modern day Great Britain’s per capita coal usage has dropped to just below 1 ton.
But it’s not all bad, luckily. In 1980 China got about 57.62 billion kWh of energy from renewables. In 2012 this has skyrocketed to 1 trillion kWh! Like coal, the use of renewable energy has skyrocketed in China. Through a project called the China Township Electrification Program and China Village Electrification Program, for instance. The programs are providing electricity to remote areas from renewable energy sources. The China Township Electrification Program connected about 200,000 households to the grid. The China Village Electrification Program connected another 3.5 million household. In this program a mixture of wind, photovoltaic, and hydro-electric energy is used. It is programs like this that show that China has what it takes to convert to cleaner energy sources.
I’ve looked online and found that more sites are using the comparison between modern China and 20th century Great Britain. It is obvious that this is an unfair comparison. It gives the impression that China’s coal use is not all that bad. But in 2015 there are better and cleaner alternatives. Replacing the large scale coal use in China with renewable energy would be very beneficial to the Earth’s environment even if per-capita is lower than the coal use of Great Britain 1913.
Using per-capita numbers is a great way to compare the energy use of two nations. But the comparison has to be fair and the conclusions you draw from it should be honest. Adding variables like different time-periods can distort the truth, especially when you condense it down to a single sentence. Suddenly, a serious environmental problem can seem like no big deal. And “no big deals” tend to be left as they are.
p.s all numbers referenced in this article come from Wolfram Alpha.Their sources for these numbers include the US Central Intelligence Agency and the US Energy Information Administration.
photo credits : Asian Development Bank