Apparently, there's no good news on climate without tempering with the numbers.
Lies, damned lies and statistics
Klassekampen, 15 Nov 2019
The Norwegian governing parties Høyre and Venstre recently had a climate celebration on social media: Greenhouse gas emissions decreased for the third consecutive year and have not been this low since 1995. Venstre tweeted a chart where emissions appeared to be cut in half, and Høyre posted a chart on Facebook to show that, under their leadership, emissions have only dropped. The message was clear: the climate is in safe hands with a right-wing government. A pity that none of this is true.
The graph by Venstre had the correct numbers, but the y-axis was adjusted such that the lower 51 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions weren't visible. A well-known trick that appeared to show that emissions had halved, while in reality this was a reduction of just 0.9%. After heavy criticism, Venstre removed the chart and placed a correct version where, of course, there was hardly any difference among the years.
That didn't stop Høyre from taking even more liberties with the numbers. In their graph, there wasn't just something wrong with the y-axis, but also with the x-axis. They had taken out the years 2014 through 2016 and made the distance between 2013 and 2017 four times smaller than between 2017 and 2018. As a result, it looked like emissions had fallen sharply, while in reality – in the missing years – they had been increasing. Unfortunately, this is all too typical of a climate debate where apparently good news cannot be reported without tempering with the numbers.
In Sweden, per capita emissions are twice as low
I do not understand why these two governing parties were beating the drum about the minimal decline in greenhouse gas emissions. Their climate target for 2020 already proved impossible and the one they set for 2030 will, at this rate, be reached 30 years later. You can't be proud of that, can you? But that's not all: the press release from the Norwegian Central Statistical Office, SSB, entitled "Little change in greenhouse gas emissions", was an adjustment to the provisional figures from June, which showed an increase of 0.4%. How did that turn into a decline?
If you put aside the disinformation of the governing parties and look at the numbers of the SSB, you will see that in many sectors, such as agriculture, industry and energy supply, emissions indeed decreased slightly. But at the same time, a sharp increase in emissions from road traffic and other transport canceled this out. The only reason that there was a net reduction in emissions was a large reduction under the heading "other sources". This includes HFCs - hydrofluorocarbons that were once used in cooling installations and which have a global warming potential that is hundreds to thousands of times stronger than CO2. Converted to CO2 equivalents, their emissions decreased by 540,000 tonnes, which is why the balance for the climate turned out well. Those numbers were not yet available in June.
Isn't it nice that the government has reduced HFC emissions? Yes, but it wasn't this government, it was the Bondevik-2 cabinet from more than 15 years ago. On January 1, 2003, a tax was imposed on the import and production of HFCs in Norway, which halved their use by more than half. Since the SSB assumes in its calculations that the equipment that uses these gases has an average lifespan of 15 years, this strong reduction was only written in the books in 2018. This is not an observed reduction in HFC emissions, but an approximation on paper. Without this one-off accounting windfall, which has nothing to do with current government policy, emissions would have increased.
By the way, you don't have to think that the Bondevik government was climate-friendly. The reduction in HFCs was an unsuccessful attempt to comply with the Kyoto protocol. Norway had lobbied hard to get HFCs part of the climate agreement, because the high greenhouse gas strength of these gases made it a relatively simple intervention that did not apply to the oil industry. But by failing to levy a tax on all other greenhouse gases, such as CO2 and methane, greenhouse gas emissions continued to increase - especially in the oil industry.
It's never fun to spoil a party. However, this whole story does show the strength of a tax on greenhouse gases: it reduces emissions. They have been doing this in Sweden since 1991, and their per capita emissions are twice as low as in Norway. Last Monday, the Norwegian Labour Party announced that it is open to a carbon fee and dividend system, where the revenue from this carbon tax goes back to the taxpayer. People who do not emit much – often the low incomes – can actually profit from this, while high emitters are the ones who pay the most. That's what the greening of the economy needs: that we not only save the climate, but also do it in a fair way.
This text first appeared in Klassekampen on 15 Nov 2019