Ill show you my goal if you show me yours

goal.gifThe climate science is in. The need for action is indisputable. The goal is clear. Or is it? Consider these few examples:

As I track the many calls for cuts in emissions — and the list of groups setting targets seems to grow every week — I suspect that we’re not only confusing the public, but also one another. We have a proliferation of percentages and a proliferation of base years against which these percentages are calculated: 1990, 2005, today, whenever Congress gets around to passing a law. The World Resources Institute, among others, deserves thanks for helping us make apples-to-apples comparisons of GHG reduction targets contained in the various bills in Congress.

But should our climate metrics be so confusing that we need think tanks to sort them out?


We don’t agree on what we’re trying to cut. Some of us talk about reducing carbon emissions, others about reducing carbon dioxide emissions and others about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, all different. Some talk about carbon-dioxide-equivalent emissions, a useful but fictitious unit of measure based on all six greenhouse gases behaving like CO2.

Then there’s carbon intensity, another way of saying carbon emissions per dollar of Gross Domestic Product. This unit is the favorite of the current Administration because of its unique ability to make it appear that emissions are going down when they are actually going up. There’s even energy intensity, for those who really don’t care about the climate.

Creative math can provide camouflage for Members of Congress, too. A bill proposing that emissions be cut 30% below 2005 levels is the same as a bill cutting emissions 20% below 1990 levels. Simply by changing the baseline, a Member can look as though he or she is more ambitious than the European Union or the IPCC or some other member, when he or she is not.

We hear the threshold of dangerous climate change expressed in degrees Celsius and parts per million, and the parts per million are different depending on which gases we’re discussing. If we are able to sort through all of these units of measure, we then have to ask whether we’re talking about gross emissions or net emissions — i.e., the amount of greenhouse gases finding their way to the atmosphere after some of what we’ve emitted has been captured by the ocean, land and forests.

It probably is too much to expect that all, or most, or even many of the good groups working on the climate problem will agree to the same goal. But it should not be too much to ask that we agree on the same language.

The marketplace can use a common metric, too. The many on-line carbon footprint calculators have the right idea in principle. So do a few manufacturers of consumer products, who are beginning to introduce climate impact labels on their goods.

We should make it easy for consumers to know the impact of their purchases and behaviors.

So far, however, carbon calculations are the Wild West of metrics, with no universal standard for how we compute the tons of carbon it took to produce a sneaker or a pair of jeans. We could do many good things with a metric we all could trust. We could put carbon-impact numbers on new car stickers (emissions per mile), on appliance efficiency and Energy Star labels (emissions per kilowatt), on utility bills (emissions compared to last month and a year ago, based on the utility’s generation portfolio and after deducting green power purchases, etc.).

In regard to national goals, it seems clear to me that our common unit of measure should count all greenhouse gases that enter the atmosphere — in other words, net tons of CO2 equivalent. I’d vote for our common base year to be 1990, since that seems to be the international standard.

On consumer products, it may be time for a summit of the nation’s best bean counters. While they’re at it, perhaps they can figure out a national standard for carbon offset programs, too.

The good news is that so many of us are talking about climate action and goals. At the moment, however, it’s like trying to have an intelligent conversation at the United Nations, without a translator.


–Bill B.

12 Responses to Ill show you my goal if you show me yours

  1. Also- the Union of Concerned Scientists, Texas Tech University, and Stanford are calling for 80% reductions from 2000 levels by 2050.

    Amen on the concept of standardization.

  2. David B. Benson says:

    NONE of those goals suffice to avoid the calamity of sea stand rise. The current guessimate is that it will take 50–150 years for the sea stand to rise one meter above todya’s sea stand. However, so little is understood regarding the melting that it could be less. Here is a somewhat technical paper on the topic, which in my opinion actually somewhat understates the hazard:

    An e-mail from Dr. James Hansen states that “All” we have to do is reduce current warming by 0.5–1.0 W/m^2. If done by carbon alone, this requires stopping adding 8 billion tonnes of carbon to the active carbon cycle each year and in addition removing from the active carbon cycle between 200 billion tonnes of carbon and 350 billion tonnes of carbon.

    By this analysis, nobody, not even UCS, seems to recognize the magnitude of the task ahead. Dropping to 1990 levels won’t stop sea stand riase, but might postpone it…

  3. Governments need to set and enforce limits; this we know. Political representatives need to be urged by electorates to push such legistlation forward. Without standard language and goals, citizens are too mind-boggled for political engagement and politicians are likely to move slowly because of confusion and competing bills. Thanks for highlighting this problem, Joe. This affects the basic communications layer where agreement is required for large scale changes to happen.

  4. Ron says:

    I enjoyed the cartoon, Joe. A ref kicking a goal! Too funny. We had a couple of refs kinda like that at a Mighty Mite football game last year. They got fired.

  5. john says:


    Good Post. To me, it seems pretty simple — scientists agree that we’re flirting with disaster if atmospheric concentrations of GHG reach 500 PPM.
    So, we should backcast from that to establish goals which meet it. The devil is in the details, of course, but at the end of the day, any goal should be informed by physical limits not, political whims.

  6. Simon D. says:

    The confusion and conflict has arisen because there is no correct answer to this. Defining the emissions reduction required identifying i) what is the “acceptable” warming, ii) what concentration of GHGs will limit warming to that level, and iii) what level of emissions will result in said concentration of GHGs.

    Most of the scientific community feels for (i) that an increase of more than 2 deg C would initiate some of the disastrous consequences of climate change, like melting of the ice sheets, and would cause widespread damage to ecosystems like coral reefs. For (ii), the number may be between 450-550 ppm, so the 500 ppm John mentions is reasonable. The answer to (iii) isn’t a simple backcast, as the rate at which emissions turn into atmospheric concentrations depend on the ability of the planet to take up CO2 (something that changes as the planet warms). So, if you change the assumptions a little bit, or choose the high end rather than the low end in any of the three steps, you’ll get a different answer.

    The middle ground, adopted by the UK, is a 60% reduction below 1990 levels by 2050 for the world. You can also argue that Western nations, responsible for more of the historical emissions, should claim an 80%-90% reduction to equalize emissions per capita around the world.

  7. Homer says:

    “Most of the scientific community feels …”

    That’s post-modern scientists… they don’t calculate, don’t experiment, don’t measure, they feel… The poets should protest that their domain has been hijacked…

    Goals, goals, goals… blah… blah… blah…. empty feel good talk. You can set goals all you wish, especially for the year 2050… nobody takes it seriously, especially politicians, and it just as well, there is no way to make these things happen… but setting goals makes you FEEL good… again… feeling…

  8. Paul K says:

    Good points:
    “The middle ground, adopted by the UK, is a 60% reduction below 1990 levels by 2050 for the world.”
    “Without standard language and goals, citizens are too mind-boggled for political engagement and politicians are likely to move slowly because of confusion and competing bills”.
    It would help if all the goals were put in terms of the same year. How about this year? That would be easy for all to understand. I think the first step to the goal is to determine if we are capable right now of, at the very least, stopping the increase in CO2 emissions.

  9. Paulina says:

    “…should our climate metrics be so confusing that we need think tanks to sort them out?”

    Well, sure, if the goal is to confuse people.

    But if we understand that climate change needs to be not just a voting issue but a *meaningful* voting issue, we have to have uniform and unambiguous language.

    If bill sponsors and candidates were to push for this, it would suggest that they are actually trying to take action, rather than instead trying either to thwart action or merely use the climate change issue for their own purposes.

    “Without standard language and goals, citizens are too mind-boggled for political engagement ”

    Yes. And, instead of the message being reinforced, it’s diluted.

    Thanks Bill, Joe, and Cliff.

    Thank you Ron, too, for pointing out that the scorer is “the referee”. How apt. While the others fail to work together as a team, guess who scores? The Decider.
    (Other ideas re the identity of the referee also come to mind.)

  10. Ronald says:

    Goals of reductions are wishes if we don’t discuss how to get there. We don’t even have enough people thinking we have to do anything.

    Instead of goals of carbon dioxide reductions being discussed, we need goals of more people who want carbon dioxide reductions. How to convince the population that we need reductions. Otherwise, discussions of 50 percent reductions of any years are meaningless. We have to get people to get people to want to reduce first.

  11. Paulina says:

    “68 percent of Americans support a new international treaty requiring the United States to cut its emissions of carbon dioxide 90 percent by the year 2050 according to the survey conducted by Yale University, Gallup and the ClearVision Institute.”

    So people do want reductions, in this general sense. But in order for us to achieve the reductions people claim to want, reductions have to become, not just a voting issue but, a *meaningful* voting issue. This requires simple, clear, and standardized language.