Numbers, policy and advocacy

I got into a twitter discussion with Andrew Leach, who writes thoughtfully about energy policy and economics at his blog and occasionally for the globe and mail. The topic of discussion was a number put up by Bill McKibben of stating the following:

By some calculations, the tar sands contain the equivalent of about 200 parts per million CO2

Now this was a throwaway line in an article warning us that the Obama administration was not doing anything to stop runaway carbon emissions from coal and petroleum. But Prof. Leach made the point that this was a bit dishonest because at the current (and future) rate of oil extraction, it would take over 1500 years, and was  ridiculous. But let’s look at the calculation itself. 200 ppm seems like an outrageously large number. After all, the current concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is 393 ppm. Is Bill McKibben actually saying that the taroilsands (I can’t pick on tar vs. oil, and I will campaign for taroil) can contribute half of what’s currently in the atmosphere? That can’t possibly be true. I mean, it is a huge project and all, but still, only 6.5% of Canada’s emissions in 2009.

But, if you follow the mathematics:

  1. 1.75 trillion barrels of bitumen in place , as opposed to the 10% of that deemed recoverable in 2006 assuming 2006 prices and current technology.
  2. One Barrel is approximately 0.5-0.7 metric tons CO2 if you take into account both the production and the combustion. Note that there is a lot of uncertainty in this estimate because most of the data come from the Canadian and Albertan governments, and from the producers themselves, very interested parties. Let’s use the 0.7 for an upper end.
  3. 2.13 GT Carbon emitted adds 1 ppm of CO2 to the atmosphere.

This gets us to approximately about 160 ppm. Note that the 0.7 MT of CO2 uses a number for land use that takes into account the current devastation of the boreal forest and peat bog. If all the oil needs to get out of the taroil sands, the land use number would explode and likely account for the remaining 40 ppm. Anyway, a rough calculation puts the 200 ppm number in context.

But it is an unrealistic number, because taroilsands extraction is very energy and water intensive, time consuming, and promises to remain that way. Barring some magic technology that makes cheap energy possible, in which case, we’d just use that and avoid all the mess, we won’t ever get to that number.

To summarize, 200 ppm is a reasonably accurate mathematical calculation that is wildly out of context. Sounds familiar?

The larger point is that advocates of all stripes, politicians, lobbyists, chambers of commerce, industry interest groups, corporations, and organizations pushing against them use numbers to make things sound scary and big. People who rail against government spending routinely talk about Canada’s deficit being in the billions of dollars, but when we look at it as a deficit/GDP ratio, the numbers are under control, and there’s no need to panic. In advocacy, it’s great to find a number that makes a fantastic point, somehow to bring a message home. I am sure you remember this one in the wake of the BP oil mega spill. Businesses do this all the time as well, with much greater success. I’m sure you’ve heard this trope about small businesses being the engine of job creation based on just the gross number of jobs they create. Yes, but they’re also the engine of job destruction because they go under a lot, but we don’t see that often.

As someone who has all their training as a scientist, and who does not like numeric misleading, being an activist/advocate is tricky. You work with people who are (rightly in many instances) trying to fight bad policy, and bad outcomes. The taroilsands are terrible, especially given that we’re cooking the planet and we’re deliberately spending billions of dollars investing in them. Regardless of whether they’re going to be responsible for 20 ppm, or 200 ppm, the trajectory of investing in an especially inefficient fossil fuel extraction when we should be phasing out all fossil fuel use is the big egregious wrong here. You are also trying to influence a public that finds it very hard to put numbers in context. No one will ever see a billion dollars, there’s no perceived difference between a million barrels and a trillion barrels, it’s all big numbers! So, the temptation is to use big numbers to scare people. I can understand how that happens, but I can’t bring myself to necessarily be okay with it. I will tolerate it, I guess, because the corporations, governments who produce the raw data underlying these numbers know what they mean, but distort them continuously to serve their agenda, and the media, some of whom are number literate abet this misleading. So some push back is necessary, but I will roll my eyes when it happens.

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