More than Merely Counting Carbon Dioxide Emissions

In a recent essay, I described how “convention” applies to the relatively unimportant matter of “counting medals” toward the relatively unimportant matter of answering the relatively unimportant question, who is leading the Olympics? In that essay, I argued that the conventions advanced for answering this question tended to both reflect and reproduce the interests of countries that had adopted any particular convention.

Except for the most crazed of climate change deniers (and possibly the most “tuned up” of hockey fans), most people would, I hope, agree that counting carbon dioxide emissions and determining who is “the leading emitter” are more important than counting the Olympic medals that I wrote about in that essay. But if counting medals can be problematic because such counting unavoidably rests upon interest-laden convention, then we should anticipate that counting carbon dioxide emissions would entail such complications, too.

And… it does. In a possible first for the US, those of us “in the know” know to cheer, “We’re #2!”—kinda doesn’t roll off the tongue. Hardly an accomplishment to be proud of, but it is a change from this country’s usual #1 ranking. That’s because China recently passed the US up in CO2 emissions…depending, of course, on which convention gets adopted to count emissions.

If we agree simply to total up CO2 emissions, China ends up being the world’s biggest emitter. But, if we agree to account for China’s much larger population, by ranking per capita emission, the US can go back to its familiar cheer: “We’re #1! We’re #1! Whhoooa!!” (Sorry for getting carried away there. I felt like I was channeling Stephen Colbert.)

No wonder that the US goes for the simplest convention again. In that way, the country is at least being consistent. When it came to Olympic medals the US simply counted medals, irrespective of type. This convention helped the US “win” the total medal count, and also helps it not win the total CO2 count—both being seen as favorable developments for furthering US position in international relations. Had the US agreed to correct either measure for population, the country—shall we agree—would not have looked as good. In my earlier essay, I made similar comments on Canada’s performance in the Vancouver Olympics, vis-à-vis the US performance there.

Then there’s the matter of where final consumers of products, the production of which had generated the CO2 as a so-called “byproduct” (I prefer “joint product”). No-Surprise!!! If in addition to calculating per capita emissions, we agree to assign responsibility for the byproduct CO2 to the country where the intended product is finally consumed, China’s emissions per capita per product retained is even lower. Conversely, on this basis, the US opens up its lead even further.

letcherBut, of course, the US doesn’t do it that way. When your country is world hegemon, you don’t have to—unless some other country takes over as world hegemon.

My favorite way of counting medals, by the way, would begin with leaving national flags at home. In my view, we’d all win from that.

Robert A. Letcher, PhD

Robert A. Letcher, Ph.D describes himself as “an academic with a disability instead of a portfolio, a writer, and a Qigong practitioner who tries to help people learn”.


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