Boffin debunks Bush's climate claims

Not greener than green, after all

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As he outlined the US' new plans for tackling climate change, President Bush made the bold claim that the US' carbon emissions are growing more slowly than those in Europe. This was presented not only as evidence to support the States' non-carbon cap approach to tackling emissions, but as something of a rebuke to the noisy climate change lobby in Europe.

But now Bush has been accused of cherry-picking his data to present a more favourable picture, as Dr Peter H Gleick of the Pacific Institute re-crunches the numbers.

Gleick says Bush and his supporters have deliberately focused on the emission of carbon dioxide to the exclusion of all other greenhouse gases, and that they have chosen particularly favourable time periods over which to do their comparisons.

In February this year, Christopher Horner, "a well-known climate skeptic from the Competitive Enterprise Institute", wrote an opinion piece in which he outlined how well the US was doing reducing its carbon emission, the Pacific Institute says. But as well as cherry picking his data, Gleick points out that Horner has "got the math wrong".

Horner claims that from 1997 (chosen, he says, since it was the year Kyoto was signed) the US's carbon emissions rose by a third of those in Europe. But Gleick states that the figures actually show a seven per cent and eight per cent rise in CO2 emissions, respectively. And in "absolute terms", the US's emissions rose by more than Europe's.

The Whitehouse prefers to focus on emissions since 2000. Again, this is unfairly flattering to the US, Gleick says. He points out that under the terms of Kyoto, the proper base year for comparison is 1990, and when you start there, the picture is very different.

He then tackles the question of which gases to measure. Under the terms of the rather beleaguered Kyoto protocol, there are six greenhouse gases that need to be reduced: CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulphur hexafluoride (SF6).

When any year other than 2000 is selected as the base year, and when all greenhouse gases covered by the UN Framework Convention are included in the analysis, the claims of Horner and the White House that the US is outperforming the EU turn out to be false: the European Union is performing far better than the United States. Over the entire period from 1990 to 2004, the difference is stark. During those 15 years, US greenhouse gas emissions grew more than 15 per cent while emissions from the 15 countries of the European Union (the EU-15) declined by around one per cent.

Moreover, calculating the index of emissions for any set of years between 1990 and 2004 other than 2000 to 2004, European greenhouse gas emissions either grew more slowly than US emissions or actually declined.

You can read the full analysis here (pdf).

This is not the first time the administration has been accused of messing with data to support an energy-hungry economic policy. The administration is also accused of massaging the language of official reports on the impact of climate change to downplay its importance, and of trying to hide the existence of a consensus on the issue within the scientific community.

The changing language coming out of the Whitehouse (i.e., acknowledging that there is a need to reduce emissions at all) seemed encouraging. But against this analysis of the raw data, it looks like little more than political hot air.

As we head toward the start of the G8 meeting in Germany this week, Saleemul Huq, head of climate change at the International Institute for Environment and Development, reminds us what is on the line: "The G8 leaders no longer have any excuse for procrastination. They must agree much stronger measures for reducing their own emissions of greenhouse gases and at the same time must provide substantial funding for adaptation in the poorer countries of the world, which will suffer the unavoidable impacts of climate change in the near term." ®

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