Unique Global Carbon Footprints

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For atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to stabilize, this chart clearly shows, the world's major emitters and smaller countries will have to reduce emissions.

If you've ever wondered about how each nation contributes to the global carbon "footprint," take a look at this compelling graphic.

The left "footprint" displays recent data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The size of each circle - in some cases a "heel" or a "toe," is proportional to the carbon emissions estimated for each nation.

The right "footprint" shows the same data, but expressed per capita so that you can see individual contributions towards carbon emissions. It is a very different profile!

I am always looking for innovative ways to teach science, including new ways to present complex data. I believe that this graphic is a superb example. {I recommend that you view it in full screen.} Case in point - these "footprints" captured the attention of my 11 year old son for more than an hour, as he explored various regions around the globe. I highly recommend it as a teaching resource or simply as a point for discussion about how each region contributes to carbon emissions.

The better we understand the data, the more informed our public policies will be.

According to the article published in Miller-McCune:

As the international community tries to come to grips with climate change, the difficulties of reaching agreement on the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide are becoming ever more apparent.

One sticking point involves the relative contribution of First and Third World countries to global warming. Developing nations have contended that industrialized countries caused climate change and ought to bear the brunt of CO2 regulation.

The West points at exponential growth in China and India as a reason that regulation of carbon emissions must apply across the board. For atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to stabilize, this chart clearly shows, the world's major emitters -- China, the U.S., India, Japan, Russia and the European Union, among others -- will have to reduce their carbon footprints. At the same time, it's clear there is plenty of room for other, smaller countries to reduce their per capita contributions to a problem that threatens all.

This graphic is used with the author's permission. I would like to acknowledge Stanford Kay Studio; a version of this graphic first appeared in Miller-McCune. Thank you, Stanford! Copyright Stanford Kay 2010.

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I think this is poor graphical display. It seems very much along the lines of what Edward Tufte called "Chartjunk" where the central idea of visual image is not really part of the data and makes it hard to make sensible comparisons between elements of the data. The footprint graphic is cute but makes it hard to extract information such as US carbon equivalent consumption per capita is 18.9 units while the matching figure for China is 4.6 (2007 - 2009 figures http://www.carbonplanet.com/country_emissions source:International Energy Agency )

Incidentally from the same source Quatar shows up at the top of the list with an astounding 58 units while Gibraltar gets 16.8 units, less than the US. The difference may be based on including or excluding Gibraltar's fuel bunkering activity.

By Dan Hawthorn (not verified) on 30 Jan 2011 #permalink

As I am quite familiar with Tufte's criteria for graphical display of data {well known for his "anti-" PowerPoint analysis, often well founded}, I challenge your characterization of a "poor graphical display." The most important points of any graphical display of data are accuracy and engagement of the viewer - if the viewer is not paying attention, little learning will take place. In this example, I contend that the "footprints" score well on both points. Thank you for your comment.

this is interesting, but leaves out one factor, if we wish to avert the most serious aspects of climate change: what per capita carbon footprint will keep carbon dioxide levels below 350 ppm, 450 ppm, 500 ppm?

Leaving aside concerns about how the data behind the charts was collected, I think that a footprint goal is often left out of the discussion. How low is low enough?

By Peter Bellin (not verified) on 30 Jan 2011 #permalink

The chart is a little bit misleading; it's difficult to compare the size of two circles, leading to the understatement of differences between countries. It's not clear for example, that the United States circle is 4 times bigger than the Russia circle (Emissions by Nation), whereas if the data were presented as a stacked bar, the difference would be obvious.

Well, is it misleading or difficult to compare? It does not follow that the difficulty of extracting information leads to lower accuracy of data. It seems you just do not like the graphic, but then you need to read the post again so that you understand that "innovative ways to teach science, including new ways to present complex data" was the point of this particular display.