Mr Statistics and the Swedish emissions

The statistics guru Hans Rosling asks why we report our economy every three months, but emissions only once a year. Foto: Stefan Nilsson.

The global climate summit COP17 in Durban continues, and during these meetings there is certainly a lot of talking about numbers and statistics. How much carbon do we emit now? How many tons can we emit in the future?
Soon Sweden will publish its official national emission statistics for 2010. Unofficial data point towards increasing emissions. But the truth is we don’t really know until we get these statistics. And even when we get them, we won’t know where our emissions are heading this year.

This isn’t good, says the Swedish international health professor and statistician  Hans Rosling, who has become famous as the man who turns dry statistics into a show. His presentations have rapidly become very popular for showing statistics “with the drama and urgency of a sportscaster”, as TED Talks puts it.

But there is something that makes mr Rosling see red. During the big annual climate forum Klimatforum last week, organised by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, he had an important question: How come both private companies and states make detailed economic reports every three months, but look at something as crucial for human survival as carbon dioxide emissions only once a year?

It’s not like Sweden’s not good with statistics. According to Hans Rosling we are actually one of the best in the world. And the gap between what happens and the statistics is undeniably much smaller for economics. Our minister for finance, Anders Borg, gets his economic statistics for the last quarter of the year just about a month after the quarter is ended. The environment minister, on the other hand, has to wait for almost a year for her figures.
– Like now when our minister Lena Ek goes to Durban for the climate meeting. She doesn’t know how much Sweden has emitted the last 23 months. And then you are supposed to make a transition in three to five years without having a clue about what we have been up to for the last 23 months! Rosling raged in a panel discussion with the Swedish radio (article in Swedish) at the meeting.

The environment minister Lena Ek, who was also at the climate forum, actually agreed and said that she has just given official agencies the mission to improve and speed up their reporting.

So maybe professor Rosling will soon be able to make a statistics show about the link between the latest economic development and our recent carbon emissions.
Until then, here’s another interesting video where he shows how different countries’ emissions have evolved over time.


Other related news in Swedish media (in Swedish, but can be autotranslated here):
Expressen: “20 minutes past midnight” Editorial about not acting in time on climate change
Miljöaktuellt: Swedish media write much less about the climate
Svenska Dagbladet: Oak trees can be winners in a warmer climate
Göteborgs-Posten: Our food’s impact on the environement becomes the theme of advent calendar

  • Magnus Johansson

    The once-a-year emission report compared to quarterly economical reports reminds me of a similar thing I often run into working with organizational development.

    Most organizations claim to focus on quality and customer satisfaction, but usually they only measure these (arguably difficult to measure) things once a year, while the economical data is coming along every month.

    The lack of recent data makes it hard to give decent feedback to employees whether they are performing well or not in these areas. The same thing goes for carbon dioxide emissions – we need to know how our interventions work in order to evaluate and plan for the future.

  • Sara Jeswani

    Yes, it’s interesting that there is such a difference between how carefully we keep track of our money in comparison to other areas. There are probably a lot of data that would be good to report much more often than once a year in order to better understand how they interact. But – on the other hand I guess there is also a risk of spending too much time measuring and less time doing, and also of losing the long-time perspective.

  • Magnus Johansson

    I don’t think measuring more often influences the risk of losing long-term perspective very much. The more measurements we have (to a limit), the more detailed analysis (esp. interaction) becomes possible. We need to know if the changes we implement are working as expected or not, otherwise we are at risk for doing inefficient things.

    The primary issue, I think, is the lack of data for feedback to those trying to make a difference. But perhaps data is available at a lower level in some cases.

  • Magnus Johansson

    Some more on feedback… It isn’t the holy grail, but according to behavioristic principles and research on behavior change feedback is a effective way to influence behavior. We are way to focused on pushing information to people (behavior antecedents), when we should be using more consequences such as different kinds of feedback, of which data is one.

    This goes from the individual “bottom level”, such as getting frequent feedback on electricity/heating consumption in a household, all the way up to politicians and policy makers whose behaviors are also influenced by consequences. The power of feedback is closely connected to its timing in relation to the behaviors you wish to influence.

  • Anonymous

    I’m totally with you on that one. A few days ago I met with a business leader from a company working with energy-saving in large buildings. It was very interesting hearing about the difference between the work they do, making follow-ups of the actual savings their installations give, and other companies that install and then never follow up. It’s psychologically important to see that what you do actually makes a difference.

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