Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

I was curious about a statistic a correspondent to The Herald iterated, and then reiterated (on October 8th and October 14th to be precise) that “the UK’s man-made CO2 output is negligible at 0.3% of 1% of the world total”.  The correspondent went on to make the argument, based on this statistic, that there was therefore no point in the UK’s making any attempt to curb her carbon emissions, since the big players, like China, India, and Russia were the big polluters, and nothing we on these islands could do would make a whit of difference.

That struck me as a fallacious argument, on three counts.  First of all, the statistic itself looked to me to be decidedly dodgy.  0.3% of 1% of the world total is 0.003% of the world total.  Given that there are a little over 200 sovereign nations in the world, you might expect an average contribution of a single nation to the world total to be of the order of 0.5%, and given that the UK is the sixth largest economy in the world, with a population of 67,000,000 and counting, you might expect the UK’s contribution to be somewhat higher.

So I sought out some data and came across EDGAR, a database created by the European Commission and Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency in 2018.  EDGAR recorded the UK’s percentage Fossil CO2 emissions for 2017 at 1.02% of the world total.  So, at least according to EDGAR, The Herald correspondent was underestimating the UK contribution by a factor of greater than 333.

Still, you might say 1.02% is negligible.  But in a list of over 200 countries, only 6 (China, USA, India, Russia, Japan, and Germany), have emissions over 2%, so the overwhelming majority of countries in the world are in the same position as the UK, therefore any concerted effort by the world will be far from negligible.  China is often depicted as the bogeyman, but China has a population of 1.43 billion, therefore her contribution is bound to be significantly higher than the average.  In fact, per capita, China’s contribution is only one sixth of the biggest polluter, Qatar, whose total contribution in turn is only 0.26%.  As Greta Thunberg says, “No one is too small to make a difference”.

But there is a third flaw in the “What’s the point?” argument.  A black US serviceman spent some time in Glasgow in the 1950s (I heard this story in Dunblane Cathedral so I know it must be true).  His wife was utterly astonished when she got on a bus and a Glaswegian gentleman rose to give her his seat.  She went back home in due course to Montgomery Alabama and recounted this episode to her friend Rosa Parks.  The rest, as they say, is history.  So you just never know what may happen when you do the right thing.

I was minded to post the above as my blog for the week commencing October 21st.  But let me tell you a little more of the piece’s evolution and let’s see where it takes us.  When the “0.3% of 1%” statistic showed up on October 8th, I wrote a letter – perhaps I should say a riposte – to The Herald which in effect was a precis of all of the above.  I’m pig-headed enough to say that it was a good letter, but they didn’t publish it.  Well that’s okay.  I’ve been in the business of writing to the papers for long enough to realise that publication does not always correlate with – so to speak – literary brilliance.  They publish me often enough so I can hardly complain.

Then the rogue statistic reappeared on October 14th.  So I wrote again, this time restricting myself to the single point that “0.3% of 1% of the world total” was (according to EDGAR), out by a factor of >333.  After I wrote the letter, I went to bed and had a nightmare during which I concluded that my computation was out by a factor of 10, or 100, or 1000 – or God knows how much.  I woke in the morning convinced I had made a mistake, and so wished to God I would not be published.  Of course, always under these circumstances of uncertainty, you get published.  I picked up my morning paper, and found myself therein.

I had nightmarish notions that I would suffer a rejoinder:  “Dr Campbell really needs to revisit ‘O-Level’ Arithmetic if he really considers that 0.3% of 1% = 0.003%.”  So I consulted three mathematicians (may I say of considerable eminence) and was greatly relieved to find I’d got my sums right.

Now this Monday morning, a friend of mine has written into The Herald quoting my name and rather mischievously using my “1.02%” statistic to point out that Scotland in turn is responsible for a mere tenth of this, and therefore really is too small to make a difference.  So this has afforded me the opportunity to recast and to resend my original letter to The Herald.  We’ll see what happens this time.

Small beer, you may say, and you’d be right.  But still I think I’m singing from the right hymn sheet.  At time of writing, there is a tremendous cornucopia of opinion with respect to the manifold manifestations of Brexit, the Benn Act, the Letwin Amendment, the next “meaningful vote”, and so on.  I have this notion it all amounts to a rearrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic.  While we agonise about our relationship with Europe, a question that could take up the attention of our political leaders for many years to come, the world is, frankly, wilting away.  Each morning I wake and notice an absence of birdsong outside my window.

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