Saturday, October 08, 2005

Understanding systems...

First, thanks very much for the comment with the link to the Newsweek Article on William McDonough’s work in China – very interesting and exciting stuff. Particularly intriguing for me is to consider how he’s able to implement a lot of the progressive, innovative aspects in the development, given the top-down authority that the government there commands. Can be used for good or bad, I suppose.

Also – this week I somehow stumbled upon this brief article on GHG emissions:

US Greenhouse Gas Emission Slows Down

October 7, 2005 9:30 a.m. EST

Andrea Moore - All Headline News Staff Reporter

Washington, DC (AHN) - The chief U.S. negotiator on global warming acknowledges Thursday the nation's pace in emitting greenhouse gases has slowed.

Harlan Watson, a State Department special envoy, tells the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, "One can argue whether it's slowing down fast enough, but it is slowing down."

The United States releases about 6.6 million tons of carbon dioxide, methane and other gases into the air each year; a quarter of the world's total emissions, which scientists blame for heating the atmosphere like a greenhouse.

Emissions are growing at the rate of about 1.5 percent a year. That growth rate is expected to drop to about 1.3 percent by 2012 as industries adopt newer and cleaner technology.

I post it only to point out how misleading headlines can be at times. The headline seems pretty upbeat because it suggests at first glance that the US is scaling back it’s GHG emissions, when in fact the opposite is true – we’re increasing our emissions at a solid rate of 1.5% every year. That rate of growth is expected to slow to 1.3% a year by 2012 – but that, of course, is 1.3% of a larger number, because between now and 2012, we’ll continue to emit more and more GHG each year.

Again, I’m not a huge fan of getting into the global change debate (despite the fact that it is probably the biggest, most urgent challenge we face) because it is “in the leaves” – and gets away from the core principle problems about how we meet our needs. But this concept exemplifies the difficulties of whole systems thinking.

An interesting study was conducted about this, using this example of CO2 emissions. Researchers from MIT (John Sterman and Linda Booth Sweeney) explained the dynamics of global warming to MBA students at Harvard, Stanford, and MIT and presented them with two scenarios showing projected CO2 emissions rates (flows) and CO2 levels in the atmosphere (stocks), and asked them to identify what the trends would be given various cut backs in emissions. Almost two-thirds of the students failed to correctly recognize the trend (which would be continued global warming) because they didn’t consider the rate at which CO2 was pulled from the atmosphere (through photosynthesis, and the impact deforestation has on natural systems capacity to do that) or the fact that the CO2 already in the atmosphere would continue to have effects even if human emissions stopped all together.

Anyhow, misunderstanding about the basic functions of these systems can promote in-action, and a lost sense of urgency about what our current reality really looks like – so it’s important to be clear.

Stay going…

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

"The headline seems pretty upbeat because it suggests at first glance that the US is scaling back it’s GHG emissions, when in fact the opposite is true – we’re increasing our emissions at a solid rate of 1.5% every year."

Imagine what will happen if GHG production stops increasing. Headlines will, not doubt, tell us that the GHG problem has been solved...

Georges said...

An excellent point... When in fact, as we saw in the graph from the Vostok Ice Core current CO2 levels are drastically higher than upper level of the long-term historic range, and I believe the general agreement in the scientific community is that we would not know the full impact of these current levels for at least 50 years, assuming we stopped all anthropogenic CO2 emissions today, cold turkey. Anyhow, a reminder we need to keep our wits about us.

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