In New Zealand we emit eight times more greenhouse gas per head of population than India and twice as much as China.  This is generally a poor statistic and we must do something about it. 

Many years ago, my father was told the following story by a statistics teacher. A man asks a mathematician, “What are the chances of me getting on a plane with a bomb on it?”  The statistician  tells the man, “about one in 10,000”.  The man is horrified  and asks the mathematician if there is anything he can do to reduce the chance.  The mathematician smiles and says, “That’s easy, take a bomb with you because the chances of there being two bombs on the same plane are about one in 100,000,000!”

In the same vein, we should all move to India.  This will reduce New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions per person from eight times that of India to zero as there won’t be any people here.  Even if we continue to use the same amount of energy per person, it will also make absolutely no difference to the Indian number.

Here are the sums.  In round numbers there are about four million people in New Zealand.  There are about 1.3 billion people in India. If we produce eight kilograms of carbon dioxide per person in New Zealand, that gives us a total production of 32 million kilogram of carbon dioxide.  India therefore produces only one kilogram of carbon dioxide per person or 1.3 billion kilograms. 

If we all moved to India and kept producing carbon dioxide at the same rate, this would raise the amount of carbon dioxide produced per head of population from one kilogram per head to – wait for it – one kilogram per head of population.  The change is so small as to be inconsequential.  Oh the beauty of statistics!

In setting our targets for reducing waste emissions, John Key is quite right in saying  there is no point in us setting ourselves difficult targets to achieve unless the major contributors make the adjustment themselves.

What are important  are not the emissions per head of population but the absolute value of our contribution.  We should be targeting to reduce emissions but we must do in a sustainable way.  Bankrupting the country by spending on cycle-ways and public transport is not a sustainable way to behave. 

At the moment, I cannot see any strategy put in place to identify the problems and address them in a logical and progressive way.  The main reason for this is because we have no appetite for this kind of approach in New Zealand.  We are happy to talk green as long as it is somebody else’s problem and we don’t have to pay for it.  We are happy that if something is called green, then it is, as long as no one comes along with any data and shows it not to be what we thought, in which case that person is an environmental vandal who doesn’t understand.

In 25 years in the water industry, including two doing water treatment in the oil industry, I have yet to meet an engineer who did not care about the environment.  Invariably it is the engineers who have to make the decision, on balance, how to approach a project.  We occasionally get it wrong but more often than not, we make a decision that meets the needs of the present while minimising the negative effects on the culture, society, economy and environment of New Zealand.

This thought leadership article by Iain Rabbits, a senior water specialist engineer at Harrison Grierson, is intended to provide you with insights about how statistics can manipulate the impact of greenhouse gas emissions. Our thought leadership articles on topical and specialist issues are designed to present the key points in an easy to digest and interesting manner.

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