It's been a busy week here at the Center for Global Development. On Tuesday we hosted the meeting of CGD's Board of Directors--an activity that would have normally been plenty of excitement for one week. On Wednesday afternoon we revealed CARMA Carbon Monitoring for Action – our global database showing the CO2 emissions, power production, and emission intensity of the 50,000 power plants in the world and the 20,000 firms that own them (of these, 4,000 are dedicated utlities). By mid-day on Thursday CARMA was among the top stories on both the BBC Online and CNN.com and our server was straining to keep up with the load, despite having been beefed up in advance of the launch. When it crashed, ForumOne, which built the CARMA website for CGD, quickly swapped in a bigger server rack and in 20 minutes we were back on-line.
Within 36 hours of its launch CARMA attracted more than 150,000 visits, twice the traffic hosted by the CGD main site in the entire month of October, and generated more than 200 mainstream media reports and a similar number of blog postings. Coverage ranged from the prestigious science magazine Nature to the liberal blog Daily Kos. Juliet Eilperin, reporting in the Washington Post, was among the first reporters to seek comment from utility companies identified in CARMA as major sources of CO2 pollution, including Southern Co., the biggest CO2 polluter in the United States, and the sixth biggest source of CO2 emissions in the world. Strikingly, the companies did not dispute CARMA's findings.
So far, out of the 50,000 plants listed only one meaningful discrepancy has been identified: China Light and Power (CLP), which sold me electricity when I lived in Hong Kong, informed us that its massive Castle Peak power plant, which I could see from my window, emitted significantly less CO2 than the CARMA estimate, because it is running at much less than full capacity. CLP presented audited records to support this assertion and the CARMA team quickly made adjustments. An AP story that ran in the International Herald Tribune strengthened CARMA's credibility by highlighting the overall reliability of the data, and CGD's readiness to make corrections when needed.
Meanwhile, in Australia CARMA prompted a rather different response.
CARMA data for Australia show that the country's coal-reliant power sector emits 226 million tons of CO2 per year, an amount that gives Australia the world's highest per capita power-related CO2 emissions -- more than 11 tons per person per year. That dubious distinction, coming barely a week before national elections in which climate change has emerged as a major issue, prompted a fire-storm of reporting and analysis in the Australian press. Within 24 hours Greenpeace activists had occupied Munmorah, a coal-fired plant in New South Wales, chaining themselves to the conveyor belt that feeds coal into the plant and painting "coal kills" on one of the buildings. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the protest ended after Greenpeace obtained assurances from Australia's two major parties about reductions in coal use.
By Friday we were beginning to see a second round of stories, as bloggers and journalists around the world dug into the database to find the largest source of CO2 pollution in their jurisdiction. Others found surprising facts. One such surprise: when the site was launched on Wednesday I was attending a workshop where one of the organizers spent part of the afternoon playing with CARMA on his I-Phone. "Did you know that South America was 80 percent hydro power?" he asked. Nope. But now I do, and thanks to CARMA that information is now available to the entire world, along with the surprising information (noted in Eilperin's WP
article) that a single Southern Co. plant (Scherer, in Juliette, Georgia) produces more CO2 than the entire power sector of Brazil combined.
What explains this huge outpouring of interest? David Wheeler, a CGD senior fellow who leads our Confronting Climate Change
initiative and has extensive experience in the use of public information disclosure to reduce pollution in developing countries explained it like this: sometimes there are pressures that build up in society, like the pressures on tectonic plates in the Earth.
Friction -- special interests, corruption, and social and political Inertia -- prevent the necessary adjustments, that is, stop the plates from sliding past one another. Information, injected in the right way and at the right time can be like a lubricant that enables the plates to suddenly slip. That happened this week: it's reasonable to assume every CEO of every power company on Earth now knows just how much CO2 pollution his firm is discharging, and how this compares with his competitors. With this knowledge, the Earth moved. In the weeks ahead, power company investors, creditors, insurers, board members and customers will have the same information.
Of course, globally we are very far from having made the adjustments that will be necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change. Societies around the world are already beginning to face the dire consequences of rapid global warming, from the drought in the U.S. state of Georgia and the wild fires in California, to the melting of Andean glaciers that provide water to Lima, Peru, and the increased severity of cyclones in Bangladesh (which was being battered as CARMA was released). These effects are being felt first and most severely by poor people in the developing world even though most of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are the result of actions over the past century in the rich countries of the northern hemisphere. It is concern about this crucial north-south connection that is at the heart of CGD's work on the issue.
Early next month representatives of the nations of the world will gather in Bali to continue the slow and difficult process of forging a global consensus on what to do about global warming. Few observers hold out much hope of serious progress. But pressure for action is mounting. And now, thanks to CARMA, we know the exact source locations of about 25 percent of the global emissions of CO2, the major greenhouse gas, and the identities of the firms that are responsible.
The debate about who is responsible for climate change will never be quite the same.