A group led by Professor Kevin Gurney of Purdue has published the nation’s most detailed carbon dioxide emissions inventory as part of Project Vulcan, sponsored by NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy. Since representative data are not directly collected, tracking human-produced carbon dioxide on an hourly basis is difficult. However, as described in “‘Vulcan’ shows carbon dioxide’s death-grip“, posted at Nature.com, Prof. Gurney’s great innovation was combining readily available local data for carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, and other air pollutants with atmospheric chemistry calculations to estimate carbon dioxide levels. Using this technique, Project Vulcan plotted local CO2 levels for 100 km-square areas, extending the analysis across the entire country to create a national carbon dioxide map with resolution greater than any previous attempt.
When Google Maps appeared with street level resolution, my first instinct was to zoom in on my house to see if I had been caught by Google’s cameras doing something embarrassing. Thankfully not; however one need not leap too far to realize that Project Vulcan’s maps can be used for a similar purpose: to shame CO2 producing regions into reducing carbon dioxide generation.
So, who are the most egregious U.S. carbon dioxide producers? According to “American Carbon“, posted on a NASA Web site, Project Vulcan found the three areas with highest carbon dioxide production are Houston, Los Angles, and Chicago. Interestingly, each region produces CO2 for different reasons: industry in Houston, transportation in LA, and winter heating in Chicago.
According to a quote from project leader Gurney in the NASA article, Vulcan’s CO2 inventory is not intended to highlight good or bad carbon behavior. The maps are byproducts of geographically diverse energy needs and lifestyles associated with different regions of the country. As I have pointed out in previous posts, “The US Energy Revolution Will Be Regional,” and regional differences in carbon behavior mirror my assertion that each part of the country will need to embrace locally relevant solutions if we are to move away from fossil-based energy as a nation.
So, while the Project Vulcan CO2 maps provide an important visual representation of energy use patterns, I fear they are already being misused (and perhaps misinterpreted) to drive policy via political leveraging. In a recent Wired article, “Scientists Unveil High-Res Map of the U.S. Carbon Footprint,” author Alexis Madrigal comments, “given the opposition of the Southeast’s congressional delegations to climate-change action, I’d like to see the new emissions map matched up with House and Senate districts.”
Frighteningly, Project Vulcan obliged this request: see of per capita carbon emissions plotted onto Democrat and Republican-held congressional districts.
It would be naive of me to claim that energy and politics are anything but an intertwined menagerie. However, it upsets me to see that Project Vulcan scientists would use their results in this overtly political way. If the inventory is merely a visual depiction of regional energy use patterns, then representing CO2 emission based on political affiliation can easily lead to data misinterpretation. If Democrats happen to generate more CO2 than Republicans, should we impose a carbon tax on Democratic districts? Or does this result simply mean that Democrats happen to live in regions where more intense carbon behavior is required to maintain a reasonable standard of living (for example because those regions are colder or farther from developed nuclear and renewable energy sources)?
Imposing political predispositions on Project Vulcan’s carbon dioxide inventory without respecting other relevant factors needlessly blurs the line between pure energy science and politics.