Is there a force-field preventing countries from becoming ‘strong low-carbon economies’?

This post grew from reading Ruth Dixon‘s excellent posts on the relationship between CO2 emissions, national wealth and climate, one of which is on her ‘Dixon’s Diamond Law‘. Ruth is focused on a more climate-centred perspective; however, her first post carries a graph from the UNEP that is shown below (Figure 1):

Infographic - Bubble Chart - per Capita

Figure 1

From the above, the linear relationship between GDP and CO2 emissions (both per-capita and on a log scale) is immediately obvious. But can we learn anything more? That was my question.

The same graph is shown below from Gapminder (Figure 2), only simpler – each dot is a country.


I drew an imaginary straight-line in dashes as shown. What is evident here (and in the UNEP graph) is that there are no countries in the wide area below and to the right of the imaginary line.

This is the space climate alarmists, the IPCC, Greenpeace, and now the latest in line, the Vatican want the world to be in. They would like to push as far to the bottom, and right, as possible – one where is wealth is intact and CO2 emissions per capita are low. Even any rightward push (i.e., increased wealth) is no absolute, the downward push (reduced CO2 emission) is paramount. They want to save the climate.

But you can go to Gapminder and examine the live version of the graph. The animation runs from 1960 to ~2011 and the invisible barrier should become well evident. Countries bounce along this parapet, pottering up and down or sideways but almost none cross it. There are no countries in the bottom-right area, say where $10,000 GDP/capita and 0.1 tonne CO2 meet (the spot marked ‘X’). Nor are any for miles in the wide swathes around it.

Clearly, this reflects some fundamental property. High wealth-for-low energy is a desirable target even for those unburdened by weighty climate concerns but this is simply not attained. The sheer emptiness of the region in the graph should give reason to pause, particularly to fantasy-prone and fretful physics professors. This is not a space where nations exist.

But, the picture above is not complete. What about the handful of countries close to and to the right of the dashed line at the top of the cloud of points? By re-plotting the graph with the x-axis (wealth) linear (Figure 3), the nature of the ‘invisible barrier’ and its exceptions become clearer:


Figure 3. See text for ‘A’ and ‘B’ countries.

The ‘barrier’ now shown as a solid line has a vertical portion ‘A’. Countries are stacked one above the other, starting from very low CO2 emissions/capita of 0.04 ton up to ~2 ton. Then there is a horizontally oriented segment ‘B’ where countries are more variable in CO2 emissions (between 4 and ~12 ton/capita roughly).

Again, take a look at Gapminder’s live version. Countries climb up along A – their CO2 emissions/capita goes up but GDP doesn’t budge much. The stack moves through emissions more than two orders in magnitude without change in GDP. ‘A’ is acquisition of infrastructural capacity and sophistication and maturity of political forms. Crucially, ‘A’ is diffusion of the capacity to emit CO2 throughout the population.

After about ~2 ton, the ‘barrier’ starts yielding. There is growth in GDP without increase in CO2 emissions. Countries roughly between 4 – 10 ton break the rightward shift barrier: in ‘B’ there are substantial increases in wealth without increases in CO2 (Figure 4).


Figure 4. India and China exemplify the ‘A’ stage where there is growth of CO2 emissions without much concomitant increase in GDP/capita. Portugal represents the transition from ‘A’ to ‘B’. Japan and the United States show significant increases in GDP along ‘B’ during 1960-2011 with their respective peak CO2 emissions occurring in the mid 1970s (at relatively higher levels compared to others, at 9 and 19 ton CO2, respectively)

Countries along ‘B’ are the the ones to the right of the dashed line in Figure 2. These are mainly European nations, the United States and Japan (Figure 5). Per-capita increases in wealth occur along B, only at the top-end of A. i.e, after attainment of a certain capacity to emit CO2. There are no exceptions.

Secondly, most ‘B’ countries employ significant nuclear power. Deployment of substantive nuclear power only occurs along the ‘B’ curve; with the exception of India and China, there are no countries in ‘A’ with substantial nuclear deployment.


Figure 5. GDP trajectories from 1960 through 2011 for European countries is shown. The starting point for the data as evident in the country labels is quite variable. Nonetheless, the rough trend in Europe is along ‘B’ – increase in GDP without increases in CO2 particularly after the early 1980s (marked by red arrow). US is shown in yellow


Analyzing national wealth and energy use is not straightforward. But surprisingly, there is a clear conclusion to be drawn—the low-carbon-high-wealth or even the low-carbon-moderate-wealth country does not exist. It has not existed to date. Dissociation between wealth and per-capita CO2 occurs only at the higher end of per-capita CO2. Importantly, contrary to portrayals of ‘decarbonization’ of economies as an universal good (Roger Pielke Jr), reduction, or more precisely a lack of increase in CO2 with GDP is possible only at the higher end of per-capita CO2. It appears one needs to go up in order to come down.



  1. omanuel

    Of course, “the low-carbon-high-wealth or even the low-carbon-moderate-wealth country does not exist.”

    The AGW story has absolutely nothing to do with climate and everything to do with wealth redistribution.

  2. stewgreen

    There are huge areas of desert where unsubsidized solar PV panels pump out free electricity which is sold at great profit.
    – I believe this Saudi Arabia of solar is called Lala-land.
    And Alex Salmpnd is always saying Scotland is so rich in wind that it needs no tax subsidy from England. /sarc