Emissions Per Person

What is the best way to rank States in the Race to Zero Carbon?

chat Posted Dec 04, 2016 by Rezwan | Category : Scoreboard
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Photo by Alejandro Alvarez

How we Rank States

Heads up: “emissions per person” can be shown with emojis, as you will see in this post.

In the Race to Zero carbon, we rank states by yearly “Emissions per Person” (also called “emissions per capita”). This number is the starting and ending point for coaching your state to zero carbon.

Players, Coaches, you need to know your State’s number.

Where to find your State’s “emissions per person” number

A quick place to look up your State number is on Wikipedia, where they have a handy, interactive table (screengrab below). Wikipedia gets its data from the EPA and the EIA, but their presentation is unbeatable. 

Your State number is in the right “CO2 Emissions per capita” column. Note this number is an approximation because it is tracking CO2 only.

As you see from the table above, California emits 9.26 Metric Tons per person each year. FYI, this puts them in second place in the Race to Zero Carbon.

Further down, you will see New York State emits 8.61 Metric Tons of CO2 per person each year. FYI, this is lower than any other state, putting New York in first place in the Race to Zero Carbon. (Also putting them ahead of green Germany. Go New York!)

Of course, you wouldn’t know that NY and CA are the #1 and #2 states in the Race to Zero Carbon from looking at this table.

The Usual (Flawed) Way to Rank States

The Wikipedia table ranks States by “Total Emissions” (aka “Annual CO2 emissions”). It also assigns the #1 position to the state with the highest emissions. That means “Number One” is the worst thing you could aspire to.

Unfortunately, many people rank emissions this way.

This needs to change: both because it is demoralizing to have #1 be worst, and because “Total Emissions” is misleading.

How is “Total Emissions” Misleading?

Let’s look at Texas and California. These states have the highest Total Emissions in the US (709 and 359 million metric tons, respectively). The table dutifully shows this and gives them the #1 and #2 worst rank.

But as you see over in the “Population” column, these states also have the most people. Texas has about 27 million people, and California 39 million.

Notice California has less emissions than Texas, but more people. Twelve million more people. But about half the emissions.

To the zero carbon coach, this is very interesting.

Assuming the quality of life in these states is similar, that means California is meeting the needs of its citizens a lot more efficiently than Texas is.

How much more efficiently?

It’s easy to quantify. Just divide each State’s total emissions by its population. Then compare the results. And guess what?

Total Emissions ÷ by Population = Emissions per Person

There’s our magic number! Another way to say it:

Emissions per Person = Total State emissions ÷ State population.

Quality of Life?

If quality of life is not similar that’s a different story. Stay tuned for a post on Quality of Life soon.

If quality of life is equal between states, the State’s “emissions per person” shows how efficient the state is, how well it meets everyone’s needs with fewer carbon emissions.

Once more, with emojis. Here is “State A”:

Now imagine “State B” has the same population but emits three times as much carbon:

The emissions per person on the left side of the equation are so easy to compare. All the clutter on the right, not so much. 

Some States have higher emissions per person than others

According to the data, the average American emits 17.04 metric tons of carbon each year. Let’s say that looks like this:


The average Texan emits 26.29 Metric tons. The average Californian 9.26. Using font size to scale the emojis we get:


And then there’s Wyoming at 112 MT CO2/person.

What is going on with Wyoming? How did California get its emissions so low compared to everyone else? What are the States doing differently? Why do they have such different averages?

And So the Zero Carbon Coaching Begins

“Emissions per person” is the starting point around which to coach your state to victory. Take some time to get familiar with this number, and with the range for all the States. Start thinking about why each state is different.

The good news is, you can reorder the states by emissions per person. Just go back to the table and click on the right column. Here’s a screengrab:

Notice we’ve crossed out District of Columbia (DC), as it is not a state. But do notice how low DC’s emissions are. What insight does this give you? Comment below!

Visualizing Your Rank

A table is informative. Emojis are entertaining. But the easiest way to visualize the spread is to put “emissions per person” into a bar chart: 

Click on the image to get a clearer look at the States.

Better yet, check out Public.Tableau.com’s interactive state chart.

Where is your State? Are you surprised by the rank? Are there other surprises? How are your coaching instincts?

Let us know in the comments.

Thank You for reading!

We meet again at the end of the post. What did you think? Please comment and share.

If this post didn’t send you running, if, in fact, you are still here thinking about it, you may be ideal Scoreboard Committee material. Contact me and let’s talk. And feel free to contribute to help develop the scoreboard.  Thanks again!

Stay tuned for future posts. We will drill down into the state data to build performance profiles for each state. We will get to the bottom of what each State is doing to end up with their “emissions per person” number.

Notes & Related:

Why is “CO2 emissions per capita” an “approximation”?

In the Race to Zero Carbon, the word “carbon” refers to all green house gases, measured in CO2 equivalents (“CO2e”). The data in the Wikipedia table is for CO2 only, and it doesn’t actually account for all the CO2.  It is missing CO2 emissions from land use changes and agriculture, as well as a calculation of emissions from the embedded energy in imports. As we develop the Zero Carbon Scoreboard, we will strive to get closer to the real CO2e number for each state. In the meantime, we will be ranking by the simpler, incomplete “CO2 emissions per capita” number. 

Join the Scoreboard Committee to develop the ultimate scoring system!


What? New York emissions are lower than Germany?
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