Misinformation from Grist

The bloggers at Grist have taken strong issue with the Commentary in Nature that I co-authored with Tom Wigley and Chris Green. They have even gone so far as to make up "facts" to support their critiques. Consider this howler from David Roberts:

The trend toward "spontaneous" technology development and efficiency has been going on for centuries, only to pause during the last few years thanks to a burst of new dirty coal plants in the developing world.

It is easy enough to look at energy intensity trends (defined as millions of barrels of oil equivalent per $1,000 global GDP in 1995 dollars, with 1900 set to 1.0) over the longer term. I downloaded data from the HYDE database in the Netherlands to calculate energy intensity trends over the period 1890-1970. Here is what the data actually show.

global energy intensity.png

During and following the industrial revolution, the world experienced a long period of carbonization of the global economy, followed by an extended period of decarbonization beginning in the second half of the 20th century, and as our commentary argued, today the world is recarbonizing. How long the current trend will last is uncertain, and its significance is worth discussion. But to present decarbonization as inevitable is to misunderstand the past. Even worse, to suggest that decarbonization has gone on for "centuries" is just plain wrong.