A trip to Cuba: emissions focus

On a recent trip to Cuba, we enjoyed a very laidback lifestyle and many expeditions. But afterwards with my data head back on, it also struck me that with so many amazing classic cars around…


…and the constantly burning open flame of a refinery across from Havana’s main harbourside…capture

…made me think that Cuba is probably not all that environmentally-conscious!

I wondered if this is just due to the country’s stage of development: is there a process that countries go through, similar to a “hierarchy of needs”? Perhaps a country first of all has very few cars to even need to worry about emissions, then as the country develops they can afford cars and other fuel uses but cannot yet afford to be environmentally-friendly, then later a fully-developed country starts to curb its energy emissions with state-of-the-art technology.

I sourced CO2 emissions (metric tons) and GDP from the WorldBank, for 2013 (latest available), per country. I picked both metrics to be quoted per capita, to remove any confounding effects of population size. The initial assessment of my hypothesis above was to simply look at the country groups that WorldBank provides, for CO2 emissions per capita by income level:

  • Low income: 0.3
  • Lower middle: 1.4
  • Middle income: 3.9
  • Upper middle income: 6.6
  • High income: 11.0

This doesn’t suggest that countries get more environmentally-conscious as they get beyond a certain level of wealth; but with data bunched into groups it’s hard to tell. So I then plotted the data at an individual country level in Excel:


But in Excel there’s still no way to dig into the data, to see what’s happening at a more granular level – for example, I’d like to see (but can’t) which countries the outliers refer to. So I instead created the chart using a visualisation software, to create a “dashboard” allowing further investigation of the datapoints by subset. The software also has a more sophisticated version of trendlines – one per income group:

Visualisation version of chart.PNG

The trendlines show the impact of GDP on emissions for each income group: a steeper gradient indicates that the group as a whole has higher emissions relative to GDP; a group with lower emissions relative to GDP would have a flatter trendline. The above, then, seems to support my initial hypothesis, since the gradient of the Low Income countries’ trendline is less steep than that of the Middle Income countries but more steep than that of the High Income countries. In other words, countries do become more environmentally conscious as they get richer, once past the hurdle of being at a “Middle Income” stage.

Now that I have the data in dashboard form, I can also drill in more on particular segments – let’s look at the outliers within just the High Income group first:


Beneath the trendline we have Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland doing better than most with low emissions compared to GDP, all with heavy investment in renewable forms of energy – but also more surprisingly Macao and Cyprus. The worst offenders (above the line) are either “Nouveau Riche” countries (i.e. more recently wealthy, so perhaps have not yet had time to clean up their emissions act, e.g. Estonia and the Czech Republic); or countries that are heavily reliant on oil for their wealth so less likely to turn to renewables (e.g. UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait).

And now back to Cuba…drilling into the Upper Middle income bracket of countries, Cuba is bang on trend – a scary thought considering all that smog! Some key offenders here include Russia, Malaysia and South Africa; whereas Costa Rica stands out as being more environmentally-conscious than most.


The dashboard format also allows me to dig into the data by geographical region, but I decided instead to use a map for this to make it more interesting. For the shading of the map, I created a score for each country, by dividing Emissions by GDP. The higher the score, the more emissions a country produces per dollar of wealth. I shaded those with a good (low) score in green and those with a bad (high) score in red:


As we’ve already seen from the charts, Russia, South Africa and the oil states don’t fare well on this metric. But datapoints bunching up on the chart meant that some countries couldn’t be easily spotted as have a high emissions per GDP – the benefit of seeing it displayed differently here is that those now come to the fore: e.g. Mongolia and Ukraine.

I’m pleased to have seen my hypothesis borne out by the data, needing gradually more sophisticated tools to get there. But I’m still left wondering if Cuba really is on trend for emissions…although perhaps I only expected it to be worse for its GDP. I was surprised to see it classed as an Upper Middle Income country, and the fact that it is gives it more leeway with emissions than I expected from just seeing the surface of the country as a tourist perhaps.

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