Long-time reader Antonio R. found today's chart hard to follow, and he isn't alone. It took two of us multiple emails and some Web searching before we think we "got it".

Ar_submit_Fig-3-2-The-policy-cost-curve-525

 

Antonio first encountered the chart in a book review (link) of Hal Harvey et. al, Designing Climate Solutions. It addresses the general topic of costs and benefits of various programs to abate CO2 emissions. The reviewer praised the "wealth of graphics [in the book] which present complex information in visually effective formats." He presented the above chart as evidence, and described its function as:

policy-makers can focus on the areas which make the most difference in emissions, while also being mindful of the cost issues that can be so important in getting political buy-in.

(This description is much more informative than the original chart title, which states "The policy cost curve shows the cost-effectiveness and emission reduction potential of different policies.")

Spend a little time with the chart now before you read the discussion below.

Warning: this is a long read but well worth it.

 

***

 

If your experience is anything like ours, scraps of information flew at you from different parts of the chart, and you had a hard time piecing together a story.

What are the reasons why this data graphic is so confusing?

Everyone recognizes that this is a column chart. For a column chart, we interpret the heights of the columns so we look first at the vertical axis. The axis title informs us that the height represents "cost effectiveness" measured in dollars per million metric tons of CO2. In a cost-benefit sense, that appears to mean the cost to society of obtaining the benefit of reducing CO2 by a given amount.

That's how far I went before hitting the first roadblock.

For environmental policies, opponents frequently object to the high price of implementation. For example, we can't have higher fuel efficiency in cars because it would raise the price of gasoline too much. Asking about cost-effectiveness makes sense: a cost-benefit trade-off analysis encapsulates the something-for-something principle. What doesn't follow is that the vertical scale sinks far into the negative. The chart depicts the majority of the emissions abatement programs as having negative cost effectiveness.

What does it mean to be negatively cost-effective? Does it mean society saves money (makes a profit) while also reducing CO2 emissions? Wouldn't those policies - more than half of the programs shown - be slam dunks? Who can object to programs that improve the environment at no cost?

I tabled that thought, and proceeded to the horizontal axis.

I noticed that this isn't a standard column chart, in which the width of the columns is fixed and uneventful. Here, the widths of the columns are varying.

***

In the meantime, my eyes are distracted by the constellation of text labels. The viewing area of this column chart is occupied - at least 50% - by text. These labels tell me that each column represents a program to reduce CO2 emissions.

The dominance of text labels is a feature of this design. For a conventional column chart, the labels are situated below each column. Since the width does not usually carry any data, we tend to keep the columns narrow - Tufte, ever the minimalist, has even advocated reducing columns to vertical lines. That leaves insufficient room for long labels. Have you noticed that government programs hold long titles? It's tough to capture even the outline of a program with fewer than three big words, e.g. "Renewable Portfolio Standard" (what?).

The design solution here is to let the column labels run horizontally. So the graphical element for each program is a vertical column coupled with a horizontal label that invades the territories of the next few programs. Like this:

Redo_fueleconomystandardscars

The horror of this design constraint is fully realized in the following chart, a similar design produced for the state of Oregon (lifted from the Plan Washington webpage listed as a resource below):

Figure 2 oregon greenhouse

In a re-design, horizontal labeling should be a priority.

 

***

Realizing that I've been distracted by the text labels, back to the horizontal axis I went.

This is where I encountered the next roadblock.

The axis title says "Average Annual Emissions Abatement" measured in millions metric tons. The unit matches the second part of the vertical scale, which is comforting. But how does one reconcile the widths of columns with a continuous scale? I was expecting each program to have a projected annual abatement benefit, and those would fall as dots on a line, like this:

Redo_abatement_benefit_dotplot

Instead, we have line segments sitting on a line, like this:

Redo_abatement_benefit_bars_end2end_annuallabel

Think of these bars as the bottom edges of the columns. These line segments can be better compared to each other if structured as a bar chart:

Redo_abatement_benefit_bars

Instead, the design arranges these lines end-to-end.

To unravel this mystery, we go back to the objective of the chart, as announced by the book reviewer. Here it is again:

policy-makers can focus on the areas which make the most difference in emissions, while also being mindful of the cost issues that can be so important in getting political buy-in.

The primary goal of the chart is a decision-making tool for policy-makers who are evaluating programs. Each program has a cost and also a benefit. The cost is shown on the vertical axis and the benefit is shown on the horizontal. The decision-maker will select some subset of these programs based on the cost-benefit analysis. That subset of programs will have a projected total expected benefit (CO2 abatement) and a projected total cost.

By stacking the line segments end to end on top of the horizontal axis, the chart designer elevates the task of computing the total benefits of a subset of programs, relative to the task of learning the benefits of any individual program. Thus, the horizontal axis is better labeled "Cumulative annual emissions abatement".

 

Look at that axis again. Imagine you are required to learn the specific benefit of program titled "Fuel Economy Standards: Cars & SUVs".  

Redo_abatement_benefit_bars_end2end_cumlabel

This is impossible to do without pulling out a ruler and a calculator. What the axis labels do tell us is that if all the programs to the left of Fuel Economy Standards: Cars & SUVs were adopted, the cumulative benefits would be 285 million metric tons of CO2 per year. And if Fuel Economy Standards: Cars & SUVs were also implemented, the cumulative benefits would rise to 375 million metric tons.

***

At long last, we have arrived at a reasonable interpretation of the cost-benefit chart.

Policy-makers are considering throwing their support behind specific programs aimed at abating CO2 emissions. Different organizations have come up with different ways to achieve this goal. This goal may even have specific benchmarks; the government may have committed to an international agreement, for example, to reduce emissions by some set amount by 2030. Each candidate abatement program is evaluated on both cost and benefit dimensions. Benefit is given by the amount of CO2 abated. Cost is measured as a "marginal cost," the amount of dollars required to achieve each million metric ton of abatement.

This "marginal abatement cost curve" aids the decision-making. It lines up the programs from the most cost-effective to the least cost-effective. The decision-maker is presumed to prefer a more cost-effective program than a less cost-effective program. The chart answers the following question: for any given subset of programs (so long as we select them left to right contiguously), we can read off the cumulative amount of CO2 abated.

***

There are still more limitations of the chart design.

  • We can't directly read off the cumulative cost of the selected subset of programs because the vertical axis is not cumulative. The cumulative cost turns out to be the total area of all the columns that correspond to the selected programs. (Area is height x width, which is cost per benefit multiplied by benefit, which leaves us with the cost.) Unfortunately, it takes rulers and calculators to compute this total area.

  • We have presumed that policy-makers will make the Go-No-go decision based on cost effectiveness alone. This point of view has already been contradicted. Remember the mystery around negatively cost-effective programs - their existence shows that some programs are stalled even when they reduce emissions in addition to making money!

  • Since many, if not most, programs have negative cost-effectiveness (by the way they measured it), I'd flip the metric over and call it profitability (or return on investment). Doing so removes another barrier to our understanding. With the current cost-effectiveness metric, policy-makers are selecting the "negative" programs before the "positive" programs. It makes more sense to select the "positive" programs before the "negative" ones!

***

In a Trifecta Checkup (guide), I rate this chart Type V. The chart has a great purpose, and the design reveals a keen sense of the decision-making process. It's not a data dump for sure. In addition, an impressive amount of data gathering and analysis - and synthesis - went into preparing the two data series required to construct the chart. (Sure, for something so subjective and speculative, the analysis methodology will inevitably be challenged by wonks.) Those two data series are reasonable measures for the stated purpose of the chart.

The chart form, though, has various shortcomings, as shown here.  

***

In our email exchange, Antonio and I found the Plan Washington website useful. This is where we learned that this chart is called the marginal abatement cost curve.

Also, the consulting firm McKinsey is responsible for popularizing this chart form. They have published this long report that explains even more of the analysis behind constructing this chart, for those who want further details.

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