Unexpectedly Intriguing!
November 17, 2017

Back in June 2014, we were among the first to observe in near real time that China's economy had cooling to the point where it could be considered to be in recession, which we based on a unique combination of trade and environmental data. The recessionary conditions that we observed persisted from 2014 through mid-2016, when they finally began to reverse. We noted at the time that both trade data and the measurements of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere indicated that the Earth's economy was cooling during that period.

In January 2017, the outgoing Obama administration claimed that the global economy was growing while carbon emissions were flat, an apparent decoupling between the two that directly contradicted our observations.

On 13 November 2017, we got a stunning vindication of our observations from the Global Carbon Project, which released its latest updates and measurements for worldwide carbon emissions, via the Financial Times, which reported the following (emphasis ours):

Stronger Chinese economic growth will push global greenhouse gas emissions to a record high in 2017 after remaining flat for three years, dashing tentative hopes of a turning point in the world’s efforts to curb climate change.

A new report by the Global Carbon Project, an international research consortium, predicts that carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and industry will rise 2 per cent this year. The report was released at the UN climate change meeting in Bonn on Monday....

This year’s rise is especially disappointing as it follows three years of almost no growth in emissions despite a world economy expanding at a steady clip. In 2016, emissions were flat even though the world economy grew 3.2 per cent. One explanation for the uptick is that China’s economic slowdown in the middle part of this decade was more pronounced than official figures suggested.

Earlier this year, the government of China's Liaoning province acknowledged that they had outright fabricated fiscal and economic growth data over a period of several years, coinciding with the tenure of the province's Communist party chief Wang Min, who ran Liaoning from 2009 to 2015. The FT speculates that Liaoning was far from the only province that engaged in that practice, where they identified four other provinces in northern and eastern China that also appear to have been reporting inflated economic figures.

Which brings us to a remarkable bit of evidence that we came across on NASA's Black Marble web site, which recently updated its nighttime map of Earth, providing us with the ability to compare images captured in 2016 with ones captured four years earlier in 2012. We've animated the nighttime map of Southeast Asia, which flips between 2012 and 2016 below.

Animation: NASA Black Marble - Southeast Asia, 2012 vs 2016

If you look closely at the map, you'll see the nighttime lights brighten in areas that experienced economic growth between 2012 and 2016, such as along the coast of Viet Nam, and dim in the areas that experienced recessionary conditions between those two years. Pay very close attention to what happened between 2012 and 2016 in northern and eastern China....

The correlation between Night Time Lights (NTL) and economic activity has been found to be a "good proxy" for assessing economic development, particularly in countries that lack high quality economic data reporting.

The evidence is accumulating that the period from 2014 through mid-2016 was not as good as China's official statistics have previously indicated. Given the importance and sheer size of China's economy, it's remarkable that its relative economic health can be both seen from space and measured in the Earth's atmosphere thousands of miles away from its territory.

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